Integrity, Quality, Safety and Innovation
Coogee Chemicals is a privately owned, family controlled producer of a wide range of industrial, agricultural, and mineral processing chemicals for the Australian and International markets. The company was established in 1971, when Executive Chairman Gordon Martin bought into a small copper sulphate business located in Coogee, Western Australia, that specialised in the manufacture of fertilisers. As Martin took over the operation, the business expanded significantly, soon outgrowing its original site. In 1980, the company was moved to Kwinana, granting them direct access to the local bulk cargo jetty, as well as a number of other advantages. “We were placed in the middle of the Kwinana heavy industry strip,” says Managing Director Tim Martin, “which has allowed us build relationships and have an integrated facility, supplying other businesses in the area and using by-products from other manufacturers. The industry has a lot of closed loops in the way that some products are manufactured and reinvented.” The group’s change in location allowed for their expansion to other associated commodity chemicals, such as aluminium sulphate, sodium aluminate, and sodium silicate, while their access to the cargo duty allowed for their growth into the terminal infrastructure business. “We started bringing in caustic soda and other chemical commodities, storing them, handling them and then distributing and marketing them to the market, and that has since become another pillar to the business,” says Tim. In addition to manufacturing, terminal services, storage and handling, the company also developed a transport business for dangerous goods. “The model is a ‘cradle to the grave’ approach,” Martin explains. “We manufacture, deliver, and do everything from conception to the customer, which allows us to have a greater control of the product flow, services levels, and obviously the quality of the product.” Such a business model guarantees supply, a vitally important quality in the eyes to the group’s customers, which include the mining sector and other related industries. “If a product is not delivered, it could shut down a mine. This would cost them multitudes of what the product is worth, so it’s a small but critical cost in terms of guaranteeing supply”
A large component of Coogee Chemicals’ business is the manufacture of chlor-alkali products, such as chlorine, caustic soda, sodium hydrochloride, and hydrochloric acid. “That started with a joint venture between us and Nufarm, another Australian-based, international chemical producer,” Martin says, “and that has become our largest business.” Coogee Chemicals is currently the largest chlor-alkali producer in Australia, providing an “over the fence” supply to titanium dioxide producers, such as Cristal, on long-term contract. The company has four major hazard facilities located across Australia, a core competency to able to safely operate their manufacturing facilities. “It’s been a lot of organic growth, looking for opportunities if they arise,” explains Tim. As they are smaller than a number of their peers in the industry, Coogee Chemicals looks to work collaboratively rather than competitively, whilst searching for niche opportunities that they can respond to more quickly than their larger counterparts. “We look for the gaps, and we look to compliment what they are doing.” The group operates a number of very distinct branches, including an energy division based in Victoria, focusing on the manufacture of methanol, and their chlor-alkali division, with two manufacturing sites in Western Australia and another near the port of Brisbane. Coogee Chemicals also runs their core manufacturing site in Kwinana, producing a range of industrial chemicals such as xanthates. As well, the company is planning to take a new project into the development phase, moving up from a pilot plant to a larger-scale plant in order to serve the titanium industry. “This is very exciting for us,” says Tim. “It’s a new IP, and it’s something that’s a real focus for us in moving forward.”
Martin describes health and safety as a continuum within the chemical manufacturing industry. “The license to operate is paramount,” says Martin, “and health and safety is very much a large part of that.” Recently, a major focus for Coogee Chemicals has been the support of “courageous reporting” as an aspect of their safety recognition program, which seeks to reward employees for notifying management of hazards that they witness in the workplace. “We’re encouraging people to report things that might, from a superficial level or a personal point of view, appear to get you in trouble or be counterproductive to your career. Giving people the courage to report incidents where they may have made a mistake has been a big focus for us.” The practice gained popularity out of a seminar by Professor Andrew Hopkins, an Australian safety expert, and is now a major aspect of a variety of Coogee Chemicals’ hazard identification and situational awareness initiatives. All of the company’s health and safety training is carried out in-house, to ensure a high level of compliance. While they have an HSEQ department that is a support function, Coogee Chemicals has driven the responsibility to the managers of each division. “Safety for us goes right back into recruitment,” Martin explains. “You need to recruit people who have high level of self-awareness, accountability and responsibility within their mindset and within their character, so that they will be accountable for their own actions. Therefore, you are responsible for your own safety rather than looking for a police-type relationship with the company, hoping that they will protect you. We are a long way away from that sort of centralised safety system, ours is very much embedded within the operations.”
A majority of Coogee Chemicals’ processes are determined through agreements with their customers. “It’s got to be customer-driven,” Martin says. “There are various forms of xanthates that we produce, and they are customised over the years to dealing with the actual ores that the customer has. The process has developed over time, we’ve gone back and forth to their lab and customising what works well with their particular ore bodies.” The processes that the group offers to its customers were primarily developed through in-house innovation, such as steam recycling in an “over the fence” venture with the West Pharmaceutical cyanide plant. “We do come from experience and there are improvements that are made on a continuous basis,” Tim explains. “It is an integrated supply model that is customer driven and is often tweaked to the customer’s specific needs.” While many processed are based simply on industry know-how, experience, or even a strong service delivery model, Coogee Chemicals’ most notable manufacturing practice is the tiro process used in the manufacture of powdered titanium product, a patented process still in the development stage with a genuinely unique application.
2014 has been one of Coogee Chemicals’ best years in terms of financial performance, as well as new business opportunities. Over the past four decades, the company has succeeded in forming a number of strong relationships across a variety of industries and companies. “We’ve got the tank terminal here in Kwinana, all the big fuel mines, like BP, Shell, and Chevron,” says Martin. “All the names are in here, because there’s a level of confidence in our expertise.” Coogee Chemicals is also engaged in a broad range of joint ventures with world-class brands such West Pharmaceutical, Nufarm, Huntsmen, Mitsubishi, and Sun Metals Corporation. “For a small company, we have been able to build up strong relationships with much larger multinationals,” Tim says. “A lot of that is based on integrity, doing what you say you’re going to do, and being credible as an operator, with the capabilities and the skill set to deliver and to partner with. Our achievement has been to build licenses and build a brand that is reputable and deliver on expectations, which is critical for survival in our game. We’ve managed to grow in almost every year of our existence.” The group’s past is decorated with milestone achievements, such as reaching agreements with most major fuel businesses to shut down their terminals in Western Australia, and move onto the Coogee Chemicals site in Kwinana. “It was a real vote of confidence,” Martin says, “and the growth of business with these multinationals continues, as we now have new opportunities with them. Growing these great relationships is fundamental. It allows you to grow, and without those relationships, you won’t leverage growth to the next level.”
Martin points to the rising cost of energy, most notably gasoline, a principle feed stock for most chemical implications, as the greatest obstacle for the chemical industry. “We’re an enabler;” he explains, “we produce products and services that give multiples on the initial energy input cost, and unless we can get gas and electricity at a competitive price comparatively to our peers around the world, then the industry will have a black cloud over it. Once you lose these core businesses, you never get them back.” Martin takes issue with the federal government’s current approach, which, while verbally supportive of the sector, provides very little in terms of funding for important industry operations, such as research and development. “You need to have sustainable businesses to support high-risk investments in R&D. When you start in this industry, there’s no sustainable income to invest in these sorts of initiatives. We are investing in them now, but they still very much rely on sustainable business as the lifeblood.”
Tim Martin has served as an Executive Manager at Coogee Chemicals since 2005 and was appointed Managing Director in 2012. In that time, he has overseen the company almost doubling in size, attracting a number of high-profile clients to the Kwinana area. An exciting milestone for Tim and the company is their involvement in next year’s TiRO project for CSIRO’s new-type, world-scale titanium plant. “It’s a new process which could be a game changer, and that is something that we’re very much focused on, and has potential to take this company to the next level.” Martin’s personal objective, however, is to ensure a competent management team is in place by July of 2015, when he intends to hand over his leadership role. He aims to verify that he and his successor are aligned in terms of the long-term visions for the company: sustainable growth in the chemical and related industries. “Our objective is to continue to grow and look for opportunities that will get us to the next stage. I’ll need to find the right management to allow me comfort to take a balance in my life, and if I don’t have that confidence, then I won’t be doing much else than trying to get us on the right track,” Tim says. “One of the things about having a private business is that you are the master of your own destiny, but when the business calls, you’ve got to be there.”