Company hones in on attitude

Nineteen-year-old Ella Nelson didn’t think she stood a chance, when she applied to be a forklift operator with AB Lime.

Ella comes from a family of farmers and machinery operators and was consciously applying for jobs in agricultural machinery. But all she was getting back was a steady stream of “thanks, but no thanks” emails.

“I was surprised when I got the call from AB Lime and assumed it was a token interview. But they were really approachable and easy to talk to. They were less worried about my skills and more interested in my attitude.”

AB Lime is the South Island’s largest lime quarry, supplying 220,000 tonnes of agricultural lime annually and distributing Ballance Agri-Nutrients. The business also owns and operates a 950-cow dairy farm and Southland’s landfill facility – all from its Winton base. It employs up to 40 people, depending on the time of year, with 32 full-time staff.

The company immediately put Ella through her forklift licence and, 10 short months later, she’s operating a $1.7 million surface miner machine. At 50T, it’s the largest surface miner ever to operate in New Zealand. 

“I love my job – operating machinery, getting out there and learning and bettering myself everyday. I’m really proud to work for AB Lime and grateful for the opportunity. I see myself having a career in this industry.” 

A few months earlier to Ella fellow 19-year-old Abbey Loveridge started with the company as a trainee digger operator. Growing up on a dairy farm with a digger-happy father meant she had done her time operating the controls, cleaning out drains and scraping lanes. “I was super excited when I got the job. I really enjoy big machinery and being outside.”

Now, there isn’t a piece of machinery at the quarry that Abbey can’t operate, including Ella’s surface miner. Abbey: “I want to be someone that’s versatile and can work all the machinery.”

Asked about the best part of her job, Abbey says: “It’s a cool workforce. We have banter and fun, but we are serious about our jobs and keeping people safe.”

Both Abbey and Ella are studying towards their B Grade Quarry Manager certificates, which will qualify them to manage smaller quarries (up to four staff).

AB Lime is owned by three experienced quarry business families and general manager Steve Smith has been with the company for 10 years.

Originally from Waikaka, Steve began his career as an accountant (albeit for only a matter of months, before he fled screaming from the building) and IT project manager. Before joining AB Lime, he spent seven years with a large electronics manufacturing company, working with teams across five countries.

Steve says AB Lime’s Human Resources (HR) approach is simple. “We’re trying to create an oasis that’s calm, kind, caring – that means for people and the environment. It’s about being a compassionate business.”

How does this approach fit alongside maximising returns? “As a company, what we do, we do very well. The owners want to make a reasonable return, but they are very forward thinking and open minded, when it comes to HR.”

AB Lime has used consultant Melissa Vining for the past eight years – initially to help formulate a meaningful health and safety strategy, post Pike River.

“In that time, we have come to believe that you can’t ‘train’ someone’s attitude, but you can train their skills. Our HR strategy is about picking on attitude, rather than cv. We’re looking for good people – nice, friendly, enthusiastic people that we all want to be around in day-to-day life.”

Health and safety actions are led by the staff, rather than by management. “Ten people spend four hours on a Tuesday afternoon talking health and safety, then they go back to their departments with homework. We have a range of slogans the staff have come up with, such as ‘See it, say it’ and ‘Arrive together, work together, leave together’. 

Steve says the HR policy is also about betterment of the quarrying industry. “We invest a lot in people and, if they move on to another company, that still betters them and our industry.”

Ella in the surface miner