Woman of steel

Wakaya Group owner and Managing Director, Kristy Marsh with partner Jolyn Rapley.

‘Geez Kristy, don’t cry; just don’t cry’.

In the days leading up to her guest appearance at last year’s Aboriginal Enterprises in Mining, Exploration and Energy Conference on the Gold Coast, Kristy Marsh was giving herself a stern talking to. She found herself feeling unexpectedly emotional while rehearsing the presentation she would deliver to 150 Indigenous business owners and representatives from the mining and construction industries.

The presentation, titled ‘I Bought a Crane’, provided Kristy with an opportunity to reflect on the personal and professional journey that has taken her from pulling apart starter motors and toasters on the floor of her childhood home, to being co-owner and Managing Director of Wakaya Group (external website, new window) her crane hire, labour hire and training company.

Kristy spent more than three years researching, establishing and growing the business, while caring for two young children and undertaking her own professional development training. Opportunities to stop and reflect on what she and partner Jolyon (Jo) Rapley have achieved have been rare.

Speaking with Kristy, though, it’s clear that stopping is not something this focused, passionate and proud Yulluna (pronounced Yull-a-nah) woman intends to do.

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‘Excuse the mess’, says Kristy, opening the door to her Brisbane home. The toys, clothes, and remnants of a family breakfast, alongside the folders, computers, Wakaya Group banners and work boots at the door, speak of a family home filled with high energy, activity and purpose.

Organising to meet Kristy and Jo together is not easy. Aside from juggling the needs of two pre-school age children and managing the day-to-day operations of the business, Kristy also works outside the family home delivering industry-related training. Meanwhile Jo is employed at a construction hire company in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, requiring him to spend four weeks working away from home on a rotation basis.

‘It’s what the industry requires’, said Jo, ‘especially when the work dries up here in Brisbane. All the guys with families want to stay and work here, but when it’s in short supply you don’t earn as much. And when you’ve just bought a $500,000 crane…’

The 25-tonne crane Jo refers to is the primary asset underpinning the couple’s crane hire and training company.

The idea for the Wakaya Group took shape in 2010 after the birth of the couple’s first son when Kristy, who was employed as an open-ticketed crane operator started thinking about how she might continue her career in the industry she loved, while caring for her young family. ‘After my eldest son was born, I had to think about what I was going to do’, said Kristy. ‘Child care opens at 6am, but I would have needed to be on a construction site by that time at who knows where across Brisbane. So it wasn’t flexible enough in that way for me””.

I started researching the business idea because I had always wanted to be my own boss’, said Kristy, who worked right through both pregnancies operating a 160-tonne track crawler crane. ‘I can’t sit still – it’s just not me’.

Kristy Marsh behind the controls of her 25-tonne, Wakaya Group-branded crane. Image courtesy of Jolyn Rapley.

That same energy has fuelled a lifelong love of taking things apart to examine how they might work better. ‘As a child I would pull everything apart and try and put it back together again but, of course I couldn’t’, said Kristy. ‘Sorry, mum, don’t know what happened to the toaster! My grandfather owned a wrecking yard and I used to hang out with him, and pull apart old cars. The whole house would be littered with carburetors and starter motors. I remember pulling things apart while I was eating breakfast’.

After leaving school at 16, Kristy began an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, and worked in the local construction industry before travelling overseas and securing a role as Technical Manager for an Italian packaging company. Kristy says that after three years living out of a suitcase, a desire to “get back on the tools” led her home to Australia where she qualified as an open-ticketed crane operator. This qualification allows Kristy to work on the largest of mobile cranes operating on construction sites.

Her love of pulling things apart was central to providing Kristy with the knowledge and confidence to make the move into business ownership. After 18 months of researching the viability of the Wakaya Group, she and Jo approached IBA’s Business Development and Assistance Program for business support.With Jo working interstate, however, it was Kristy – eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their second child – who attended IBA’s three one-day Into Business™ workshops. The workshops aims to assist Indigenous Australians to explore their business idea and readiness for taking on business ownership.

‘I finished the workshops in a week’, said Kristy. ‘I had already done a lot of the business planning and research. And I had limited time because I was due to give birth in two weeks… So it was like, could I come back next month for the next workshop? Probably not!’

‘I remember going in for my first interview with IBA. I was sitting there thinking, “These must be those crazy pregnancy hormones everyone talks about”. There I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and asking IBA for a loan and business support.

I remember the day IBA approved our business loan; it gave me so much courage to think that someone else believed we could pull this off. I never have had the chance to thank whoever was behind that decision’.

Jo says he had no doubt Wakaya Group would succeed with Kristy at the helm. ‘Whatever she sets her mind to, she achieves’, he said. ’Even with her study, she always tops the class in everything she does. As soon as we started talking about the business, I knew she’d make it succeed, there’s nothing going to hold her back, she will just keep going’.

An IBA business consultant has assisted the couple to fine-tune their business financials and operations. ‘Going through the business plan and having a look at all the figures, there were some things I had missed…’ said Kristy. ‘I had thought of all the obvious things like insurances, and I’d researched competitive pricing, fuel and so on. But the consultants got down to the nitty gritty of things, like legal fees for drawing up contracts, print costs; and they really pulled it apart’.

Despite her commitment, Kristy says the reality of what she and Jo were taking on hit home one night just before their new 25-tonne asset was due to be delivered. ‘About a month before the crane was due to arrive, that was my one night of having a bit of a panic, and that was it’, she said. ‘I think it was everything required to launch the business, looking after the two kids, and Jo being so far away working in WA. On paper it all looked so good, but here was the reality coming toward me. I remember being on the phone to Jo in WA that night in a panic, and all Jo said was “wow, so you are human Kristy!”. It made me laugh, and as quick as the worry came, it was gone’.

In a compliance- and regulation-driven industry, Kristy has put considerable energy into ensuring Wakaya Group has the licences, policies and procedures in place so the crane can be hired out onto mine sites where the strictest of safety rules and regulations apply.

‘Kristy has gone above and beyond what a normal small crane business would provide in that regard’, said Jo. ‘She’s got policies and procedures and safety documents that are on par with the company I work for out west, and they’re a huge national company. The work she has been able to do and what she’s accomplished is really quite mind-boggling, especially when she’s looking after the children as well’.

‘You have to’, said Kristy.

‘If you want to play with the big boys then you need to look like one, even if you’re not in terms of size! You have to tick all the boxes, be on the same playing field in terms of your professionalism’.

Both Kristy and Jo admit juggling family, the business and Jo’s absences from home for four weeks at a time is challenging.

‘I’ll be trying to explain something to Jo down the phone, and sometimes I’ll go off on a tangent and the kids are going crazy in the background…’, said Kristy. ‘Everything I do, Jo is really supportive, but he’s also good at saying, “So you’re doing this and this and now this? Really?” He helps rein things in and keep me on track. We just have to work hard to keep the communication going…’

‘It would be good to get to the point where we’re both working in the business together’, continued Kristy. ‘In the New Year I am looking at doing wet hire, which means hiring out the crane with an operator and a dogman – all the personnel. That means taking on employees; I am hoping they’ll be a little more co-operative than toddlers – at least they won’t be teething!’

‘I am laying the foundations for the training side of it now, and I am trying not to bite off more than I can chew’, said Kristy. ‘I already deliver training, and I have just been approved as an accredited trainer and assessor through Workplace Health and Safety, Queensland, which is great because I can start working as a contractor within my own business. Eventually I want Wakaya Group to become a registered training organisation. I want to set up on-the-job training packages for my Indigenous students; kind of like a traineeship where they go out on construction sites or are placed within the work environment so they get that extra hands-on training. I want Indigenous students coming out of my class to be the best of the best, so that companies who want labour will ask for Wakaya-trained people. I believe we need to break the negative mindset that still exists out there around utilising Indigenous employees and businesses’.

‘And eventually I am hoping to cross pollinate and grow the business to have a fleet of cranes, Indigenous trainees and labour working for me, and be mostly Indigenous-operated as well as Indigenous-owned’.

Asked about her focus and determination, Kristy said: ‘Í don’t see the obstacles or barriers until someone points them out. So, for example, I have worked in the industry for my whole life, so I don’t see it as male-dominated. And I suppose a lot of things that would hold other people back, I don’t see them; or if I do, or if someone happens to point them out to me, that just makes me even more determined’.

In summoning that determination Kristy says she draws inspiration from her Elders, past and present. ‘My late Uncle was a strong mentor for me; every time I had an idea in my head, he was always very encouraging, but also very direct. He has passed away, but in challenging times when I think “What are you doing”, or “Do you really think you can do this”, I can hear him telling me to “Shut up and do it already”!

Find out more about the Wakaya Group (external website, new window) or read more about IBA’s Business Development and Assistance Program.