With a name like Bronco, plus the appearance and manner of a gentle giant, it was inevitable to ask, “Why Bronco?”
It transpired that in the 1960s in Central Queensland, where Bronco lived, there was a crowd pleaser boxer named Don “Bronco” Johnson from Mt Isa.
“I did a bit of amateur boxing myself at that time and so got the name ‘Bronco’ and it’s stuck with me ever since,” he recalls. “In fact, there are probably a lot of people who don’t know my correct Christian name.”
John Johnson was born to farming parents in 1941 on a property near Ipswich. Like so many of that era, obtaining employment had priority over advanced education and Bronco left school at grade 10 for a diesel mechanic apprenticeship with a dealership on the Redcliffe Peninsula. These were in the days of five-year apprenticeships and, after three years, Bronco transferred to complete his time with a dealership of the then household favourite, Massey Ferguson, at Ipswich.
Keen to earn extra money during the 1959 Christmas period, Bronco went to help maintain the trucks of John Stevens, one of his brother’s workmates. This was the beginning of a life-long involvement in the quarrying industry as the workmate began to work at Stan Sellars and Sons, which had just been bought out by the Kern Corporation. Kern was a major Townsville developer that was looking to diversify into subdivisions of concrete and quarrying.
So Bronco repaired the Stevens trucks. It was at about this time that he realised the need for further education and decided to undertake his Diploma of Engineering. Part-time for a busy, young person is never easy but he persevered and in 1965 was duly rewarded for his studies.
At the end of 1962, Stan Sellars, who had been retained by Kerns to manage the original business, told Bronco that he had a better future than maintaining trucks and invited him to work for the Kern Company. Bronco accepted and so became involved in the operation of Kern’s plants. Bronco was to remain with the company until 1988 when it was acquired by Readymix.
In the 1960s, almost all of the major cities in Queensland obtained their aggregates and sand from alluvial deposits. This was also the time when the post-Second World War mechanisation of the industry truly began.
For instance, instead of shovelling product into a truck body, it was real progress when the Berryman loader was used. This comprised a small scoop that was pulled by a winch up a slide on the side of the truck and dumped. Originally it was horse-drawn for minor excavation and stockpiling projects in loose materials.
Front-end loaders were all two-wheel drive and some were even kerosene-powered. International superloaders were common because they were all that were available, apart from a few Fords and Fordsons. The superloaders were rather unusual, “back to front” machines with the lift arms coming up and down beside the driver’s seat. There were no operator cabins or rollover preoccupation with occupational health and safety.
Despite all this, the Sellars Group produced 40,000 tonnes of product per month. This was before the advent of weighbridges and all sales were by volume, ie cubic yards. The Group was active and expanding with 20 employees and a dozen subcontractors. Apart from establishing concrete plants in small towns, the company had portable plants for bridge contracts and the like.
Up to the late 1960s, Bronco’s role was to run the crushing plants, but following the death of Stan Sellars and the reorganisation of the company by his son, Mick Sellars, Bronco spent the next few years locating suitable gravel and sand deposits, negotiating their acquisition from private land owners and then had the task of organising operating permits from the then Water Resources Commission, plus dealing with opposition from residents or competitors.
In the early 1970s, Kern acquired a concrete and quarrying operation in Rockhampton called Capricornia Quarries which was the commencement of its vision to expand through Queensland. This consolidation consisted of five fixed crushing plants and two mobile crushing plants. As this progressed, Bronco was appointed divisional manager of quarries for Sellars Holdings.
The massive increase in export coal mining at that time brought with it a high demand for road base, both for internal mine haul roads and central infrastructure roadworks as well as a huge demand for rail ballast as the railway networks were expanded. To meet the demand, Sellars acquired two 400 TPA Cedarapids mobile crushing plants to service contract crushing projects. This made a total of four contract crushing plants with a production capacity of up to 1000 tph of product, depending on conditions.
During this period, Sellars also expanded onto the Sunshine Coast with the acquisition of seven concrete plants. Due to the boom at the time, the internal demand for concrete aggregate was about 30,000 to 35,000 tonnes per month and as significant material was imported into the coast to service this material Sellars established a quarry at Beerburrum on State Forest Land.
“This was my first opportunity to design and construct a new crushing plant,” Bronco recalls. “Previously, most plants were usually grafted together from whatever second hand equipment was available.
“It must be remembered that for the success of any business you require a competent team and, in that regard, I was well supported by two capable people, John McCarthy as production manager and John Ritchie who was responsible for the contract crushing operation.”
In 1985, Bronco was appointed assistant general manager of Kern and was essentially responsible for all operational decisions pending Mick Sellars’ retirement.
By this time, Kern had become a major force for contract crushing in Central Queensland but was looking for further expansion. It began an evaluation of the market between Brisbane and Sydney but was not keen to invest on such a scale.
Coincidentally, in 1986, Bell Resources from Western Australia was looking to have a presence in the Eastern Australian market and decided to purchase Sellars’ business.
At that time, the company was producing four million tonnes per annum of quarry products and about 700,000m³ of concrete. Interestingly, this came from country and peripheral operations as the company was not involved in the Greater Brisbane market.
Things began to move quickly with the demand for quarry products to construct the Brisbane Airport which was far beyond the capacity of any one company. In fact, at one stage, 11 contracts involving 700,000 to one million tonnes were in operation. Sellars’ Beenleigh Quarry was one of those.
However, under Bell’s ownership, a lack of funding was a problem. Within four months, Bell was taken over by Bond Corporation. History records that within three months, Readymix acquired Bond’s Queensland assets, including Beenleigh Quarry.
This was a significant moment in Bronco’s career and although several senior positions were offered to him, internally and externally, he decided to complete any loose ends and then enjoy a period of time out to consider his future. However, Mick Sellars had finally “retired” but was still keen to be involved in the industry and he and Bronco acquired a small concrete company at Stanthorpe.
They called it Exsell because a lot of their new staff were ex-Sellars employees who had decided to follow their old bosses – a vote of confidence for a new venture.
With such inspiration, Exsell grew rapidly, expanding into Ipswich and the Glass House on the Sunshine Coast. By 1993 the company had four concrete plants operating in Brisbane. But such progress brought with it demands on funds and resources. In 1993, Queensland Cement, which had shown interest in Sellars before the Bell takeover, quietly took a one-third interest in Exsell.
In 1994, Exsell opened the first twin-loading point concrete plant in Brisbane. This was an opportune time for Queensland Cement to make an offer for the remainder of Exsell, which Bronco and Mick Sellars accepted. Mick finally retired and Bronco accepted a 10-year contract as aggregates manager. The company name was changed to Excel.
THE FUTURE OF QUARRYING
With the reorganisation of the cement industry in 2002, the Excel quarry assets were transferred to Hanson and Bronco was appointed to the position of operations manager for Hanson Qld Metro Quarries, a position that he held until 2006.
In early 2006, aged 65, Bronco decided the time had come to retire. This had been prompted by a heart attack in 2004, which fortunately responded to angioplasty with no permanent damage. Never one to sit around, the following week after retiring, he and his wife set off on a six-month tour of Northern Australia. Bronco’s decision to retire and take to the road was not an easy one as his wife, Juanita, also had to turn her back on a career as a personal assistant in a major law firm. The sacrifices, one way or another, that wives make to support their husbands is a common theme in the quarry industry.
Reflecting on his 50-year career, Bronco is impressed with the technological advances made in wheeled loaders and similar equipment. But he feels that crushers and screens have not made equivalent progress.
The role of a quarry manager is much more onerous today than in the 1970s, with the advent of OHS requirements. Plant availability has improved and now a minimum of 85 to 90 per cent can be expected. Drilling and blasting techniques have made giant strides.
However, a growing concern for the quarrying industry is the retention of young trained operators brought about by the wages and conditions now being offered by the coal and iron ore resources boom.
A good diesel fitter today with experience on 988 loaders can step up in the resource industry to bigger equipment and earn double the wages, plus good working conditions. This is a far cry from Bronco’s early days of living in rough sheds in remote areas. Today, a young mobile person can be flown into the workplace for 10 days, then be back home for five. “We are losing lots of workers now – and who can blame them?” he comments.
Over the years, Bronco has been exasperated at the time and cost of fighting planning and environment appeals in the courts, particularly “as most are competitors initiated in an attempt to prevent your entry into their markets”. However, he believes that our industry has become much more mature over the past decade.
For a man married to a lady deeply involved in a law firm handling such cases, Bronco’s summing up “that litigation is time-consuming and non-productive” must have led to some interesting discussions during dinner!
However, Bronco is not finished with the industry yet. He has considered developing a DVD for trainees, supervisors and managers. This would depict a full quarry cycle from a business analysis of a site, setting up a plant and developing it. The training session would need a few days to deliver. No doubt Juanita could write the segment on how to handle yourself in the Land and Environment Court!
The industry wishes both Bronco and Juanita a long and healthy retirement, but it looks like being a busy one.
By Doug Prosser