Toowoomba opens up to the world

Published: Monday, September 19, 2016

Toowoomba may not be as popular as the other major cities in Australia but it’s slowly making a name for itself thanks to astute business acumen and bold innovative ways of a family deeply rooted in the area – the Wagners.

Ranked as one of the wealthiest families in Australia, the Wagners’ estimated net worth in 2015 climbed up to $955 million, up from $827 million in 2014, according to BRW (Business Review Weekly) Rich 200.

The family, known for construction, steel, quarries and transport businesses, invested $250 million (about AED 918million) to build what is now known as the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport, the first green field public airport built in Australia in 50 years.

Phil Gregory, general manager of Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport told Air Cargo Update, this is small investment by airport standards and it helped that the family was into concrete and construction business to stave off additional expenses.

“The investment to date is approximately $250 million. However, as an airport business we are in a unique position of firstly being privately owned, and secondly being part of a construction business,” he said in an email interview.

“So the airport was built using quarry products from our own quarries, concrete from our own concrete plants and construction using our own construction workers. We effectively built the airport at about the half the cost of what it would have been if it had been built under the traditional tender processes,” he added.

Small but capable

The airport, which is capable of handling big planes like Boeing 747 models, is also the first privately funded major airport in the country.

On November 17, 2014, it had its first Qantas passenger flight and is now receiving close to 10,000 passengers every month.

Gregory shared there were lots of teething problems when the project began but they survived them all.

“The greatest challenge we had was convincing industry and the bureaucracy that we were really going to build a brand new airport. Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport is the first green field public airport built in Australia in 50 years,” the business executive who has been part of the project since inception said in an email interview.

“There were a lot of people within the industry that simply didn’t believe we could pull this off. So before opening we had to spend a lot of time convincing industry and government that we were credible and that we had the means to achieve what we were saying we could. Whether by good management or good luck, we didn’t encounter a lot of problems when we first opened up. Of course we had the odd minor teething problems any new business would encounter, however, overall the first 12 months of operations went reasonable well,” he added.

Apart from Qantas which provides flights between Toowoomba and Sydney, Airnorth also flies in the area to Melbourne and Cairns. There is also Regional Express which serves multiple areas in regional Queens-lands.

Australian Air Cargo Hub

Located about 120-km west of Brisbane, Toowoomba is the second largest inland city in Australia second to the capital Canberra.

It is the gateway to Darling Downs, one of Australia’s largest food producing regions specializing in cattle and fresh produce. With rich volcanic soil, Toowoomba is also situated on top of the great dividing mountain range with a different climate to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.

With so much fresh produce and other natural resources to share, the Wagners saw the need to build a reliable route to transport passengers and goods in a fast reliable way.

“The reason for building the airport was based around a number of different needs. The fact was that as Australia’s second largest inland city with a population of 165,000 people and a greater catchment of 334,000 people, it was bizarre that we did not already have a commercial passenger airport,” said Gregory.

“There was also a demand from the existing exporters who were putting their produce on trucks and sending them to capital cities to be airfreight,” he added.

The third part of the equation, Gregory, explained is that the airport was built in the middle of a major business park – the Wellness Business Park – which effectively becomes the anchor tenant creating opportunities for aviation or logistics businesses in the area.

With Toowoomba heavily marketed for its ability to produce quality food products, there is high hope those can be exported not just within Australia but also in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

“International air cargo is our next big thing. Our domestic passenger services are steadily growing now and are on track to where we expected to be by now. The next step for us is to kick of scheduled cargo services,” said Gregory.

The executive said the manag-ement is now in “discussions with a number of airlines to begin scheduled freighter services.

“It is well known that Cathay Pacific did a trial flight using the Hong Kong Trader B747-8F freighter which was very successful,” said Gregory. “I’m confident that we will announce a scheduled service into Asia this calendar year. We are also in early discussions on cargo services into other regions including the Middle East.”

Gregory described Toowomba as “export ready.” Its main products include live cattle, chilled beef, goats, milk, milk powder, fresh produce such as salads and vegetables, horses, and various livestock semen.

“And we also have a strong mining sector which exports mining equipment,” he noted.

“Our region is export ready now and already exporting through other airports. There are genuine savings for the airlines to reducing flying time by coming to Wellcamp instead of the capital cities, there are savings for the truck companies that deliver the produce to the airport, so everyone is a winner,” he added.

So even though our scheduled cargo services have not yet started, we are extremely confident that they will in the coming months and in time Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport will become a major Australian cargo hub.

Driven to Succeed:

Phil Gregory
General Manager -Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport

Despite his young age, Phil Gregory has successfully etched a name for himself in Australia’s competitive business environment.

With proven track record to manage people and run multiple businesses, he was entrusted to become part of the country’s first privately-funded multi-million airport project, now the envy of other jurisdictions wanting to join the vast international aviation and cargo industry.

Air Cargo Update dug deeper into the inside story of how Gregory turned from a business executive to an airport expert. Read on part of our interview.

Please give us a brief background about yourself?

I have been the general manager of Wellcamp Airport since conception, through construction and now the fully operational airport. My background is in business so I am reasonably new to the aviation industry. However, having the opportunity to be involved in the design, construction, and operations of a brand new airport does give me a unique perspective on the industry and of course exposed me to a lot that many in the industry may not have had the opportunity to be involved in.

What is your philosophy when it comes to managing people?

Be honest with them. Everyone works for the things that they do outside of work, so we all here for similar reasons and we all have similar motivations. I believe 99% of people want to do the right thing and are trying to do their best. The trick is to help them to do that.

Did you see yourself managing an airport someday? How tough is this role?

No I never dreamt that I would one day manage an airport. I have always had an interest in aviation, however, it was never part of my career goals. That said, I absolutely love the role and get a buzz every time a new plane turns up here. It is a tough role at times. We are a brand new airport with fantastic infrastructure however along with that infrastructure comes an expectation of quick growth. We are in a fantastic location for an airport and so far are meeting all of our growth forecast, however, we always want to achieve more.

How many employees do you manage at the airport?

We currently have around 50 people working at the airport

How do you motivate them to keep on growing with the company?

We have a unique business model here. We run every part of the airport from ground handling, check in, security, refuelling, and even the café. So there are lots of opportunities for staff to experience different roles within the airport. In fact we actively encourage staff to learn multiple roles. For example, we have some staff that are trained in up to 3 different roles so today they might be in check in, tomorrow working in security, and the next day marshalling an aircraft as a ground handler. This gives them a lot of variety and different career paths.

Your aviation forecast for Toowoomba for the next five years?

Toowoomba is very much a new player in the aviation market. We do not see ourselves as competitors to the capital city airports, we see ourselves as a niche airport that can offer something different for the cargo airlines. As mentioned previously there are real savings in fuel burn alone for the cargo airlines to come to us rather than a capital city airport. Plus cargo will be a core focus of our business, which we know is sometimes not the case at other airports. Cargo is critical to our success so we will go the extra mile to work with our customers to make it work for them. That said, in 5 years time, I would hope that we have around 500,000 domestic passengers and daily international cargo services.