Basil Read Mining aims to provide value and support to clients, suppliers and the communities surrounding its mining sites.
If one theme has emerged from business owners during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the importance of teamwork – sticking together with colleagues, partners and suppliers.
And Basil Read Mining definitely presents a united front.
On a Zoom call, I am introduced to the CEO, Nathan Williams, and five of his colleagues: Ismail Moosa, the Finance Director; Safety Head Joel Masebe; Deon Rajoo, the Engineering Director; Anton Cilliers, Operations and Contracts Director; and Sandile Masondo, Business Improvement and Supply Chain Director. Despite the difficulties they have encountered over the past few months, the team remains upbeat.
“Even with the impact it has had on our operations, our team has handled it very well,” Cilliers explains.
“The most difficult part has been the logistics – getting supplies, and spares and equipment across borders was hard. The operations onsite were running very smoothly, considering the restrictions. But our people are well-aligned on the operations front and it seems like logistics is slowly picking up, as borders are beginning to reopen,” he adds.
Basil Read is no stranger to difficulty, as even at the best of times, mining is a very challenging space to be working in.
“It’s very, very competitive, especially in certain bulk commodities like coal and iron ore,” CEO Williams explains. “That’s really because we’ve seen price declines from exports to China over the last couple of years. There are also a lot of challenges in terms of digitalisation.”
By this, Williams means that there is a necessity – perhaps even a pressure – for mining operations to invest heavily in technology, which helps them improve profit margins and efficiency. However, there is also an argument that digitalisation for communities surrounding the mines results in economic retrenchment and fewer employment opportunities. Williams has embarked on a PhD to research this in more detail. “I believe we need to write a different story,” he says.
Doing Mining Differently
Basil Read Mining is part of the larger Basil Read Group, which was established in 1952. It specialises in surface contract mining, including but not limited to drill and blasting; material handling which includes excavating, loading and hauling; in-pit water management; and trackless mobile machine maintenance.
It operates under two companies – one is Basil Read Mining and the other is the B&E (Blasting and Excavating brand), predominantly operating in the quarry space, but also working in civil engineering. A third subsidiary is Hytronix, a mining machine repair and maintenance company that looks after the machines deployed across sites and specialises in full machine and major component rebuilds.
Basil Read Mining Group currently operates in South Africa and Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho. It works on various commodities, including diamonds, copper, phosphates, zinc and copper.
“We pitch ourselves in the hundred tonne dump truck market; that’s a nice market to be in because it’s a relatively easy machine to move up and down,” Cilliers says. “You don’t have to disassemble and put on two or three trucks to move; you simply put it on a lowbed and move it to another site.”
“We have about 60 100-tonne trucks,” adds Rajoo, the Engineering Director. “In total, our fleet is around 300-strong. Currently, we also play with 200 and 300 tonne excavators, and the future looks bright for the bigger machines.”
“And we are the biggest owner of Atlas Copco and Epiroc drills in Africa – we have around 70,” Cilliers chimes in.
But it’s not just its equipment and fleet size that differentiates Basil Read Mining from the competition.
“What really makes us different is our people. Everyone has access to quality equipment like Epiroc,” Rajoo says. “For us it’s all about the culture and the people that exist within Basil Read. We are driving towards developing strong leadership within the business, and everyone is along for that journey. Our people make the difference and will drive our competitive advancement forward.”
Each employee has their own career development path, even those in more junior roles. For example, B&E recently initiated a Learner Blaster Progamme – training 35 of its employees to become qualified civil and open-cast blasters – and a Graduate Programme, providing mining and mechanical engineering students with first class experience and training, allowing them to become experts in their field of study and considering them as full-time employment candidates.
“They can actually set up a career over 10 to 20 years with Basil Read; there are few companies that can offer that. Because we operate in different geographical locations we can give people exposure to different operations and technologies. It’s a big differentiator,” the CEO explains.
Basil Read is also a certified Level 3 B-BBBE employer, scoring particularly highly in the areas of skills development and enterprise and supplier development. In fact, in March 2020 Basil Read received an Oliver Top Empowerment Award, South Africa’s most prestigious awards for transformative leadership, shown through vision, innovation, leadership and affirmative action.
Employee wellbeing is of paramount importance to the company. Two years ago it established an in-house occupational health clinic that provides employees with basic medical evaluations, alongside other services such as wellness days, counselling and HIV/Aids testing. The free-to-employees wellbeing programe enables access to trained professionals in the legal, counselling, finance and mental wellbeing space.
This caring ethos extends beyond its employees to the surrounding communities.
“We have CSI projects in the communities where we operate,” Masondo explains. “For each project we engage in we have a predefined target or n-value of the amount we would like to spend in the community where we will operate. For example, we have one in Limpopo, whereby we support the surrounding communities with a sports facility in Alldays. We also support the local teachers, to ensure they provide quality education.”
“We do quite a bit of enterprise development that doesn’t just relate to mining as well,” Williams adds. “For example, we recently supported a local indigenous farming entrepreneur and put in irrigation systems for her. And she actually won a prize as best farming entrepreneur in the state. So we have helped her establish a farming business that will continue long after we’ve left the mine.”
Another differentiating factor, according to the CEO, is that Basil Read Mining will always take on the toughest of projects, even when other contractors would long have left.
“On the one mine they had a flooding incident that nearly collapsed the mine, and that flooding continued for about 12 months. We were the only contractor who said, ‘we are going to support you; we’ll help you through this.’ We brought in our own pumping equipment just to keep it going,” he says.
The company delivers these tough projects safely, with high productivity and outputs. One of the reasons it is able to do so is through its embrace of digitalisation and advanced technologies.
Basil Read Mining recently made the decision to invest into autonomous drilling and will be launching the first fully autonomous small drill on the African continent by early next year.
“We really are embracing technology as fully as we can, and this fully autonomous drill allows us to mine on steeper slopes,” the CEO says. “The equipment allows us to enable change in the design of certain mines, like Jwaneng, resulting in a $3 billion saving for them.”
The company is also using telematics on its trackless machines, to learn more about their efficiency levels and behaviour. Furthermore, and partially because of COVID, it has begun to do an increasing amount of camera operation on its open pits.
“With COVID-19 it is really difficult to get onsite and into the mines, so we have been looking for the right technology to give us a view of the mine pit, equipment and operations as a whole,” says the Engineering Director. “Our target is to work remotely and change the norm. The way we worked six months ago to the way we will work in the future will be totally different, and that’s something we’re embracing as well.”
Even after the pandemic ebbs away, Basil Read Mining will continue to embrace digitisation and automation within its mines, to improve efficiencies within the contracts they take on.
And it intends to ensure that these digital improvements don’t result in economic retrenchments to the surrounding communities. The company is currently working on a project involving the donations and supply of IT equipment.
“We see the future as digital and want to take the communities around us on that journey towards equality,” Masondo says. “We can make a big contribution by sharing our pre-owned hardware with those communities so that they can start utilising it and exploring technological opportunities.”
Alongside these noble goals, over the upcoming year Basil Read Mining desires to diversify beyond the commodities it currently mines, as well as expand its geographical footprint. It is currently seeking new work contracts across Africa and extending as far as the Middle East. A third aspect of its expansion strategy is to make an effective jump into using ultra-large equipment, which involves strategising how to be effective within that category.
“Ultimately, our vision is to be recognised as a world class mining services partner, to be able to deliver on the toughest projects in a safe, productive and efficient manner, to value our people and technology and stay ahead of our competition,” Financial Director Moosa concludes.