Well renowned in the industry over many decades, past IQA Awards recipient Mike Cooper is not one for attention-seeking or fame – but he is definitely a proponent for hard, yet rewarding work. He spoke to Henry Ballard.
Working in the quarrying industry can be as tough as it is rewarding. Like the projects it supports, it can build you up or set you back. For Mike Cooper, a civil engineer and project manager-cum-consultant, the tides of the industry have chipped away at him for more than three decades. But when you’re as generous, humble and hard-working as he is, you’ll find that good things happen to good people.
Mike Cooper’s career began straight out of high school in 1976 as a civil engineering cadet in the depths of western Sydney, which, when he transitioned from quarries to concrete, he says was “lovingly referred to as the Gaza Strip, because of the amount of fierce competition in the area”.
From there he built a 45-year-long resume which shines impressively to the layman or otherwise.
“I had some very good guidance and very good mentors around me at the time, and I learnt through the school of hard knocks,” he said. “I spent time working in the pre-mixed concrete sector in greater Sydney – both as a relief ‘allocator’, as the role was in the day, and later as a trainee plant manager, relief manager and then as manager of a concrete batching plant.”
After six years in quarries, sand and gravel, and concrete plant sites throughout Greater Sydney, Cooper and (new) wife Keryn moved to Queensland in 1982 for greater opportunities, and the promise of affordable housing.
Once certified as “full-on Queenslanders”, Cooper’s first of many major achievements came in 1989 when he managed the building and development of Boral’s greenfield Whiteside quarry near Petrie, 30km northwest of Brisbane. This quarry, which Cooper managed and developed from the ground up, is still in operation, and is one of Boral’s key quarries supplying construction materials to southeast Queensland.
Having worn many hats during his time managing the Whiteside (now Boral Petrie) Quarry, Cooper’s advice on effective project management was to find a strong support network, learn from those with different expertise, and to simply gain as much industry experience as possible.
At the same time, Cooper joined the Institute of Quarrying Australian Division (predecessor to the now IQA) in 1983 and was graciously invited to join the Queensland branch committee in 1986. For decades, Cooper has played many roles and worked with countless people across the industry. But he humbly concedes his time at the “face” is almost up.
“Having sat on the Queensland branch committee, and held various positions for (what is now) 35 years, I think it’s time to give the next generation a crack.
“I’m starting to think about how I might transition to a quieter and less demanding work life.”
For those interested in taking a seat in the IQA where Cooper once sat, he advises they should understand the community-focused (aka “team based”) approach required to excel in such a role.
“People need to think less about ‘what’s in it for me’ and more about ‘what have I got to give?’” he said, when talking about involvement and participation in an organisation like the IQA, which is, even today, still reliant on willing volunteers to support its activities.
While maintaining an exceptionally humble façade, Cooper proudly spoke of his success in running the IQA’s 1997 annual conference. By his own recollections, the conference was one of the more successful of its kind by way of overall registrations and number of people attending from throughout the industry in Australia, New Zealand and SE Asia.
This highlight came during his time on the IQA’s National Council from 1995 to 2007, which included a five-year tenure (the maximum term) as Vice President. On 30 April 2021, Cooper was formally acknowledged as a Fellow of the IQA.
Once Cooper’s time with the National Council, and then the IQA Board, ran its course, he felt the need to free himself from corporate harnesses in search of some personal and financial independence.
A calling in construction materials consulting was the natural progression and so Mike founded MD Cooper Consulting.
As a “one man show” with a decades’ long network and a lifetime of industry experience, Cooper explained his favourite parts of the role.
“It has given me the opportunity to work for, and with, many different companies. I have been able to see, and apply, lots of different ways of doing things, and appreciate different approaches to similar issues – all of which helps you then take solutions from one area and apply them in another.
“I’ve been able to build a strong and fruitful network, the learnings from which (I feel) helps me bring better value to any projects I get involved with.”
And it’s this fruitful network that has helped him to receive multiple industry awards over the past 10 years, not that Cooper had planned it that way.
In 2012, Cooper applied for and won the inaugural (now discontinued) Hap Seng Award, which earned him a week-long trip to Malaysia with Hap Seng CEO Ron Delaney. Cooper was able to inspect and consult the quarrying company there.
“It was interesting to see different philosophies. The philosophy in Australia over the last 30 years has been how to reduce the number of people employed on a job site. Whereas over there in Malaysia, in a somewhat poorer socio-economic community, the idea is to employ as many people as practicable – in the context of businesses seeing themselves as an integral part of a local community – providing employment, supporting grass-roots education, and
the local economy.”
Cooper added how the Australian resources industry has changed during his decades in the business.
“Compared to when I first started out in the 1970s, there’s a far more defined and structured focus and understanding of risk and safety management, as well as environmental risk management. These have been developments for the better in the industry. “We’re not all the way there yet as an industry, but we’ve come a long way.”
Cooper also took home the IQA’s 2018 Supplier of the Year award, which came as a shock to him.
“I was fairly humbled as it wasn’t something I had ever aspired to. But I guess it was borne out by what people saw I was doing in the industry, and the commitment that I had made to my clients. It was certainly appreciated and gratefully accepted.”
Amidst his shock at receiving the Supplier of the Year award, Cooper admitted deep down he’s never truly felt like a consultant or a supplier.
“I still think of myself more as a quarrying person than a ‘consultant’.
“I still get kicks out of driving around quarry sites. Particularly developing quarry sites, and engaging with site (quarry) managers, listening and giving some views on their challenges and issues.”
One only need speak with Cooper for a short while before realising how much he places others’ interests before his own. He may see himself as a pretty minor figure in the industry, but his anecdotes dare say otherwise.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a mentor, but the phone does ring from time to time.
“Hopefully I’ve added some value to not just clients (as businesses), but also on a personal and professional level with the many people who I’ve (fortunately) developed relationships with in the industry,” said Cooper.
Humorously, Cooper summed up his innate ability for sensing the effectiveness of a quarry operation. “I sniff. I listen. I taste,” he professed.
Once retired, as his life will soon allow, Mike Cooper hopes to literally hop back on the bike. For while quarrying holds a dear place in his dusty heart, he doesn’t mind a good cycle either. •