This year, Fraser Alexander will be celebrating its centennial year of operation. With a deep and rich history of providing quality services, the company is known across Africa to be amongst the best service providers to mining companies. In celebration of the centennial, we spoke to Phil Blewett, the company’s Marketing Manager.

TABJ: Tell us about the history of Fraser Alexander

PHIL BLEWETT: 2012 heralds 100 years since the founding of Fraser Alexander by the cousins Fraser and Fred Alexander on the gold rich Witwatersrand.

Lured by the great Kimberly diamond rush, the Alexander family emigrated from the Island of St Helena in 1870 and settled in Kimberly. Thus the Cousins Fraser and Fred grew up in the wild west days of claim staking in the Kimberly Diamond fields. In 1886 at the age of 21 Fraser and his cousin moved north to the Witwatersrand where Fraser taught himself the art of cyaniding gold from the Reef rocks, and then the art of fine milling using the Reef itself as a milling agent in the tube mills of the time. Fraser also went on to develop a technique for building slimes dams that became the industry standard for more than half a century. This bent for innovation and hard work soon established him as a leader in the development and management of residue from the booming gold mines on the Witwatersrand Reef around Boksburg.

While Fraser Alexander initially started as an entrepreneurial family run business, over time the “Family” was replaced by professional managers, and grew its service offering beyond that of Tailings dam management to include the construction of these facilities as well as Bulk Materials Handling and Mineral Processing. In 2005 the Company was acquired by Royal Bafokeng Holdings.

TABJ: What products and services do you bring to the marketplace today?

PB: The Company was initially founded to provide a tailings disposal service to the then fledging Witwatersrand gold mining industry. Today our group value proposition captures the essence of our core business: a global leader in delivering innovative solutions and infrastructure for moving, managing and adding value to minerals, waste and water. In short the Company’s core business is the conversion of a mineral resource into saleable inventory for the Mineral Resource owner.

TABJ: What have been your most lucrative contacts? How has the organisation evolved in Africa?

PB: The Company is honoured and proud to have all the major companies operating in the African mining space as its clients. We also work with many of the mid-tier and some junior companies. Each of our clients is important to us, and no one contact or operation can be singled out as being the most lucrative.

Our founding characteristics related to innovation, attention to detail, safety and delivery without excuses has provided the platform for the ever increasing demand for our services resulting in operations being set up in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso as well as Chile and Australia, and more recently Brazil.

Today the Company operates and manages close to 200 tailings dams in the Precious and Base metals, as well as Coal sectors, and is also engaged in the re-mining (Hydro-sluicing) of approximately 2million tons/month of tailings material on numerous mining sites in most regions in which we operate. Our Minerals Processing division operates and maintains a number of coal and precious metals processing facilities, and our Construction Division tackles civil infrastructure development projects, pipeline and landfill construction and specialised pollution control civil works, while our Bulk Mech division specialises in the handling of both hot and cold bulk materials. We also operate and maintain close to 100 water and sewage treatment facilities on various mining sites, and are active in the disciplines of pollution control and rehabilitation.

TABJ: How have changes in the industry imported your business in the last 5 years?

PB: The mining sector’s contribution to the South African economy has been shrinking steadily in the recent years. The reasons for this are mainly economic while also political.

Deep-level mining is becoming increasingly costly and dangerous. High energy and other operational costs are eroding margins. Add to this the uncertainty of our political arena and the continued veiled references to nationalisation sees South Africa becoming a less and less attractive country for investment in what is truly a growing global industry. One can see this in the visible decline in Fixed Direct investment over the past 10 or so years.

The Fraser Alexander drive to become smarter and more innovative at delivering solutions that create value to our client’s mining and processing operations in South Africa will remain central to our strategy. In addition we continually explore opportunities to diversify our “solutions” offering beyond Bulk Materials handling, Mineral Processing and facility management and Civil Construction in line with the market’s needs. A number of new breakthroughs in this regard are in the pipeline and will emerge during our centennial year.

We are also focusing on increasing our Global footprint as we diversify geographically as well as in the scope of solutions we can provide to our ever expanding client base in Africa and beyond. To the Americas, Australia and where opportunity may take us.

TABJ: What are some advantages to choosing your company?

PB: In the mining service industry, decision cycles have to be short. Our Regional Managers are empowered to make choices when they are faced by challenges in the field, and implement these without reference elsewhere. Often these solutions are highly innovative and creative, thereby not only solving the problem, but adding value to our Clients operations. Our decentralised Management teams across South Africa, into Africa and increasingly globally create the environment whereby they feel that they are part “owners” of the business.

This culture of “ownership”, built on trust and the empowerment of our people, is tailored to facilitate innovation and fast response coupled to an interdepartmental collaborative environment whereby we are able to maximise on our wide range of skills and experience to unlock synergies that facilitate optimal solutions. These attributes not only make us the preferred solutions provider to the wider mining industry both locally and abroad, it also enables us to attract and retain some of the best skill available in the 21st century to the Fraser Alexander Family.

Personnel Safety is a prime and prerequisite requirement within the Mining Industry. Within all of our Divisions, Safety is a non-negotiable core focus of our business, and today Fraser Alexander has the best safety record in the mining services industry, winning a number of prestigious awards from many of our Blue Chip clients in recent years.

TABJ: Do you have any plans for expansion in this region or internationally?

PB: As indicated we have already expanded some of our businesses into a number of regions in Africa, being now active in 9 Countries beyond the borders of South Africa. While much of this expansion has been focused on our Tailings Management and Hydro-sluicing Business to date, we will be building from this base to establish hubs in a number of identified regions in African, and beyond, from which to expand and introduce our other business units. Prime to this expansion drive will be to embed the “Fraser Alexander way” in whatever we do, and by exporting this to wherever our existing and new clients may need us, is what will ensure a sustainable future for the Company, its people, the communities we work with and its shareholders, the Bafokeng Nation.

Also as mentioned we do have operations in Chile and Australia, and are presently pursuing further opportunities in both South and North America, as well as other territories of Australia. We are also exploring opportunities in Eastern Europe and Asia.

TABJ: What have been the technological breakthroughs that have most helped your operations?

PB: The innovative spirit of our founder, Fraser Alexander, is still very much a hallmark of the business of today. This coupled with a focus on operational safety has lead to a number of innovative and sustainable developments in many of our operational activities and work-flows.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to turn the clock back to the very early 1900’s to a time before centrifugal pumps became commonplace and Fraser had the challenge of lifting slurry from one elevation to another. Borrowing from the concept of the water wheel, the tailings wheel was conceived. The tailings wheel, driven externally, collected the slurry from a flume at ground level – level 1- and through the rotary motion of the wheel, the buckets lifted it to discharge into a flume about two thirds of the wheel diameter higher – level 2 – from where it could flow into tanks within the reduction works.

In more recent years, and with the focus being more towards the safety and well being of our people, a number of significant operational process advances have been developed in-house:

1. Self Propelled Cyclone unit for high volume Tailings Deposition.

These globally unique self-propelled cyclone units (SPCU’s) were developed to address the particular issues associated with HIGH TONNAGE tailings deposition operations, optimising cost savings, productivity and site safety, while also reducing environmental impact, thus presenting a truly viable alternative to traditional methods.

Tailings deposition methods affect how the tailings deposit and settle within the impoundment. Up until now, when cyclones have been harnessed in the deposition process, this has typically been approached using a multi-deposition point where the cyclones operated in banks. A typical challenge associated with this method, however, is moving the numerous cyclones around the site, and the associated safety risks.

Cyclone deposition can also take place via a single deposition point where a cluster of cyclones is deployed at a certain spot. The challenge with this method is that the massive cyclone cluster still needs to be moved around the site posing even greater risks to personnel.

These challenges prompted the development and building of the SPCU to overcome the mobility question, but suitable for large tailings dams where the cyclone multi-deposition point method would otherwise be extremely complex. The introduction of the SPCU opens up an exciting new alternative when handling high tonnages of tailings. In addition to cost reduction benefits associated with building larger tailings dams, the remotely controlled and Self Propelled Cyclone Unit creates a safer environment for the operational personnel, while having a single point of deposition makes for better geotechnical output compared with a multi-stage approach at this level of tonnage deposition.

2. Ejector trailers

Traditionally coarse coal discard material is transported to, and out loaded at, the discard dump site using Articulated Dump Trucks (ATD’s). The heaps of dumped material are then levelled the spread across the surface of the dump using dozers or graders ahead of compaction with heavy duty rollers. Until the work area is fully compacted it is inclined to rutted and undulating. A typical challenge associated with this method is therefore the stability of the ADT unit while tipping and moving within the discharge zone at the top of the dump with the bin in the extended (up position). Our operation and technical teams put their heads together, and came up with the Fraser Alexander ejector trailer.

The ejector trailer is a rigid body flatbed unit, i.e. non-tipping, and also pulled by a horse or tractor unit. The trailer body has been designed to incorporate a full width conveyer belt at the base. A head board is fastened to the conveyor belt at the cab side of the trailer. The material is loaded into the trailer bin and lies on the conveyer belt. The conveyor/head board system is hydraulically powered and is operated from the cab by the operator with a lever. The hydraulic motor and gearbox are secured to a drum around which the conveyor belt is rolled when the motor is activated.

When the system is activated, the headboard is pulled backwards by the conveyor belt, pushing the material out at the rear of the trailer while the unit is in motion. The tailgate opens simultaneously with the activation of the system. The when the headboard reaches the end of the bin, the action is reversed returning the headboard to the cab end of the trailer and simultaneously closes the tailgate, and the unit continues along the circuit for the next load of material.

The development and deployment of the ejector trailer has eliminated the use of tipper truck units for this task, and therefore the risk of toppling while discharging. This has also resulted in a lowering in capital expenditure and a significant increase in productivity and a reduction in operating cost. Furthermore with the material being ejected while the unit is in motion, a uniform layer of discard is deposited along the “route”, eliminating the need for a grader or dozer to spread the material before it can be compacted.

Over the years our highly qualified experts within each of our operating divisions have developed many other innovative improvements to the work flow, far too many to mention here. Each in its own unique way has reduced operating cost, and significantly improved operational safety and efficiency. At Fraser Alexander we cultivate an environment where employees become entrepreneurs by way of fostering an “ownership” culture that is tailored to facilitate innovation and fast response through specialisation and collaboration within and between the divisions.

TABJ: In the near-future, what direction do you see Fraser Alexander heading in? What will your company’s priorities be?

PB: We have set ourselves significant growth and expansion targets for the next 5 years. That is expansion in terms of service offerings and geographic footprint. The next 12 -18 months will see us moving up the challenging growth trajectory that has been set in place. This growth will also see a number of new initiatives currently in the pipeline seeing the light of day, adding to efficiency improvements, reducing costs and enhancing market expansion.

Our Corporate strategic objective is to grow the Group to have a balanced portfolio of  interdependent businesses positioned strategically in the mining value chain, generating sustainable revenue growth.

Needless to say, this cannot be achieve if we lose sight of the importance of our clients and our tradition and continued commitment to add value to their businesses. This, like our commitment to safety, is a non-negotiable for all of us that make up the Fraser Alexander family!