Interview with Grant Cucel – I pick Grant’s brain on the current business climate in the Pilbara

This morning I caught up with Grant Cucel, former Chairman of the Small Business Centre West Pilbara, to pick his brains about the current business climate in the Pilbara.

Grant is about to head off around Australia for 6-7 months in a caravan with his young family so I was particularly fortunate to grab him before he settled into travel-mode.

Interview with Grant Cucel - SBCWP outgoing Chairman - current business climate in the Pilbara  //

1. Tell us a bit about yourself Grant:

   I was born in Port Hedland, but went to school and studied in Perth. I studied business at Curtin University and moved back to Port Hedland to work in the construction industry.

Now I know you’ve been the Chairman of the Small Business Centre West Pilbara for almost 9 years (very impressive), and LinkedIn lets on that you were the Branch Manager of Chandler Macleod Group and Director of Mangrove Personnel prior to that. But give us some more detail.

2. What has been your business journey here in Karratha?

   Having worked in the construction industry, I moved into recruiting and that’s what brought me to Karratha in January 2000. Ten years later I sold my recruiting business, Mangrove Personnel, to Chandler Macleod Group.

3. I hear you are flying to Perth tomorrow on a field trip to visit some business incubators around Perth?

   Yes. Tomorrow we, (the Manager of the Small Business Centre West Pilbara, the new Chairman, and myself as outgoing Chairman) along with our key stakeholders, are flying to Perth to visit a business incubator in Rockingham. We are then attending a talk from the City of Perth Business Development Team and finally we are visiting spacecubed, a co-working facility on St Georges terrace.

The process of getting business incubators established here in Karratha, and hopefully Newman and Onslow too, has been a long process that started in 2009. I was in a meeting in Perth at an incubator when it dawned on me, why don’t we have one in the Pilbara? From there we talked to our stakeholders and realised we had similar goals and the feasibility study was conducted.

It’s all about collaborating with others to make this a reality here in the Pilbara. We are definitely a lot closer. We’ve had a lot of positive discussions and now have great stakeholder support.

The tour this week is to help cement that picture.

4. With less than half the number of small businesses per capita in the Pilbara – tell us how you believe a business incubator can help turn that figure around?

For sure, I believe that establishing a business incubators in the Pilbara will help grow the number of small businesses operating here.

We know that roughly one in two businesses fail within two years of starting.

On the other hand, businesses that are nurtured through a business incubator have a much higher success rate – with roughly four out of five still in business after five years.

In visiting these very innovative enterprises down in Perth and Rockingham we hope to identify synergies to bring back to the Pilbara. Spacecubed is actually a co-working facility which is a social enterprise and different to an incubator. Both co-working facilities and business incubators can help.

A business incubator program is very structured including mentoring and support in addition to subsidised infrastructure. The main intent of an incubator is to encourage independency. For us, it is important to get the energy and money invested into this mentoring program for the incubator to work.

A co-working facility is based on peer-to-peer support. Spacecubed limit the number and types of businesses / industries who can use the facility in order to encourage a broad range of skill sets.

Both sound fantastic. Now that you mention it I first came across the concept of co-sharing office facilities in a business magazine I read on the way back from a trip to Europe in 2011.

I know personally working from home can be very hard. Having worked in shared spaces at university and then in a corporate environment for five years, I really miss all those snippets of information and tips you pick up when working with others. I only had to turn my chair to ask someone how to do something, and often got a response like “Haven’t you used the short-cut to do xyz before?”.

   Yes, I worked from home for two years when we moved to Karratha from a rented house in Nickol. It can be very insular. We are social beings by nature and thrive on being around other people.

For me, my highlight of the day used to be going to check the post box in town in the hope that I would run into someone I knew to have a conversation with another human being!

We’ve all noticed what appears to be the end of the mining boom here in the Pilbara and as John Lally, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce up here puts it, we are moving into a consolidation phase.

5. With the pressure starting to ease on previous barriers to entry for businesses here in the Pilbara such as high costs of residential accommodation, do you still see barriers to entry in the current market?

How do you suggest small business owners get smart about overcoming those barriers?

   Yes, the cost for commercial space is still high. These cost pressures, and typically high wage costs are still real barriers to entry here in the Pilbara. Also, the risk of leaving a comfortable high paying job and moving into small business is huge.

Overcoming these barriers is all about your knowledge and uptake. You’ve got to educate yourself. Take advantage of the great speakers we get and the courses on offer at the Pilbara Institute.

Tap into your networks and use your resources.

Set yourself some plans. Do your homework. Have other people critique it. Make sure your cash flow forecasts and budgets are tight and conservative. Do research and homework, in particular do as much market research as you can.

Unfortunately we’ve seen some much loved local businesses close their doors recently, but what is exciting is that it appears new business prospects are popping up around town now.

Wrapped Creations have been managing events here for a couple of years now, but Saturday night saw their largest very impressive feat – Gossip Festival. The Pilbara’s first independent music festival held right here in Dampier.

6. There are certainly others who have said to me personally, business is booming. What are your thoughts on that?

   Events like Gossip are really exciting. That was great work by Dave and his team. Gossip in particular is a really good example of making the most of a gap in the market. Study after study has shown that identifying a gap in the market and being quick to service that gap reaps rewards.

Some businesses are struggling, but there will always be a cross section.

The market has changed. But as John Lally has said we are moving into an operational phase, which is different to the peak of construction. We [at the Small Business Centre] don’t typically use ‘boom’ terminology because it is often associated with the negative connotation of a bust that follows. Short bursts, or peaks, in construction have been cyclic throughout the Pilbara’s history. Recently we’ve experienced more of an extended construction period.

Things then usually come back to a normal operation phase. We are fortunate that there is a lot more maintenance and operational support required to meet the level of production we have now.

It’s changed most definitely, but there are still plenty of opportunities.

We always like to refer to the Charles Darwin quote that implies you don’t need to be the best, you just need to be the best at change. The businesses doing well have changed the way they operate or they are identifying new gaps in the market. It’s all about embracing that change.

7. Final question, in your mind what does conscious business success mean?

   I think it means a proactive nature [to business], being very very aware. It’s hard, we all fall into the trap of ‘doing’. It can be a bit like Groundhog Day, fighting the same fires, building the same widgets.

Being conscious about it is taking that step back and being aware of what is going on and putting plans in place for change. Look for the positive outcome.


It was a pleasure to catch-up with Grant and hear his useful insights! Leave a comment below letting me know your thoughts and any success stories in particular you’d like to see profiled here on the blog 🙂

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