Case Study : Mining the Depths – From Australia to Invercargill

For some time now New Zealand companies have complained about the difficulty in finding top quality candidates for executive management vacancies. Most recruiters would bemoan the fact that the good ones are heading off overseas – particularly to Australia. However, recent times have suggested movement in the opposite direction. Some New Zealanders may be coming back, but Australians are also seeing opportunities here.
One such executive is Paul Hemburrow, general manager of Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point who, at only 38 years of age, has fast-tracked to top-level management position he had his eye on years ago.
Hemburrow’s first job with the global mining giant was with Rio Tinto Alcan (the company’s aluminium group) as research engineer. His first contact with New Zealand Aluminium Smelters (NZAS) at Tiwai Point was back in 1995 when he took role as project engineer involved in an upgrade in one of the process areas at the aluminium smelter. He was still based in Melbourne during this time and returned there for business analysis role. Later he was sent back to New Zealand for cost-reduction project. He met his wife, Joelyne, in Invercargill and began progressing through the company ranks, holding various superintendent roles before transferring to business improvement management position in Rio Tinto Aluminium, Bauxite and Alumina in Brisbane.
Hemburrow’s career really started moving when he decided to try something different from aluminium. He became manager of operations at the Rio Tinto Iron Ore bulk commodity port in Dampier, Western Australia.
“I’d only been there nine months when I got the call to come back here [to NZAS],” he says.
During Hemburrow’s earlier years at NZAS he had his eye on the top job and thought that would be something he wanted to do eventually.
“I just never thought it would be now. I thought it was few years away,” he says. “I work really hard and I’ve done lots of things to get me to this point. The thing that often surprises me is that I am here already. I never imagined it would happen this quick.”
One reason Australians may look to New Zealand for management experience is decline in executive positions across the Tasman. An EL Consult executive demand index report compiled in September shows fall of 20 percent in demand in the past year. On positive note, management roles specifically (as opposed to financial, IT, marketing and engineering executives) registered only one percent decrease in demand.
Hemburrow says New Zealand companies offer opportunities which managers in Australia would not get if they stayed at home.
“When you are big business in small country you have opportunities you just don’t have if you are maybe the same size business in country that is five times as big,” Hemburrow elaborates.
For Hemburrow, making submission to government select committee over the emissions trading legislation is an example of this. He also speaks regularly with CEOs of government organisations.
“Here I get the opportunity to engage at very high level that may, in some of our other operations, be the domain of head office support functions. So in that regard, it is absolutely outstanding training for more senior roles in this organisation,” he says.
However, apart from those early roles with NZAS, Hemburrow denies seeing New Zealand as training ground for his own career.
He began his leadership training in the Australian army after quitting university part way through pure and applied mathematics degree.
“When I finished my second year I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I joined the army and did officer training in Australia. I ended up completing that through reserve unit then did regimental officers’ basic course before going into army reserve service for five years.
“There are very few places where you can actually learn and practise really good leadership skills,” Hemburrow says. “The army takes you through some really robust processes and gives you lot of skills and experience that you don’t otherwise get as young person.”
During his army reserve service, Hemburrow joined Rio Tinto and finished degree in material science and chemical engineering part time. He also completed an MBA in leadership and international trade while working for Rio Tinto.
One of his major achievements at NZAS has been bringing focus on diversity in the workforce. When he took the general manager’s role, NZAS struggled to achieve more than 4.6 percent women in the workplace. Now that number is about 7.6 percent, he says.
He spoke recently with Southland Girls’ High School principal Yvonne Browning about women in science and engineering. He issued the challenge for the high school to propose ways NZAS could get more women involved with the industry. The school sent proposal and now the first group of five girls is completing various project studies on-site.
“Next year we can expand that programme to more young women and the next year and the year after. We might get some of those young women in science and engineering careers and we might get them to stay here in Southland and we might even get them to come to work here. That would be great,” Hemburrow enthuses.
He’s also started cadet programme on-site targeting high school leavers or those with one or two years’ work experience. One cadet rotates between accounts, stores and human resources departments. Another works in community relations. It is condition of their employment that they undertake additional study. The expectation is at the end of the traineeship they not only have qualification but also three years’ experience.
Winning New Zealand Business Excellence Foundation gold award in 2007 makes Hemburrow extremely proud. NZAS is one of only three businesses to achieve gold status.
“I love it when we have visitors and they come and see this place and particularly when the paradigms they might hold about us before they come and see us are broken as consequence of their visit here. They realise what wonderful place we have and what fantastic people. Nothing makes me more proud of NZAS than when people from the outside see what we are doing and are really impressed.”
The culture at NZAS is built around principles of LEAN manufacturing – challenge the status quo; respect the individual; continuous improvement; team work; and go and see. It is obvious walking around the smelter site that the staff have embraced these principles and are aligned with them. Desks are uncluttered, employees are friendly and welcoming, and the whole place emanates positive atmosphere which is almost surreal to those not familiar with it.
“We all wear the same uniform, there is no distinction between any of us,” Hemburrow says referring to his staff. “I never come to work in anything but this [uniform]. I wear work boots and hard hat like everyone else. I can walk out into the workplace and from distance, I look exactly the same.”
One way Hemburrow keeps in touch with his employees is by writing blog. One recent entry comments on the “big five” most important reasons to work safely.
“For some people it might be their family, their lifestyle, their boat or car or their career. For me two of my big five are my kids (Emily is five years old and Matthew is three). When I get home and the kids come running to the door to see me it is the greatest thing in the world and it is something that I never want to miss out on. For me there is no better reason for choosing to do what is right,” he says.
Hemburrow is looking forward to some exciting challenges in the near future. NZAS is about to embark on programme of capital expenditure to improve energy efficiency and there is new $30 million ship unloader due to arrive soon. The emissions trading legislation is going to provide another interesting challenge as NZAS tries to remain viable in globally competitive environment while meeting its legal responsibilities.
“I think one of the things we have done extremely well

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