Opportunity hunter making his mark in Western Australia
WILD GEESE: Mark Keogh, founder and managing director of mining industry company UON
Mark Keogh trained as an electrician in Dublin in the 1980s, but extended periods of travel in America and elsewhere opened his eyes to the world.
For Mark Keogh, from Rathfarnam in Dublin, moving to Perth 23 years ago proved a wise choice.
Keogh trained as an electrician in Dublin in the 1980s, but extended periods of travel in America and elsewhere opened his eyes to the world. “Just seeing the sheer size of what other countries had to offer, meeting new people, new ideas [meant that] when I came back home the itch was there,” he says.
Meeting an Australia n girl while living in London proved fortuitous. “We went to visit her homeland and went to Perth. I found it to be a terrific place, full of opportunity, and decided to stay. Twenty-three years later I’m still there, married, with three kids and a business.”
That privately-owned business, UON, provides power generation, air compressors and water pumping solutions to the mining industry. It has a turnover of more than 50 million Australian dollars (€38.37 million) a year.
Early days in Perth
When Keogh arrived in Perth in 1990, he first worked in the domestic industry in order to get his electrical licence, but a road traffic accident changed his plans.
“Unfortunately that year, with the heat that comes with Western Australia, I had a head-on collision with an articulated truck. That put a fresh perspective on things, after about four months’ recovery,” he says.
Because of his injuries, Keogh knew he was going to have to find less physically demanding work. He saw opportunities in the control and maintenance areas of the mining industry.
“I was fortunate to get a job as a contractor within the mineral sand industry, which exposed me to a whole range of new ideas and equipment and processes, which served as the foundation of the business from that point on.
“Western Australia is very isolated from other [Australian] states and it’s also very far from other countries. So taking the knowledge of what I’d seen in other places and the potential that was there allowed me to see that there was a bit more opportunity that would see success if I was to apply similar processes and systems and bring things from a different perspective into the mining industry.”
In 2002, four years after developing a generator testing product specifically for Western Australian conditions, Keogh borrowed money from his father-in-law and banks to help pay day-to-day expenses and expand his business.
“It’s quite vivid in my memory. It came down to borrowing money to go out and expose what we do as a company to clients. So we decided to get serious about it ... Within three months of going down that path, we had $50,000 profit in the bank.”
Keogh is aiming to double his turnover to $100 million within three years, and is ahead of target. “We’re currently in negotiations on a number of projects which would see us achieve that sooner rather than later,” he says.
Rio Tinto, BHP, Chevron and other blue-chip companies are among UON’s clients, and Keogh was recently able to advise other Irish people about doing business in Australia. Working through Enterprise Ireland, he spoke with Irish companies and told them there are openings for people with good ideas.
“If you’ve got something you can offer, something that adds value or competitiveness, opportunities still exist. The industry here is very open. It’s not corrupted [like some Asia Pacific countries] ... it’s very transparent and it’s very auditable, which allows a very fair playing field for companies that have value adds, good services and good products to offer,” he says.
Out of 135 employees at UON, 20 per cent are Irish. “We brought out a lot of guys two years ago under the 457 [skilled visa] programme and they’re still with us today,” says Keogh.
UON has developed strong links with the Aboriginal community through a strategic partnership with two indigenous-owned companies which are setting up training and employment opportunities in regional Western Australia. It also works with the Role Models and Leaders Australia project, and sponsored four Aboriginal schoolgirls to learn to sail and race SB20 sail boats. They subsequently made it to the UON-sponsored SB20 world championships last December. “The girls came 40th out of 42 boats and were delighted with the result. They’ve become roles models for their classmates,” Keogh says.
Given the company’s rapid growth, it is perhaps not surprising that last year UON won the Western Australia medium business and business awards, and the national medium business award. “It was very exciting. It was more than we expected, but it was a reflection of the work that we’ve done,” says Keogh.