Pilbara traditional owner mining venture makes its mark


    Deep in the hot dry heart of the Pilbara, a small enterprising and award-winning traditional owner company five years ago took a big step to launch a mining services venture with Rio Tinto and BHP as its main clients. Now the company is consolidating its wins and using smart governance strategies to help with the next phase of growth.

    The company name Ngurrara means “country”, which is close to the heart for founder, chairperson and managing director Phil Dhu MAICD, who set up the enterprise in 2018. For him, the mission has been deeply personal - to help out his family members and local people and partners and set them up for the future.

    The family group has progressed a long way in one generation to set up a project which deals with multinational civil and mining companies.

    “Our logo has a windmill and a scrub of Mulga trees that sits on country at a place called Moojari,” says Dhu, who was born and raised in Marble Bar and has more than 45 years’ experience in the mining and civil construction industry. “That place is where my dad was born, he was born under those scrub of Mulga Trees at Moojari well and inherited the traditional name ‘Moojari’. So, the logo is a representation of that.”

    His dad was one of 13 children, so the extended Dhu mob are now a very large extended family network.

    “The company was set up as there was a family discussion around doing something we can all be involved in. We're a big family associated with a lot of communities all over the Pilbara area,” Dhu told AICD during a recent interview in Perth.

    “We launched the company to take advantage of the land use agreements which were set up for corporations to allow members of these agreements to participate in business opportunities on their country.”

    Native title agreements have been concluded between the Western Australian government and a number of traditional owner groups in the area and some operate in the mining industry, but Dhu says the consortium model adopted by Ngurrara is fairly unique and allows it to stand out and be competitive.

    “Mining is a ruthless game. We know that and the family all know about it. Everyone (in our community) challenges each other and that's the good thing about it. There are plenty of opportunities there.”

    Ngurrara Pty Ltd is a 100 per cent owned and operated Pilbara Aboriginal business and employs up to 25 people. It has grown fast in five years to provide mining and civil contracting services to a wide range of clients. These include project development and construction activities that began with supporting the Rio Tinto Koodaideri project. That has since expanded with support for BHP projects on the Mining Area C and Yandi sites, which are on local Banyjima Country.

    Services provided include civil construction, mining services, general works, training and assessment, mobile plant and equipment and maintenance and security, all with proven capability and competence.

    Ngurrara is a consortium made up of four shareholders, all of which are traditional owner businesses. “Our mission is to provide shareholders with a platform to deliver projects across the resources sector creating enhanced Aboriginal and local community participation,” says Dhu.

    Dhu is a traditional owner claimant and Banjyma member with connection to the Karriyara, Yindjibarndi and Nyiyaparli language groups of the Pilbara region.

    Governance and growth

    One of the main export minerals mined in the Pilbara region is iron ore. “If you look at the iron ore market, that's always been in demand,” says Dhu. “Port Hedland where we live is a reasonably big port and that's where all the big iron ore ships come in. On any given day as we drive around town, we see about 30 ships out there.

    “So there's an opportunity for the Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal businesses to participate in that and get some meaningful living and development for communities out of it.”

    Ngurrara has grown fast over the years, expanding its workforce, procuring its own equipment, plant and light vehicles for on-site operations and now actively tendering for grants and funding opportunities. The business also recently introduced a dedicated corporate resource, to complement their governance and compliance processes, to grow its brand, and to network with industry.

    In October this year, Ngurrara won two WA industry safety awards at the 2023 Work Health and Safety (WHS) Foundation Awards – the WHS Management System Award and the WHS Training and Information Award.

    “It was really good to win those awards,” says Dhu.

    The safety awards enable Ngurrara to work anywhere on any site in the Pilbara area, so the firm is not just restricted to one area.

    “It was a great validation of the hard work of everyone and another great boost for our brand. I acknowledge all our staff, board and advisors for their commitment in getting us to that point as they tirelessly worked to develop and implement our safe working solutions that made our workplace safer.”

    Dealing with major change has been part of the company’s growth. “We have had to lead through some very difficult times. We started with six shareholders and now we have four, we have gone through organisational restructures and were met with several challenges to embed an ongoing pipeline of works for our growth. We also lost some good people along the way, and as a board, we had to navigate through this with both cultural appropriateness and regulatory compliance,” says Dhu.

    As part of the company’s expansion, the board decided to obtain governance training from the AICD through the Board Advance program. Dhu himself has undertaken many governance courses since 2010 and also saw it as a priority for directors and other members of the company.

    “The first challenge with our business was to understand how to set up a model that can continuously improve and be competitive and self-sustaining, and to the credit of family and other people, they all wanted to give it a go.”

    Dhu adds that learnings from the courses are driving processes for people and discipline and governance within the business now. “You learn about discipline and ethical standards. To be successful with governance and also practical, you need to sell something to the point where you have everyone understanding and applying the same process.”

    Dhu says AICD courses have included Foundations of Directorship in the past and the SME Governance Program this year. “We opted to include our management team, some of our staff and our advisors in the governance program to allow everyone to understand their roles and responsibilities and to give everyone a view of how directors are accountable and the role we play to set the benchmarks for the organisation to aspire to.”

    What they enjoyed the most was customisation of learning materials to real-time and real-world Ngurrara issues. “We were able to use the training days to both absorb the learnings and also formulate the beginnings of the next strategic plan for Ngurrara in class, including highlighting the risks to Ngurrara and the next mission and vision. We also completed a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to give us a clear view on how to achieve our ongoing pipeline of works”.

    Cultural factors

    Through a strategic planning process, Ngurrara consults widely and has adopted some important approaches on heritage awareness, speaking to elders and understanding the different work areas. “Our culture, language and values are our drivers,” says Dhu. “We challenge processes that are unfair.”

    Asked if assurances had been sought from Rio Tinto on protection of sacred cultural sites, following the Juukan Gorge incident, Dhu replied: “I believe that it is important not to speak on behalf of another language group’s country.

    “What I believe in doing is following process and the correct protocols, both culturally and commercially so that everyone is aware of their accountability. We must always liaise with the traditional owners of any country, speak with their elders and understand their story and communicate and agree on everything that is going to happen.”

    Dhu also holds various board and committee roles with Aboriginal corporations. “At times it can seem like an indirect process, but it’s an opportunity in those forums to talk about all the good things that are happening and all the things that are not so good and need realignment.”

    The future

    The first five years of Ngurrara’s growth were around developing people, safety, processes, and a respect for country. “If you can get all those things going in the right direction, you give yourself a better chance of succeeding and picking up a lot more opportunities and growth,” says Dhu. “Now we're right on the cusp of the next stage of growth”.

    Ngurrara has just developed a new five-year strategic plan in consultation with professional industry advisers through strategic planning sessions and a co-design process to update its capability statement and lead into the next strategic direction.

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    Board Advance is the AICD’s board advisory offering, specialising in equipping boards with the understanding, insight and guidance needed to unlock their performance.  Board Advance targets two critical areas: performance assessment and governance development.

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