Advance Civil Engineering is a company that does not shy away from a challenge. They couple that courage with the skill to back it up, and that combination has driven them to over 30 years of success. As specialists in concrete structures associated with civil engineering and mining projects, they have forged an unrivalled reputation for delivering projects in isolated areas, on time and on budget.
“We specialise in providing services in remote and tropical environments,” says Keith Aitken, founder and Director of Advance Civil. “Our experience working in these harsh conditions has given us the tools and the capacity to get the job done.”
Prior to starting the business, Aitken was working on civil projects in Papa New Guinea. After returning to Australia, he saw an opportunity to start his own company in northern Australia where he could best bring his experience to the fore. Advance Civil – founded in May 1980 – was a quick success, earning significant work right off the bat from government agencies who were pushing to get infrastructure installed in Aboriginal communities.
“There were quite a lot of good projects on offer in the isolated areas, and very few companies were interested in going out and doing them,” Aitken recalls. “There was a genuine lack of small contractors who were competent or interested, or even understood how to go about contracting in the extreme isolation.”
“I saw that there was a real opportunity for a small company with a good select crew,” he adds. “Because of my experience and my desire, I think our company mastered that in the early days.”
Thirty years later, that opportunity has yet to dissipate. Advance Civil still tenders and contracts mainly to both the Northern Territory and federal governments, with only a little private sector work sprinkled in. They have become well known for their success in completing major projects in remote areas of the territory’s Top End.
Originally, the company’s workload consisted of mostly infrastructure projects, which Aitken describes as “not that hard” on their own merits. It was the associated logistical challenges that made the projects difficult, he says. But where other companies backed away from those challenges, Advance Civil embraced them.
“I think our company would have been the first to pour a metre of concrete on the moon if we had the opportunity,” Aitken jokes.
As time passed, technology evolved and those remote logistical challenges became far easier to overcome. As a result, more companies entered the arena. To compete in the more crowded market of today, Aitken says Advance Civil puts an emphasis on selling their skills. That is why they now focus mainly on marine and bridge projects, where the skill requirements are higher.
“The degree of difficulty is much harder,” he explains. “To do something on top of a river is a lot harder than doing something in the middle of a paddock. We stand out because we have the skill level to know what we’re doing.”
Experience and expertise
Over their many years of business, the efforts of Advance Civil and their subcontractors have been honoured multiple times by the CCF Earth Awards as well as the Engineering Excellence Awards. Their wins have included three national awards and numerous territory awards. Aitken – a conservative guy by nature – says that he has really grown to value that industry recognition, even if only from a personal point of view.
He remembers a story from a couple of years ago, when they were revamping their website. To help, Aitken was asked to write down a list of all the projects he had completed, and highlight the ones he was particularly proud of. He did, and left the pages on the desk of his daughter, who works with him.
“The girls were looking at it, and they came back a couple of days later in awe,” he recalls. “They said ‘Did you really do that job? We know of that job, but we didn’t realise you did it.’ They were absolutely amazed. They said ‘Why don’t you tell people?’”
“To me, that doesn’t cross my mind,” he continues. “It’s something you do, you get it done, and you’re proud of it at the time but you don’t run around blowing your bags, so to speak. But when you go to these awards, there is a bit of a dawning. You see how many entrants there are – particularly in the national awards – and you realise that your peers have looked at what you’ve done and found a lot of merit.”
“They see something important in it,” he says, “So I must admit that gives me a lot of heart and warmth.”
Aitken credits the company’s award winning status to the talent of their employees and subcontractors, and especially their willingness to be challenged. “I think our competitors and peers tend to look at us and think we must be a little bit crazy, considering some of the things we take on.”
“I think a lot of people think ‘How do these guys do it?’” he adds. “At the end of the day it’s a combination of good subcontractors, working with the client, working with the consultants and engineers, and thinking it through.”
Directly, Advance Civil employs approximately 30 experienced staff members – a workforce that includes carpenters, steel fixers, plant operators, concreters and boilermakers. The skill and dedication of that team is one of the company’s major assets, and when it comes to recruiting and retaining those people, Aitken credits their success to their family atmosphere.
When it comes to their subcontractors and suppliers, Aitken says the family-centred approach also builds strong relationships. “My philosophy has always been to say that if my subcontractors are not making any money, then I’ve got a problem and I need to address it. The greatest thing that I can see is a subcontractor who grows and becomes successful.”
“Too many companies don’t recognise that when they burn their subcontractors, they are burning themselves,” he adds. “A lot of our good ideas come from our subbies. If a subcontractor is well-organised, gets good back up, and is paid every fortnight, he will invariably come up with something that’s a bit smart that will save me money and make him money.”
An enduring vision
When Aitken was young, his father worked as a small builder, building houses for the soldiers returning from the war.
“He bought this little wee truck, and I thought it was the biggest truck in the world,” Aitken recalls. “He had painted on the side ‘KA Aitken & Sons Builders.’ I was five years old and my brother was eight years old. I look back and I think ‘My dad had that vision all the way back then.’”
“I find it quite sad when someone starts a company, makes it successful, becomes one of the leaders in their field, and then walks away after 30 years,” he continues. “I see men my age do that and I’m so saddened by it.”
At Advanced Civil, Aitken does not want to see that happen. That’s why he’s worked hard to train the next generation of managers, one of whom is his daughter Amanda. “The balls in their courts,” he says. “My most difficult task today is to learn how to step back and get my succession plan in place – I want to be there if required, but not overly interfere. That’s my vision for the company. I want to see it go on with a new wave of people for the next 30 years.”