THE Karratha-based Lift Equip is branching out into agriculture after surviving the mining downturn and adding rough-terrain forklifts to its product range.
Lift Equip is planning to be at the Dowerin GWN7 Machinery Field Days this year to promote its range and break into the farm machinery market, which owner and managing director Brett Johnston said has "holes" that his competitors haven't been able to fill.
Mr Johnston started the business in 2006 having noticed a gap in the market due to the distance of most companies from the Pilbara and the lack of product range available to mining companies.
He started Lift Equip with the help of his father Brian and has been in business for 13 years.
They are 50:50 owners with Brett managing the operations.
"I didn't have to learn everything from scratch as such, I had a pretty good mentor, but I think we were pretty lucky in Karratha as well back in 2006 - the year before the biggest mining boom in history," Mr Johnston said.
"It was pretty interesting up there at that time."
Mr Johnston said he was working as a mechanic for another company, doing work as a subcontractor to some other forklift companies when he noticed the opportunity to go out on his own.
"Prior to that there was no forklift business in Karratha," he said.
"It was all out of Perth and I could see a gap in the market where they would send equipment up from Perth - it wasn't mine spec and it wasn't ready, it wasn't what they needed and there were a lot of complaints.
"So we started the business in regards to being mine ready, being the right equipment and having backup and support."
Mr Johnston started 'on the tools' until he had about 20 forklifts and then decided to be half 'on the tools' and half in the office.
"We got a mechanic on board and grew it from there," he said.
The next strategic expansion move was to open a facility in Perth, servicing the metro area and surrounds, which occurred in 2010 and has been the cornerstone of the company's growth plans.
"As of nine months ago we got a new depot in Melbourne," Mr Johnston said.
The young entrepreneur started working from six years of age.
"I was always going to work for myself," he said.
"I had my own lawn mowing round when I was eight.
"Me and a mate had a trailer we use to attach to the back of our bikes and we had a bucket with some sponges and hoses in it to wash cars.
"We use to knock on doors for $5 a lawn - mowing or whipper snipping.
"I don't think I was ever going to work for someone else."
Mr Johnston undertook his apprenticeship with North West Training as a plant mechanic.
"My father was in business for himself and he had a lot of mechanics and electricians working for him," he said.
"I suppose I had access to a lot of trades and the mechanical field just interested me.
"I was one of those kids - you don't just replace the turbo, you need to know why the turbo works and how it works.
"It drives me crazy that people just replace parts these days."
Mr Johnston said over the past 13 years he has "seen the down cycle and the up cycle".
"On the up cycle I guess the challenge is scaling - getting the right people," he said.
"Sometimes when things are running fine you tend to forget about saving for a rainy day" - such as when the Pilbara "switched off like a light".
"In nine months we had 100 units with a value of more than $7-$8 million sitting in a yard and I was 23-24 years old going 'what are we going to do with this?'," he said.
"I had to learn really quickly what to do, there was no ifs, buts or maybe - it was make it work or you go."
Keeping the business going wasn't easy but he recalled how being customer-focused made a big impact.
"The biggest thing I learned was listening - so being consumer led - don't just do what you want," Mr Johnston said.
"Sometimes you think what you are doing is the right thing but you really need to listen to the consumer and the people around you and make sure that the people that work for you are by your side.
"I guess what I have learned is being able to read the play ahead and have the right people around you that understand those aspects of the business."
Brett said during the downcycle "you couldn't sell the equipment".
"No one was buying it, or you owed more than it was worth," he said.
"We really had to play the market and get that right.
"You've got two sides of the business, when you struggle to sell units you can't pull that lever to decrease costs but when people are handing their notices in and jumping ship, they didn't get replaced.
"I went from working 12 hour days to working 17-19 hours a day and doing multiple roles."
Mr Johnston said the business was "probably going through the second round of upscaling now, but we are probably in a good position - we own a lot of our fleet, we have assets behind us and we can strategise and invest in the right places".
"One of my strategies this time is seeing the markers that are out there now - the pointers are alluding to another mining boom," he said.
"I'm not sure we are going to see a seven to nine-year cycle as we saw before, but I think we can see the next three, four or five years.
"But even down here in Perth, we have got the CVS Ferrari product sitting on a CBH grain site.
"These forklifts are contracted for 60 hours a week and they are doing about 95 hours a week because the grain season has been one of the best seasons they have had.
"It's not just mining - I believe from what I'm told down south some of the vineyards they are having a good run - weather permitting.
"I think WA is in a good position for the next two to three years.
"We have just got to capture that and get out there."
The 34-year-old father of two said he would "be happy to do this till I'm 50".
"I think we have a good growth strategy ahead of us - a good plan," Mr Johnston said.
Lift Equip has 32 staff members based in Perth, Karratha and Melbourne.