Former stockbroker Elizabeth Lewis-Gray admits it was partly boredom that prompted her to start Gekko Systems, a Victorian-based company that’s now a world leader in providing mineral processing solutions.
Ms Lewis-Gray was accustomed to working in a demanding job in Melbourne. So when she found herself living in Avoca – population 1000 – with her husband Sandy, a goldminer, the cogs started whirring.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I decided to create my own company,” says Ms Lewis-Gray, who had a hunch that there was a huge market for a gold separation device that Sandy had developed.
After securing government funding for further research into the product, which helps mining companies reduce their environmental impacts, Gekko was launched in 1996.
“Mining was new to me, but to be honest business is business,” says Ms Lewis-Gray, whose husband joined her full-time in the business one year in.
The initial industry response to their first product was overwhelmingly positive.
However she says they later realised that the couple were “very naïve; lots of rose-coloured glasses were being handed around”.
“We didn’t really understand the culture and risk averseness of people that work in mining. We certainly didn’t realise a lot of people that came to see what we were working on wouldn’t buy our stuff in a fit,” says Ms Lewis-Gray.
“Buying something from a Mum and Dad operation was just too too much of a political and operational risk.”
Determined to succeed, the couple eventually won over venture capitalists, and moved the business from their back garden into an office and factory in nearby Ballarat.
Gekko turned its focus to marketing, working hard to present themselves as a highly professional outfit that the conservative mining industry could feel comfortable purchasing from.
“We always knew that it’s a long technology curve in the mining industry. It’s hard in the beginning but it’s an asset in the end,” says Ms Lewis-Gray.
Those same barriers to entry would make it difficult for competitors to follow their lead, and slowly the company grew to what it is today: a global company with 150 staff set to turn over close to $100 million this year.
“Gekko celebrates 20 years in the new year and it’s just now that we’re getting full brand credibility,” says Ms Lewis-Gray.
Sales are expected to double this financial year.
The company exports 85 per cent of its services, with global offices in Vancouver, Johannesburg and Perth.
Back in Australia, Ms Lewis-Gray says the tough times being experienced by Australia’s mining sector are actually favourable for Gekko.
In good times, mining companies won’t steer far from the methods that have worked for them in the past, she says.
“In the tough times they have to look at new, innovative ways of doing things. When it’s tough, that’s actually when innovation gets its greatest uptake.”
Investing in innovation – particularly energy efficient mineral processing methods – is still a major focus for Gekko, a one- stop shop whose business model differs from many of its competitors.
Sandy Gray, a recipient of the prestigious Clunies Ross Awards, still drives much of the innovation, but has now been joined by a talented team of scientists and engineers.
Ms Lewis-Gray says the company usually opts to target innovation to niche markets using differentiation and a “blue ocean” strategy to limit direct market competition.
“We find the opportunity globally that suits us and then we work very hard to win that work.”
Aside from a heavy investment in developing innovating technical products with a strong energy efficiency focus, Gekko also places priority on relationship building, sales and marketing and product design and definition.
“The mining industry’s a tough industry to work in – you need to have very strong communication skills and self awareness skills as well,” she says.
In August, Gekko landed a contract to work with a Canadian mining company to develop and install modular and treatment plants in the Arctic Circle.
Gekko’s unique capability is to minimise energy consumption in a remote corner of the globe, while designing an entire plant that fits snugly into a small shed.