Case Studies, Features, International News, Materials Handling, News, Plant & Equipment

An excavation business built on the foundations of solid rock


The proprietor of a burgeoning Sydney-based bulk and excavation and rock sawing business has come a long way from mining potato-growing soil in his native Ireland.

Colm Phibbs, a then 22-year-old second generation excavation operator from Dublin, couldn’t believe what he saw when he took on his first holiday job in Sydney.

“We were digging into solid rock,” he said. “I was thinking, this is just crazy, and, in my head, I was calculating ‘We could sell this anywhere’.”

In Ireland, Phibbs and his father Seamus mined mud, the grey-brown Irish soil which grows great potatoes but causes builders in Dublin to rely on brought-in aggregate and concrete to form the solid foundations of the city’s growth.

“Here I was in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, digging out and breaking up rock which we could sell at a huge premium back home,” he said.

Phibbs and his partner Noelle Keogh had planned to stay a month.

Fourteen years later their business CONO Services (for COlm and NOelle) owns $13 million of plant and equipment and is regarded as Sydney’s – and perhaps soon to be Australia’s – pre-eminent expert in rock excavation.

Every excavator in their fleet is ultra-short-tailed, without a traditional counterweight rear end, built to work with great accuracy in confined spaces like the tunnels which have become a major part of the infrastructure development of Sydney.

And most of their operators – many of them Irish-born – are well trained to get the most from the specialist machines, requiring a level of skill and finesse different to that of conventional work.

“I shouldn’t say this, but once you know how, they’re easier to drive than a counterweight machine because you don’t have a rear end to worry about,” Phibbs said.

Phibbs spent six years learning his rock breaking and saw cutting craft with some of Sydney’s biggest civil contractors before he bought his own machine – a second-hand Komatsu PC 130, with $10,000 he and Keogh had saved and $80,000 borrowed from a financier prepared to take a risk on him.

“I bought it on a Friday and went on a job on Monday and made $20,000 in the first month,” he said.

His latest acquisition, a purpose-built Komatsu PC228USLC-11 BLADE, has become the twelfth machine from Komatsu in his fleet and forms the basis of a specialist offering he intends taking to the market as he expands beyond New South Wales.

The key is the Dash 11’s Tier 4 low emission engine which delivers a reduction in nitrous oxide (NOx) and particulate matter of up to 90 per cent compared to an equivalent Tier 3 configuration, and which is part of many underground contractual requirements.

The additional advantage to the operator is an increase in power with up to 11 per cent better fuel economy.

Phibbs specified his new machine with a blade and bucket combination capable of delivering millimeter precision in the hands of one of his skilled operators.

The blade can become a de facto counterweight, helping to stabilize and level off the machine.

Phibbs has been deliberate in his choice of business partners and development of operational procedures – some of them born from his experience in Ireland.

“Working underground is like going into the mines,” he said. “You know you’re risking getting your machines wrecked and you have to take serious precautions to ensure you get maximum value from them.”

Maintenance requirements are 30 per cent greater than working aboveground and special application of rust proofing is essential.

“I rely very much on Komtrax to make sure that we’re getting the best from the equipment,” he said of Komatsu’s satellite telemetry which provides around the clock monitoring of essential machine service and operational procedures.

CONO Service’s growth plans depend on partnership with major suppliers, both for reliability of operation and for the economies on offer.

The company’s in-house maintenance team is increasingly working side by side with Komatsu, taking advantage of Komatsu’s 2000-hour free service and maintenance schedule.

The relationship is part of Phibbs’ and Keogh’s serious intent to become not only one of the best – but one of the biggest – operators in their field.

Phibbs’ broad Irish brogue, delivered with good humour and a bit of blarney, may disguise it to a degree, but he has a “fire burning”’ to succeed.

And he and Keogh are here for the long haul. They have just moved into their dream home in Sydney’s southeast, with their daughter Darby Rose and twin sons Devin and Rogan.

The home is built on good Sydney coastal rock.

For more information about CONO Services,

To learn more about the Komatsu PC228USLC-11 BLADE and other earthmoving products, visit

Send this to a friend