22 August 2022

Kelaher Industrial Services embracing Aboriginal heritage and creating work pathways in North West NSW

Born and raised in Wee Waa, in North West NSW, Kayla Kelaher is the founder and managing director of Kelaher Industrial Services (KIS) – a successful Aboriginal business servicing the mining and other industries across North West NSW, where one of her largest clients is Whitehaven Coal.

While Kayla grew up in an area with a large Indigenous community, she didn’t know she was Aboriginal growing up.

“I wear my Aboriginal heritage proudly – it’s a significant part of my family’s history,” said Kayla. “I think it’s important to share my story for other young Aboriginal people to see that you can start a business and do whatever you want in life.”

Before establishing her own business, Kayla’s early career saw her travelling across the country with her husband, Mitch Kelaher, as they undertook fly in fly out (FIFO) work for mining companies in Perth and Mackay. This enabled Kayla to hone her expertise in administrative and finance roles, while Mitch worked as an electrician.

In 2015, the pair moved back to North West NSW and Mitch launched his own business, Kelaher Instrumentation and Electrical (KIE), which supplies electricians on a contract basis to mines across the region. Never one to sit back and watch the action, Kayla was actively involved in the early stages of KIE as the couple relished the new challenge and the greater flexibility it provided.

After helping KIE to successfully grow, Kayla decided to kick start her own business in 2020. Reflecting on the decision, Kayla said she saw a gap in the market and took the opportunity to get ahead.

“I wanted something to sink my teeth into and saw there was an avenue on the commissioning and mechanical side of things, so I set up Kelaher Industrial Services to provide a broad range of trade and skilled workers to mines across the region,” she said.

“I’m not a boilermaker or a tradie but I understand the administrative, financial and human resources side and I’ve been able to get the right people who do have those other skills.”

“We started with only three employees and in just a few years the business has grown to 42, which has been hectic to say the least! We have always tried to stay as personal as we can with our staff and are very hands on. We try to get to know each other and let them know we’re all in this together.”

This management attitude has helped KIS not only hire but retain tradespeople. The company has put a big focus on supporting locals, with the majority of the 42 employees coming from Gunnedah, Tamworth and surrounds.

Kayla said KIS’s customers are now coming from an increasingly wide range of industries, including mining, agriculture, and commercial.

“Our motto is – we never really say no. If you come to us and need a trade we try to make it happen. We have the flexibility to look at different trades and industries, and we aim to go above and beyond the competition.”

When KIS launched, Kayla’s goal was to secure a mechanical contract with Whitehaven, and recently the team secured not one but two mechanical contracts – for Whitehaven’s smaller open-cut mines and its Maules Creek mine.

“It was a big thing for us,” said Kayla. “It’s taken some time to get the business to where it is now but we’re incredibly proud to have secured these contracts and to be working with Whitehaven on an ongoing basis.”

Kayla is also proud and passionate about the opportunity KIS has to be a leader in the local community.

“Obviously KIS has always been an Aboriginal business,” she said. “Now we have a great opportunity to connect with the business side of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. To be able to show others that you can start a business and be successful is important, and it’s given me something new to really drive our business into the future.”

“We have recently registered with Supply Nation and that’s given me even more avenues to connect other Indigenous businesses – to get inspiration from others’ journeys, to learn and share ideas.

“Now, a key future priority for us at KIS is to open more pathways to get young Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people into our workforce at KIS.”

Developing these pathways is a key area of focus for KIS as it continues to grow, including into new industries and trades.

Whitehaven is proud of the role it has played in supporting KIS as part of its long-term commitment to local and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment and procurement.

This commitment is formalised through Whitehaven’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which includes ambitious but realistic targets that the company continues to make steady progress against.

In FY22, Whitehaven increased its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander procurement spend to $8.73 million across 14 suppliers and it looks forward to continuing to play a role in the success of local businesses like Kelaher Industrial Services.

Pictured: Kayla Kelaher, Director, Kelahers Group

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