Refreshingly down to earth

Published 08 February 2012 13:33, Updated 04 May 2012 16:18

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Starting a business within an embryonic industry is a high-risk venture. Earth Data was formed in 1989 to service a large American company, now ConocoPhillips, in exploring the concept of taking what was considered a safety hazard in the coal industry and converting it to energy. Pretty much no one in Australia had heard of the term coal seam gas (CSG) at that point and so it may have seemed the company and its staff of four had a limited future.

The business was bought by a founding employee, Michael Wade, in 2000, just as CSG was starting to gain momentum as a serious energy source. The firm started to grow rapidly but Wade was constantly under pressure to be the frontman in negotiations – and turnover of staff was high, as there were limited career paths available.

Business coaching firm Shirlaws was brought in and a management team was established that let Wade focus on building the company.

New products and services were introduced and career paths established, putting Earth Data on track to become the leader in its field and the only provider able to offer a full analytical service.

Today, Earth Data and its team of 95 specialists provide analysis of the composition and quantity of gas trapped in coal and shales and the level of carbon dioxide emitted through extraction processes to a multibillion-dollar industry that is still in its embryonic stage.

Carbon dioxide monitoring is a relatively new part of the business but is growing rapidly, thanks to the federal government’s controversial carbon tax.

“All new business is funded from existing cash flow,” Wade says. “While the company has always had low gearing, the ongoing global financial crisis means we’ll always be in a position to weather any sudden downturns.”

Over the past decade, the CSG industry has gone from nascent to the verge of becoming one of the nation’s biggest export industries. With Earth Data riding that wave of growth, it is no surprise Wade is pretty excited about the company’s future.

Already it has appeared twice on the BRW Fast 100, a ranking of the fastest-growing enterprises in the country, (in 2009 and 2010, when it had revenue of $14.08 million). In recent years, it has achieved average annual revenue growth rates of about 50 per cent. Now Wade wants some recognition as a preferred place to work.

A big challenge for Wade is getting the right people to add to the team. A core component of the workforce comprises engineers and geologists and both are in hot demand across the mining and energy spheres. Big companies such as BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are scouring the world and snapping up those available.

“Getting the right person that will fit into our corporate culture is vital,” Wade says. “If it takes six months or more to locate a recruit, so be it.”

There is already a good international spread within the company, including specialists from Canada, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, England, Ireland and Scotland, and Wade says they are attracted to the professionalism and reputation of the group.

He adds that the company prides itself on an “immersive and rewarding working environment”.

One area that Earth Data has been ahead of the game in is being correctly accredited. It’s costly and time consuming but the group has all the necessary quality, safety, environmental and analysis accreditations and systems to let it work with the most stringent requirements of the big international and local companies that now dominate the CSG and coalmining industries.

Wade is disappointed at the controversy that has sprung up around CSG, principally over its potential impact on aquifers in Queensland and NSW. Opponents say CSG activity will drain the Great Artesian Basin, which underlies one-fifth of the Australian continent and contains 65 billion megalitres of water – enough to fill Sydney Harbour 130,000 times.

Earth Data business development manager Jess Maddren agrees energy production “must be safe and environmentally sound” but says “Australia has the regulation and standards to manage the development of the industry. And from an energy security viewpoint, it’s also desirable to have safe and reliable sources located onshore.”

While Earth Data has growth paths already mapped out in its five-year business plan that will be realised simply by the growth of the CSG industry and emissions monitoring, it is also watching the development of other technologies, such as geothermal energy, where it could play a role.

With the success the firm has enjoyed, Maddren says there have been numerous overtures from groups interested in buying the business but for now such approaches are a distraction as the company continues its rapid growth.

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