There are few companies around today where almost everyone in town knows someone who has worked there. The Commonwealth Steel Company – or “Comsteel” as it is known by many, and now owned by the Moly-Cop Group – is one such company and this year it’s celebrating a centenary of steelmaking in Newcastle.
Maintaining continuous operation for a century in Newcastle, Commonwealth Steel Company has passed through the hands of some of the biggest names in national and international manufacturing. From BHP to Kerry Packer’s Australian National Industries, to Smorgon Steel and then One-Steel, and now the Moly-Cop Group.
When the site opened in Waratah in 1918, it was surrounded mostly by open country with a farmhouse dotted here and there, and a forest of gum trees to its eastern side. The 140 employees would take the long walk from the office, over paddocks and through fences to the Mayfield terminus, which was the nearest public transport.
By 1939, the workforce had grown to 600, and it reached more than 3,200 employees at the height of war production. During those war years, CSC became a major supplier of munitions, armour plate and other steel products for the Dept. of Defence, including two million steel helmets.
Over its history, the business has employed more than 20,000 men and women. Generations of local families have walked through its gates every day. But more than providing a job and training, for many the Commonwealth Steel Company provided security in uncertain times. During the depression years, it moved to part-time operation to hold together its workforce until they could be employed again full-time.
The company was known to look after its own and this has been a constant over the years. As a result, the commitment to its people has yielded a workforce that – put simply – love coming to work.
Jess Sin, one of a handful of young women forging a career at Moly-Cop, is a second year mechanical apprentice who felt part of the team from her first day. Like many before her, she can see herself working there for a lifetime.
Along with her colleagues, mateship is one of the key reasons she loves her job.
Looking out for your mates is second nature for Moly-Cop’s people where everyone has eyes on the job and eyes on their team. Rail Operator Mick Blanch, who has been with the company for 29 years, sums it up: “We look after each other so we can all go home safe.”
Working with molten steel, mobile equipment and large industrial machinery makes safety a top priority for Moly-Cop and its employees. The health and safety procedures are necessarily rigorous and comprehensive, and the company’s safety record is second to none. Any incident is one too many and Goal Zero is the ultimate target.
Moly-Cop’s Australasian President, Michael Parker, said the company’s success hinged on prioritising investment in its people.
“After 100 years of operation we enjoy a strong position today because of one thing: our workforce. Their commitment, talent and passion have supported our growth to become part of a global company, which consistently delivers a world-class service and products.”
Pride in their products is another reason the Moly-Cop workforce hums. The Waratah plant has two products: Moly-Cop grinding balls for the mining industry to grind down ores, and railway wheels still supplied under the Comsteel brand. It is Australia’s only railway wheel manufacturer, and continues to have a strong presence in the domestic market, making about 40,000 wheel and axle sets a year.
The grinding media is exported across Moly-Cop’s global network, which reaches into Indonesia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Canada and the USA. In spite of its global footprint, the importance of its role in the city of Newcastle is not lost on the team.
Rail Products Operations Manager, Kevin Roberts, said Moly-Cop realised it was a large part of the local community.
“That’s an important responsibility. It drives us to be a strong business for the community and for Newcastle where a lot of people rely on us.”
Innovation: the game changer
There is an old Chinese proverb that says when the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills. While not actually in the game of windmill production, over the course of a century, Newcastle’s Commonwealth Steel Company – now part of the Moly-Cop Group – has certainly been an expert in taking advantage of the winds of change.
Like so many iconic Australian success stories, the company’s beginnings sprang from hard times. In 1917, national rail transport faced a crisis: getting train axles, wheels and tyres from traditional sources in Europe was becoming almost impossible due to the war. Rail was the lifeblood of the nation’s economy, and so a group of firms seized the opportunity to supply rail products.
Commonwealth Steel Products was registered on 12 March 1918, and with start-up capital of £250,000, started supplying railway products to the domestic market.
In 1938, the tradition of innovation continued with research into the manufacture of bullet proof plates and armour plates as part of the war effort for WWII. This work and related research positioned the company at the time as the central point for intelligence about ordnance steels and related products, which was invaluable during the war years.
Soon opportunity presented itself again and the company started looking beyond its traditional rail markets. With a move into grinding ball production, Comsteel grinding media started supplying to the burgeoning Australian mining and mineral processing industry with a locally produced, high-quality, critical consumable product.
Since those early days, the company has led in research and innovation with products that are recognised globally for quality and reliability. Its rail wheel technology is world-renowned in heavy haul applications, and Comsteel rail products continues its work in research and development for axle loads beyond 40 tonne to meet future customer needs. The Comsteel brand is also known to consistently demonstrate quality and reliability in its service to the passenger rail market.
With an onsite EAF (electric arc furnace) Moly-Cop is a fully integrated steel business built on recycling. About 1,000 old cars a day supply feedstock scrap for the production of high-quality steel products. Tim Maher, Heat Treatment and Billet Yard Operations Team Leader, said the process flow of the plant was unique.
“We bring in scrap metal, mix it with high quality alloy and turn it into casted products or ingots for rail. Our grinding media is the world’s best. It’s a process that is followed rigorously so that quality is never diminished.”
To keep ahead of the game, Moly-Cop collaborates with academic, industry and government partners across the world ensuring the company’s grinding media and Comsteel rail products remain at the cutting edge.
One partnership is through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Research Hub for Transforming Waste Directly in Cost-Effective Green Manufacturing. The research hub is led by ARC Laureate Fellow Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla from the University of New South Wales.
“The hub is working to develop scalable, sustainable materials and manufacturing processes, reducing the consumption of primary resources and industries’ contribution to landfill,” Professor Sahajwalla said.
The partnership between the university and Moly-Cop involves research into ‘green’ manufacturing processes, including the use of a range of recycled materials, as well as steel, in its manufacturing processes. One path of investigation is looking at the use of waste plastic and glass to improve the surface of grinding balls.
“The partnership with Moly-Cop is unique. It allows us to change the course of the future when it comes to developing innovative ideas and how science can deliver value to a business,” she said.
A benefit of the partnership is that the university receives funding that is vital for its ongoing research, and Moly-Cop gains the latest technical insight, which it can transfer directly to the workshop.
“A century has given us a lot of time to perfect our business and our products,” Keith Richie, General Manager Moly-Cop Australia, said.
“We will never rest on our laurels. Partnerships with world-leading researchers, such as those at the University of New South Wales, build on our pedigree of innovation, and will ensure the company not only remains relevant but prospers for the next 100 years in Australia’s open and globally competitive market.”
An inquiring mind
In January 2019, Glenn Sullivan, Moly-Cop’s longest-serving, current employee, will tick over 50 years on the job. In that time, he has had 20 different roles but always in his field of metallurgy, which he calls the ultimate “backroom boys” profession.
“It’s a bit of a mystery to most. People don’t know what metallurgists do,” Mr Sullivan said.
Metallurgy is a material science within the engineering field covering three distinct areas. Primary metallurgy focuses on how to extract metal from ore; manufacturing metallurgy looks at how to treat the metal to deliver different properties; and applied metallurgy concentrates on how to use the metal for different types of jobs.
Mr Sullivan’s expertise is in manufacturing metallurgy and the treatment of the metal, specifically the heat treatment and processing of Grinding Media. In 50 years, he has seen a lot of changes in his field and in the evolution of the Moly-Cop business.
“We still make the same railway products that we did in 1918, but the techniques and processes are vastly different. The biggest change is in the efficiency, quality and reliability,” Mr Sullivan said.
When he started as a trainee metallurgist in 1969, there were four electric arc furnaces and two electric induction furnaces. The old arc furnaces tapped a heat every 6 hours. Today that is down to 55 minutes with the company’s one electric arc furnace, which makes more than three times as much steel as the original furnaces.
The nature of his work has changed radically in the last half a century, and in a science where there is “no right answer” each day has delivered a new challenge and opportunity. Mr Sullivan credits the ability to put his “intellectual DNA” into so many products as a major drawcard for his job. But there is another reason that gets him into work each day.
“It's the people that bring me to work every day and has done for 50 years.
“There’s creativity, camaraderie, we get the job done. We have a very mature “can do attitude” towards problem solving.”
The succession plan is in place to transition Mr Sullivan to a part-time role early next year. In his new role, he will continue coaching and mentoring early career metallurgists, which has been one of the most satisfying aspects of his job.
Mr Sullivan works with young people at Waratah and as far afield as Perth, Canada, USA, Chile and Peru, sharing his expertise and knowledge. He also loves working with students in the hub R&D partnership with the University of New South Wales.
“‘Why?’ is my favourite question,” said Mr Sullivan. “After 50 years on the job, the best legacy I could leave is well-trained metallurgists with inquiring minds.”
The point of difference
Manufacturing is a world of high-vis, dust and grime, big machinery and a lot of noise. The sector employs about 900,000 people in Australia – and unsurprisingly the majority are men. Only 27 per cent of the manufacturing workforce are women, and most of those are in administration and support services roles.
Moly-Cop is acutely aware of the imbalance. Just five of its 380 frontline workers are women. The disparity is not for a want of opportunity for women to join its workforce. Attracting more women into key technical roles is a priority for the company – but finding the demand is proving to be a major challenge.
General Manager of Human Resources, Tiffany Allen, puts it down to wrong assumptions about what it is like to be a woman working in manufacturing.
“The biggest barrier we face is a lack of awareness about the opportunities in manufacturing for women, and incorrect perceptions of how it might be to work in the industry. It is a far more inclusive and progressive environment than people give it credit for.”
Second year apprentice fitter and turner, Jessica Sin, is one woman who is swimming against the tide. The dancer and martial arts expert who grew up working on cars with her dad is the only female fitter at Moly-Cop.
“The thing I love most about my job is how welcoming and supportive everyone is. Sometimes, there’s a few raised eyebrows at TAFE when I walk in with all of the guys, but I’ve never been made to feel different to the rest of the team.”
Moly-Cop’s four-year apprentice program is based on a mix of practice, theory and coaching, and rotates apprentices every nine months through the five departments on site.
In her second year as an electrical apprentice, Kara McDonald recently scooped Apprentice of the Year in the 2018 Moly-cop Australasia Excellence Awards. Switching careers from exercise physiology into an electrical trade, she said she was attracted to the role because it was challenging and fun.
“During my first site tour, I was like a kid in a museum and it’s just gotten better. When I’m in the plant I like to think of it as an adventure. We climb on the cranes, go down into the basement – it’s fun every day.”
Moly-Cop knows that a diverse workplace improves productivity, innovation and overall business performance. It has created an environment where workers from all backgrounds are part of the team. This is backed by policies and training that starts from day one, and goes from the leadership team through to all employees.
With a focus on attracting and recruiting the best, once on board with the company there is no shortage of opportunities for anyone – female or male.
“This isn’t just a job. The opportunities are here for a career. You might start as an apprentice but it doesn’t mean that you can’t be the next operations manager. In fact, some of the company’s most senior leaders started in the plant as apprentices,” Ms Allen said.
This is one of the appealing parts of the job for Hayley Marsh, who has been working as an Operator in the bar mill for two years. She is the youngest operator in the plant, and one of only two women to have held the role in the company’s 100-year history.
Her job includes driving 16 tonne forklifts, and operating cranes and other heavy machinery. She loves the hands-on nature of her work, but has aspirations to become a team leader.
“I love taking charge and helping people. I’d also like to prove that I can get to the top.”
But a career path hasn’t always been as clear for Sales Support Officer, Jodie Perkins. Working with a different major manufacturer 17 years ago, there was some question about whether a young female would be suitable as a systems administrator in one of the mills, where the workforce was almost entirely male. It wasn’t a case of lack of ability. At that time, some management believed that the role may not be suitable for a young woman.
Miss Perkins proved not only that it was possible, but excelled in the role and has been employed in the industry for almost two decades. She is proud of the role she plays within the business and is passionate about being a part of the manufacturing sector in Australia.
Fighting for a fair go is something that the women of Moly-Cop have in common.
“You can ask or fight for equality or just be the difference. Instead of fighting for equality, I just want to be the difference. I want to be equal to the boys,” Ms Sims said.
Ms McDonald agrees: “Sometimes you have to show people what you’re capable of.”
Health and safety: Goal Zero
Safety is front of mind for everyone at Moly-Cop, and the whole workforce is focused on an approach they call Goal Zero. Supported by systems that are rigorous and comprehensive, the safety regime protects workers at every step of the steelmaking and manufacturing process.
Over the years, Moly-Cop’s approach to safety has been recognised by peers through numerous independent awards. Notably, Moly-Cop’s ‘Crane Safety Video’ took out the Safety category at both the 2017 Hunter Manufacturing Awards and the 2018 Hunter Safety Awards.
This month, the Crane Safety Video won the “Best Communication of a Safety Message” at the distinguished 2018 National Safety Council of Australia Safety Awards.
The Crane Safety Video was developed by the Comsteel Rail Products department. Collaborating with staff across the department and the organisation, the video uses an emotive approach to encourage employees to ‘switch on’ when working around cranes. Rail Products employees and their families feature in the short film, which promotes a safety message and takes a thought-provoking look at the long-term impact of choices staff make in the workplace.
Creativity and thinking outside the square are an important part of the safety culture at Moly-Cop. Informed by research that found that 90 per cent of its injuries were due to distraction or fatigue, the business realised that the safety systems could be perfect, but they would be always vulnerable to human error.
The finding inspired a small project team to examine the connection between choice and error, which led to the development of a new safety program called ‘High Performance Thinking’, which has been rolled out to every member of the Australian Moly-Cop team.
Australasian President, Michael Parker, said Moly-Cop saw that the next level in safety was to focus on the minds of its people.
“We believe that a more self-aware, nuanced and reasoned workforce will be more likely to make better decisions in the moments that matter. We needed to teach our people how and why different mind states lead to different choices.”
In collaboration with an external subject matter specialist, a program was developed which taps into the latest thinking in neuroscience around decision-making, the effects of stress on perception and decision-making, and the development of habits.
Mr Parker said the program was in its infancy but was already delivering benefits.
“The new program is driving improvement in our overall productivity and performance, but most critically in our safety. It is providing a different way to think about safety in the workplace and also having an impact on life outside of work starting a shift towards general mental wellness.”
A message from Moly-Cop Australasia President Michael Parker
Commonwealth Steel Company is a proud Australian company, which holds a prominent place in the nation’s and Newcastle’s manufacturing history.
Since 1918, the company’s remarkable story has been characterised by seizing opportunities, always innovating, and investing in its products and people. Over our 100-year history, the company has faced global economic turmoil, the impact of wars and a need for constant process reinvention.
More than simply surviving these challenges, the business has gone from strength to strength.
Today, Moly-Cop (Waratah) is part of the Moly-Cop group, the world’s leading supplier of forged steel grinding media for the domestic and global mining and mineral processing industry. Moly-Cop is considered the industry’s innovator and has deep technical knowledge in both the underlying metallurgy of its high-performance grinding media and the specific product application requirements of its customers. In Australia, this capability is strengthened by the fully-integrated steel manufacturing facility at Waratah.
The Comsteel rail products division of Moly-Cop is the only Australian manufacturer of rail wheels for passenger, locomotive and heavy haul trains. It produces railway wheels and axles for all classes of rolling stock.
Over the course of a century, the company has employed and trained 20,000 men and women. We have long held the belief that our workforce is our greatest asset and the foundation for our success.
I extend my sincere thanks to our employees and to all who have contributed to Commonwealth Steel Company reaching the significant milestone of 100 years of continuous operation in Newcastle.
A message from Lord Mayor of Newcastle Nuatali Nelmes
In March, I had the honour of attending and speaking at the Comsteel Centenary celebrations.
In 1918, Comsteel started operation in Newcastle to provide essential maintenance supplies for our railways during a time of global steel scarcity due to World War I. Since then, they introduced the first electric arc furnace in the Southern Hemisphere, provided two million steel helmets to the Allies during World War II, have led the way in research and innovation during the war years and beyond, and have continued to provide high quality and reliable products that meet the needs for now and the future.
At the centenary celebrations I was pleased to see the many current, past and future employees in attendance. I was encouraged to hear your words that your employees are your greatest asset; it resonated with me and as I spoke to the many workers that day who were proud to tell their story of the role they play in Comsteel’s success.
As I mentioned in my speech, Comsteel is not just a company, it is an Australian success story that is woven into the very fabric of the history of Newcastle, the infrastructure, the economy, the people – our community.
I congratulate Comsteel on their Centenary, and look forward to their continued longevity and success.
A message from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian MP
Congratulations Comsteel for 100 years of operation in NSW. Much has changed since your foundation in 1918 and it is a testament to your innovative practices and commitment to your employees that you remain so successful in your field.
Comsteel is a reliable contributor to NSW’s steel industry. Our state accounts for nearly 30 per cent of national employment in the steel fabrication sector, which is no small part due to Comsteel.
Throughout your proud history, your products have evolved and grown to suit the need of the Australian and global markets. Your premium services and experience have seen you generate a strong reputation throughout the country and the world. Your company is integral to keeping the country’s rail stock needs met, but more than this you are creating jobs, building communities and consolidating an industry.
Well done to Comsteel for a century of hard work. You are an example for all NSW manufacturers. You have employed and trained thousands of men and women, and been at the cutting edge of innovations vital to your industry’s progress.
All the best as you celebrate this important milestone and I wish you well for the future.