In Roxby Downs and the surrounding regions, Red Mulga is mentioned often.
However, it would be unusual to come across someone outside the region who has heard of the Indigenous services business. That's set to change soon, with the company looking to expand into other communities, starting at Port Augusta where it’s planning to develop a commercial laundry to meet the needs of a range of industries including mining, hospitality and government.
Red Mulga has flourished over its three-year history and now has around 50 employees. Established primarily as an Indigenous focused labour company servicing the mining sector, the company credits its success to good business practices combined with a vision to provide Aboriginal workers with long-term employment within the industry.
Chad Oldfield, Business Development Manager at Red Mulga, says approvals are now in place for the laundry – ‘Outback Linen’ – and discussions are progressing to ensure initial business is in place when the facility is built.
At full capacity, Outback Linen will employ 40 staff and aims for 60 percent of these to be Indigenous. The business will offer a cost effective alternative for organisations, some located hundreds of kilometres from Port Augusta, that currently freight their laundry to Adelaide. There is potential to include some significant mining operations within the area, as well as tourism outlets and hospitals.
BHP Billiton already has a strong affiliation with the company. In line with the miner’s vision to work with Aboriginal businesses and improve opportunities for Aboriginal people, BHP Billiton was instrumental in helping to establish Red Mulga to provide services to its Olympic Dam mine.
Paul Flanagan, Head of External Affairs at Olympic Dam says “At BHP Billiton we are committed to building a diverse workforce and providing opportunities and support to Aboriginal communities is a cornerstone of our strategy”.
A growth strategy was developed in January 2012 between BHP Billiton, Red Mulga and Monadelphous, which led to Red Mulga’s first direct contract with BHP Billiton in November 2012. From this time, Red Mulga has grown from strength to strength with the support of BHP Billiton’s Aboriginal Participation Program. This support includes contracting Red Mulga as Olympic Dam’s preferred supplier of Aboriginal people to agency contractor roles, which are designed to provide Aboriginal people with dedicated pathways into BHP Billiton roles.
The company’s founder, Managing Director Ronald Boland (an Aboriginal person himself) is strongly appreciative of the support from BHP Billiton, Monadelphous Engineering and more recently, Veolia Environment.
Red Mulga was the first Aboriginal enterprise to gain a contract within the Olympic Dam mine, the initial contract being for shut down work and general housekeeping works within the processing area. Since then the company has expanded, but 75 percent of its work is still based at Olympic Dam.
Red Mulga’s activities now include maintenance and civil work, including the minor civil works contract at Olympic Dam. This has required a range of heavy machinery to be purchased, which will enable further growth.
Currently, 70 percent of Red Mulga’s workforce is comprised of local Aboriginal people. Mr Boland says the company does not insist all of its employees be Indigenous and this is a key factor to its success – both commercially and in terms of Indigenous participation.
“Obviously we are committed to providing opportunities for Aboriginal people, but our priority is on providing workers who have the experience and qualifications demanded of a role,” he says.
He explains there is a big difference between an employee who should be ready for a higher responsibility and someone who clearly is.
“When our money and that of a client are on the table, we will always put the appropriately skilled person forward for the role.”
The company will then train employees to meet the needs of that role or similar ones.
“As well as encouraging and enabling personal career development, this develops our crews in areas of demand so we have the resources available when these roles next arise.”
This practice also ensures employees, who are often in their first job, are not overwhelmed and progressed too quickly. Additionally, it instils employees with confidence that the work they are awarded is based on genuine ability.
Mr Boland says up skilling people to the right qualifications can be difficult, with a lack of funding available.
“There is money for training, but generally to a basic level only, then it becomes scarce,” he says.
“It is essential that Aboriginal people have access to the additional, specific training required of the jobs available and then into more senior positions.”
Chad Oldfield came on board in the company’s early days, bringing experience in setting up business operations. A condition of his involvement was that the company be developed on its own merits – no government grants, no charity.
“The only way to succeed long term is to put up the dollars and take on the calculated risk yourself,” he says.
By focusing on the needs of its clients, Red Mulga is building a reputation for quality and confidence that its contractors consistently have the required qualifications, experience and training needed to uphold the industry’s stringent safety, environmental and efficiency standards.
Considering this, Mr Oldfield has been surprised at some of the assumptions that persist.
“Every time we start a conversation with a potential customer, we’re fighting the same battle against perceptions that come with being an Indigenous business,” he says.
“We’ve had companies send us their pre-qualification requirements who are shocked to receive the documents back promptly completed with all the required attachments.
“Removing that stigma is definitely an issue.”
Also unattractive to Mr Oldfield is the idea of offering work as part of a company’s corporate social responsibility or to meet Indigenous participation quotas.
“We don’t want anything given to us – that’s a myth that needs to go. All we ask is the opportunity to tender and quote the same as anyone else.”
"Every time we start a conversation with a potential customer, we’re fighting the same battle against perceptions that come with being an Indigenous business."
Red Mulga’s culture is respectful and inclusive of Indigenous Australians, but Mr Boland says it goes a lot further than that, involving ongoing support, upskilling and mentoring, together with ensuring employees are work ready in every way.
Putting in this effort pays off in terms of employee wellbeing and retention rates and, importantly, brings social and economic improvements to the wider Aboriginal community.
“Some of our Aboriginal people have not worked before, or had that work ethic instilled in them,” he says.
“As well as being trained for a job, people need to be prepared mentally and physically.”
He says placing people in initial roles where the pressure is low and gradually stepping them up is a practice they’ve found works well. But employees and situations vary and cultural understanding is critical.
“We have had people who start off well, then start to get a bit sloppy. Before things get too bad we suggest they have a break and think about whether this is right for them,” says Mr Oldfield.
“They come back a couple of weeks later, are doing well, then several months later they are on shaky ground again, so we send them off again. The next time they come back we need to get firm – we’re running a business and we need to rely on our people.”
Mr Oldfield says the company has had up to five Aboriginal women employed at one time in traditionally male roles.
“We’re only scratching the surface on what can be achieved here,” he says.
Red Mulga understands that family support is important and has identified that a key factor for employee retention is the provision of affordable housing. The company has a transitional housing program which places families into properties and provides support to those seeking to rent or buy, including liaising with real estate agencies.
Mr Oldfield says the company encourages workers to move into townships where practicable.
“With our workers setting themselves up in town they can go home and see their families every night, they have access to local facilities and education and they are being positively influenced by the surrounding working community.”
Being equally committed to business excellence and improving Indigenous employment outcomes appears to be a winning combination. The company is arguably the highest employer of Aboriginal people of any independent employer in South Australia and is proud of its role providing a platform for Aboriginal people to build on and become role models for their communities and future generations.
“We’re seeing some of our guys now buying cars and even houses,” Mr Boland says. “They’re proud of their achievements.”
He says Red Mulga is committed to continuing its success and championing change well into the future.
“It’s not about how big the company gets, it’s about how well its run and how happy the employees are with what they are doing.”