When Mick and Sonya Horsburgh started their business Tubeworx in 2009, it was just the two of them bending tubes by hand in their Clontarf workshop.
Almost 14 years later, it has grown to a team of 25 and the tubes they are bending are used in Australian Defence Force vehicles including personnel carriers and F35 joint strike fighters, as well as heavy mining machinery and marine craft.
Decades of experience have brought the couple to this point. Mick was in the Navy for 11 years in the marine engineering branch.
When he left the Navy, he bought a hydraulic hose mobile repair franchise before starting his own mobile van service which focused more on automotive repairs.
One of his customers was a motor dealership where Sonya worked. She became his bookkeeper before they went into business together for 10 years.
Their combined experience teamed perfectly during that first decade and came to the fore when they started Tubeworx.
“We were asked by a customer to bend automotive brake lines they had one of their workers bending them by hand and they didn’t want to continue doing it. Sonya and I said, ‘we’ll investigate it and have a look at it and see how we can do it’,” Mick recalls.
“We basically started bending them by hand ourselves until we worked out a process of buying a tube bender from overseas and then we were able to bend them automatically, which led us into other things and that’s where the business has really grown from.”
Sonya says they still work with the same types of customers they did 14 years ago, but they have been able to diversify their business by investing in new technology.
“The original customers were a combination of automotive and hydraulic customers, which is still our strong market today, but we just have a lot more of them and bigger customers,” Mick says.
“We’re making products for the Army’s new light-armoured personnel carrier and F35 strike fighters. All these things have tubes on them, so for us, what they do doesn’t really matter. We’re still bending tubes. If you look at a tank or a light armoured personnel carrier, it’s still a vehicle at the end of the day.”
It has taken hard work and long hours to build the business and they are grateful to have a dedicated team around them.
“The first factory was over in Redcliffe Gardens Drive and I remember one Saturday night … it must have been about 11.30pm, in the middle of winter and we’re there hand-bending brake lines. I think we had to bend 60 brake lines … we were up to about number 58 and we went to bend it and it went horribly wrong. We looked at each other and said, ‘what are we doing’?” Mick recalls.
It was at that point, they took a leap of faith and bought a machine to make the process more automated and less labour-intensive.
“We probably made the decision quite early, within the first 12 months, to invest quite heavily in the right equipment and from there you keep investing in really good equipment to make the products as fast and as easy and accurately as you can,” Sonya explains.
The couple did not plan to grow the business but say it has developed a momentum of its own and they have just had to roll with it. They have just invested $150,000 in a 3D laser scanner to speed up their processes and ensure accuracy.
“The business is going to keep growing, year-on-year, especially on the defence side of things. It is a great business, it has a great team and anything’s possible,” Mick says.
“Do we have a plan? No, we’ve never had a plan.”
Sonya says they are self-taught and she even learnt to program the machines. Her husband says she is the smartest person on the factory floor and had earnt her role as a woman in manufacturing and on the committee for Regional Development Australia (RDA) Moreton Bay.
“I used to bend all the tubes. Customers would come in and I’d be holding onto a 6m length of heavy tube, bending it on my own and the guy would be saying, ‘is she OK? Does she need a hand’ and Mick would say, ‘no, she’s fine’,” Sonya says laughing.
Manufacturing in Australia has had its challenges, but the tide is turning and there is more demand than ever for products and components made here as supply chains falter and shipping becomes difficult.
Mick says the Australian manufacturing industry is low-volume, high-variety and it’s the opposite overseas.
He says manufacturers need to service more customers on a lower volume to get a return on investment, which takes longer.
The couple believe their biggest achievement has been building a strong team.
“I’d have to say our biggest achievement is creating those local jobs. Even though we didn’t deliberately go out to create jobs, we know that there’s 25 other people here that come here for their livelihoods. Even though it’s a big responsibility, it is a big achievement,” Mick says.
And then there’s the amazing machinery that relies on their tubes to function.
“The F35 strike fighter … we make tubes for the avionics cooling systems. They are the world’s most advanced fighter jet and the tubes are being made here in Clontarf. That to me is mind-boggling,” he says.
“It’s not our biggest dollar value job, they’re only little tubes but every time I see them, because I know where they’re going, I think ‘that’s crazy’.”