Mike Cooper: Decisions, decisions

Michael Desmond Cooper was born in 1958 at Lismore, northern New South Wales, where his family had roots going back three or four generations.

His secondary education to Higher School Certificate level was at the Marist Brothers College, Lismore. During the latter part of his school years, Mike wondered what he would do with the rest of his life. His first thoughts were with architecture, but after some frank self-evaluation he realised he was not particularly artistic. Nevertheless, he was achieving quite good grades in the important subjects such as maths.

Fortunately, a schoolfriend suggested he might consider contacting Pioneer, which at that time was offering a cadetship to selected students to study to become managers in the Pioneer quarrying and concrete business in NSW. {{image2-A:R-w:350}}

So, before Mike left school in 1975, he was flown to Sydney for a successful interview. The cadetship was based on attending the New South Wales Institute of Technology in Sydney, doing what was called a “sandwich pattern course”, where you studied full-time for one semester of the year and worked for the company full-time for the other, with the company paying you for the full year.

The salary was modest but much better than the old tertiary education allowance. The cadetship involved a move to Sydney, and despite boarding and sharing flats with mates to save on living costs, it was not easy making ends meet. However, in the Whitlam years university education was essentially free, so there was no HECS debt at the end.

Mike began his tertiary education with the NSW Institute of Technology and in 1981 he was awarded a bachelor of engineering degree with first class honours. His first semester was study and in the second semester, when he reported for work with Pioneer, he learnt he was to spend the next six months at Wallgrove Quarry in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Living east of the city for study, Mike realised public transport was no longer an option. Fortunately, his father came to the rescue with a 1965 Cortina, in which Mike could traverse the length of the frantic Parramatta Road twice a day.

Mike admits his knowledge of quarrying was limited to fossicking in a couple of abandoned pits in his early days, so it was not surprising that his first job was shovelling sand into a feeder for making roadbase.

Finally, there came a real task under quarrying identity Ian Stainton, building some foundations for a stacking conveyor.
Unfortunately, the holding-down bolts were not in exactly the right location, but with the help of a sympathetic boss, an oxy torch and some large washers, the problem was solved.

After the next stint at uni, Mike was sent to Bass Point on the NSW south coast, near Kiama.

He rates this spell as the best learning experience he has had in his quarrying career. At that time, product from the quarry was loaded from the on-site company wharf and transported by ship to Blackwattle Bay in Sydney. He will never forget his first day there, when the Lisa Miller arrived with a 60km per hour wind at her stern – but with no brakes of course! The Lisa Miller overshot the wharf and finished up on the nearby rocky shore – luckily with no serious damage. {{image3-A:L-w:300}}

The quarry was on shift work at that time, and Mike found himself at the age of 19 as a relief shift supervisor. It was also his first introduction to explosives and, apart from mixing ammonium nitrate fuel oil by hand, he had lots of experience with detonating cord and crimping detonators.

Training as a cadet involved moving around to gain experience in all aspects of the company’s activities, so Mike’s next move was to the concrete side of the business, and ultimately to Rydalmere Plant.

It was during this period as relief manager/batcher/shipper at many of the Sydney concrete plants that Mike learnt a lot about life among the Mediterranean concreters, including customers who thought nothing of producing $10,000 in cash to settle sometimes overdue accounts and calmly saying “Count this” on his car’s bonnet!

In 1980, as he was finishing his engineering degree, Mike met a young lady, Keryn, who was also studying at the Institute of Technology, although not in the engineering faculty. She was studying biomedical science in the faculty of life sciences at Gore Hill.

There subsequently followed many trips back and forth across the “Coathanger” (aka Sydney Harbour Bridge) so Mike could attend cross-faculty social events. Keryn and Mike married at Lane Cove in 1981.

During a holiday in Queensland in early 1982, Mike and Keryn realised the price of a home within a relatively short drive of Brisbane was only half that of Sydney.

“Keryn was working shifts in pathology, and we started to do a few sums and quickly worked out we weren’t earning enough money to live in Sydney and certainly not enough to think about ever buying a house in this area,” Mike said.

Not long after their holiday, Mike noticed an ad in The Sydney Morning Herald from Readymix, seeking an engineer for its Metropolitan Quarries in Brisbane, for which he successfully applied.

“I remember it was a very difficult thing to write my resignation and hand it in to Pioneer after they had supported me through university,” Mike said. “However, the position in Brisbane meant almost doubling my salary at that time, and seeing that when we got married we only had $200 in the bank, I still think it really was the right move for us.” {{image4-A:R-w:200}}

Mike’s move to Brisbane and employment with Readymix in 1982 would mark the start of almost 16 years’ work in essentially the same local company structure – which included the transition from Readymix to BMG to Boral.

Mike had only been living and working in Brisbane for a few weeks when the operations manager Irvine Scott suggested he should start attending Institute of Quarrying meetings. This was the beginning of a long connection with the IQA that still continues today. Mike joined the Institute as a corporate member in October 1982.

He has been involved with the Institute’s Queensland branch committee continuously from 1985, including a stint as chairman in 1995-96. He also represented the Queensland branch on the Institute’s national council from 1995 to 2003. Mike has been involved in the organisation of several national conferences, first as a member of the organising committee for the 1989 conference at Jupiter’s Casino on the Gold Coast, then as conference committee chairman for the 1997 conference at the Brisbane Convention Centre, and again on the organising committee for the 2004 Sunshine Coast conference. Mike says work on three conferences is about enough!

He has also been on numerous sub-committees while on the national council, including difficult tasks such as renegotiating fresh contracts for the Institute magazine Quarry. Mike is still sitting on the Queensland branch committee, previously handling membership (for 10 years) and more recently for three terms as branch secretary/treasurer. It is clear Mike is not just a “knife and fork” member but one of the stalwarts who are the backbone of the Institute.

Mike’s tenure with the IQA was recognised in 2010 with the IQA Service Award, which he was very honoured to receive.

During his long career with BMG/Boral, Mike held the position of manager of several sites. He was also fortunate enough to participate in the development of three hard rock quarry sites, culminating in his involvement with the development of the greenfield Petrie Quarry, a site he went on to manage operationally after its commissioning. For his last few years, he was the special projects manager for Boral Project Development and Construction.

For some years, the owner of RUD Chains had been suggesting Mike should join his company. Mike felt this probably came to a head at the 1997 conference, when as conference chairman he received considerable exposure. {{image5-A:L-w:300}}

He believes this probably led to an offer from RUD that was too good to refuse. It also came at a time when, after a long period of direct involvement in concrete and quarries, Mike was feeling a little flat and that it was time for a change. Thus, in 1998, he became initially the operations manager of RUD Chains Australasia before he progressed to the role of sales and marketing manager.

The next 10 years were intensive work, not only with quarrying but also with the mining industry, forestry and construction. This involved a lot of travelling, not only in Australia but also to other parts of the world. While travel at times took its toll, Mike developed a wide and diverse network of friends and business associates right across Australia, the south Pacific, southeast Asia and Europe. These are friendships and relationships that Mike values, and many have endured ever since.

But the travelling meant less time with his young family, and in 2008 Mike left RUD to start his own company, which offers his clients support with quarry process design and optimisation, project development, project management, capital works and estimating. It seemed like a rather major step into the unknown with no clients on hand but with a desire to take a sabbatical and have a serious think about the future. This included supporting two kids in their final years at school, mortgages and other bills to pay, and concerns about ageing parents.

However, hardly any days had passed before Mike was contacted by his old boss from Boral, John Malempre, who said he had a few projects “which might interest Mike”. {{image6-A:R-w:300}}

By following the simple but often neglected philosophy when departing a company of leaving doors open and never slamming them shut, he has won various extended contracts from his old employer, interspersed with shorter engagements with a variety of other companies in the industry in Australia and beyond.

This included a different, interesting and challenging assignment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2009. Once again, Mike said this was another enlightening experience!

In 2012 Mike was the inaugural recipient of the IQA’s Hap Seng Fellowship Award, and he travelled for a week in the company of Hap Seng CEO Ron Delaney, visiting most of the group’s quarrying operations in peninsula Malaysia and Sabah.

Once again, this proved a wonderful and valued learning experience, one in which Mike made new friends and further broadened his network. Mike and Ron quickly developed a mutual respect and friendship, which sees them still keep in contact. Mike spoke about his experiences on the Hap Seng visit at the 2013 IQA national conference in Townsville.

Today, Mike enjoys working with young professionals in the industry, and he hopes some of his values and work/life experiences may have a positive impact on their development and enjoyment of working in the quarry industry – an industry that has given him a good deal of fulfilment over a long career.

Mike and Keryn (and now grown-up kids Nicole and Daniel) have lived in the Logan City area south of Brisbane for more than 30 years and consider themselves Queenslanders in almost every sense, saying: “In all the places we have visited and worked, we can’t see ourselves living anywhere else.”

With the ongoing building activity in Queensland, it would appear working in the construction materials sector will remain quite active for Mike – at least for the foreseeable future – offering perhaps the opportunity for the occasional short sabbatical for travel, learning and recharging of batteries. {{image7-A:L-w:300}}

Outside of work, Mike lends support with the care of his parents (now in their 80s) and has an interest in learning French, a desire for travel (recreational) and is redeveloping a passion for cycling – an interest and activity that brings back memories of life as a lad growing up in the country town of Lismore in NSW during the 1960s and ’70s.

Clearly, the quarrying industry has not heard the last of Mike Cooper. 

Doug Prosser is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Quarrying Australia for exceptional service to the quarrying industry.

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