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- By Jock Serong, a novelist and freelance journalist who writes in the surfing, travel and literary media. He was the founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly and is senior writer at Surfing World magazine. His most recent novel is Preservation, based on the true story of the Sydney Cove shipwreck.
It’s unlikely you could be on an ACCIONA Geotech site for very long without meeting a Spokes - there’s plenty of them around. Emerging out of a western-district concreting dynasty a couple of decades ago, the family have quietly built a legacy within ACCIONA Geotech’s operations.
We got in touch with Corey Spokes during his lunch break at Southern Program Alliance (SPA), southeast of Melbourne. He works directly for Geotech: his brothers Damian and Gavin were also on the Geotech books in the past, but they’ve now got their own businesses. Damian owns Complete Shotcrete, while Gavin’s business, Subterranean Solutions, does the steelwork in preparation for shotcrete. Both are contracting to SPA, and both employ other family members on SPA, so they’re still part of the family, literally and figuratively.
“Damian was first in at Geotech,” Corey recalls, “but only three or four months ahead of me. He was telling me about the work - it was the Burnley Tunnel days - he gave me a phone number and it was Bede’s, and I rang it on the Monday or Tuesday, and I was at work by 6am that Friday. This was August 2000. I did nine or ten weeks in the tunnel, then went to Sydney for ‘possibly six months’ work’ which ended up being twenty-one months’ work. And ever since then, I’ve been working for the group around Melbourne.”
The Sydney work was Warragamba Dam, a small crew that did everything. “If you broke stuff, you fixed it yourself. Driving the truck, spraying the concrete, fixing steel: every day was a different discipline.” Damian and Gavin were with Corey at the start, before the brothers gradually started moving back to Victoria in 2002. It was during those years that the brothers went out on their own - Damian ten years ago and Gavin six. In his understated way, Corey’s clearly proud of the relationships they’ve established with their former employer: “It’s great that they’re still connected to Geotech.”
Although the majority of Corey’s work over the past 12-15 years has been in piling, more recently he’s been on the SPA project, helping organise the shotcrete and steel fixing, supervising grouting and “lots of other work.” Corey sounds laconic on the phone, and he maintains that as a supervisor, he’s good to work for: “I don’t yell or scream.” Nearing fifty now, he says he’s too old for the labour of shotcreting. “It’s very hard manual labour,” he says. “Compressed air, concrete getting blasted onto the wall. When it’s on, shotcreting’s really on. So I’m not on the tools - it’s more machinery work.”
Corey’s son Gabriel is twenty-two and working for uncle Damian’s Complete Shotcreting on the SPA occupation. “Gabe’s a carpenter from back in Colac,” Corey explains. “He worked for BDH down there. They got quiet, so he came to the city for the big bucks.”
It’s around now that a whiteboard and a marker might be useful. “Gavin’s got our sister’s son Caillin working for him,” Corey continues. “He’s a supervisor for Subterranean, and was also originally a carpenter. He’s been working at SPA too. And Damian’s son’s a computer guy.”
Corey’s got four sons: Noah now works for a drainage company around Colac, but had worked for Subterranean for a while when he was eighteen or nineteen. “Gabriel’s my third son. The other two: one’s in computers too, Isaiah - he also did a stint with Subterranean…and my eldest’s into land conservation. This sort of work’s not his forte.”
The extensive family connection to the ACCIONA Geotech group is such second nature to Corey that he has to stop and think when asked why it has persisted across generations and jobs. In the end, he settles for the consistency of the work. “Sure, construction has its ups and downs, but the work’s always here and it’s interesting.”
The Spokes family has been around Colac, mostly in the outlying hamlet of Elliminyt - since the 1850s. According to Corey, they settled there only five or six years after the place was founded.
The extended clan - 35-40 of them - make an annual family migration south to Glenaire, near Cape Otway, over Christmas/ New Year. Suddenly, there are no Spokeses on site. “We’ve been doing it ever since we were kids growing up at Elliminyt,” says Corey. “Fishing, camping, four-wheel-driving...we’re all pretty good at the camping side of it by now - solar panels, fridges, the whole thing. We catch bream in the Aire river estuary, trout further upstream. And we do a bit of beach fishing for salmon or a gummy if you’re lucky. We’re all in it together, so I guess the Spokeses take their leave simultaneously. It’s that time of year when the sector shuts down anyway, so it works.
“The SPA occupation’s got a few weeks left in it, I think. Then outside the track works, and I’ll be in other roles, not supervising. I’ve had a crack at lots of different areas of the Geotech business now. Mostly basements of high rises, tunnels. We’re in there in the early phases of the job: the civil guys prepare the area; we do our thing then we’re out and others like Subterranean and Complete follow us.”
Talking to us on his 44th birthday, Gavin Spokes is in the car, headed to the site at SPA. His memory of starting with Geotech was that he’d finished a geology degree at uni, and found that the mining industry was in one of its periodic slumps. “I couldn’t find work,” he says, “and Damian rang me and said ‘Mate, I’m off to Sydney with this spray crew - we could use another set of hands. Do you want to try shotcreting?’”
He jumped at the chance. “When do I start?” he asked. “Tomorrow. There’s a ute waiting for you at Brian’s place in Inverleigh.” Okay: let’s go to the whiteboard again. Brian Maguire is also a subcontractor to Geotech. “It’s quite incestuous,” laughs Gavin. “He’s married to our cousin. See, we have deep family history as stonemasons and concreters. We owned Colac Cement Products in the ‘70s. That went south in the drought of the early ‘80s, then our dad built concrete water tanks around Victoria and South Australia. I’m pretty sure Dad sold the moulds for the tanks to Brian at some point. He might still have them for all I know.”
Then there was Uncle Kevin, who owned a concrete plant in Apollo Bay. “He died in a truck crash, bless his soul,” Gavin mentions, before continuing the story. “So I guess we’ve always been around concrete and steel, since we were very young. However, it was Damian who always had the business acumen. When I was seven and he was nine we were dragging minnows from the lake in Colac and selling them for five bucks a bucket to the hordes of fishermen who’d come up from Melbourne; his idea, so we had cash to buy fishing tackle for ourselves. Corey’s much more mechanically-minded than us, so he tends to gravitate towards the machinery side of things. I guess I was more academically-minded so I went off to Uni. We’ve got a few bases covered within the family.
“It's been a long journey for us with Geotech and now ACCIONA, from Warragamba when it was all three of us there together. I took off travelling (somewhere along the way, Gavin was one of three founding Directors of a not-for-profit called Sharing Stories Foundation, and to his great pride it’s still going today), and whenever I came home, I’d ring Geotech and say ‘Hey, I’m in Sydney,’ or ‘I’m in Perth - do you have work for me?’ And they always did. It was great for me personally, because I loved exploring the world and there was always this base to come back to.”
Gavin recalls that one of Damian’s first jobs in his new business was with Geotech, on the South Morang rail cut, a project that was in some ways similar to SPA. Damian said to Geotech, “If I buy a pump will you take me on?” They liked the idea, so the next time Gavin came back from overseas, he found himself working for his brother, and for Geotech. Then life took an unexpected turn.
“One day I had a wall collapse on me,” Gavin says. “It was with some other contractor: the reo came down on me while I was spraying and injured my arm. It made me stop and think about doing something of my own in the industry, and Damian said ‘Do you want to run the steel arm of my business?’ I said ‘How about I set up my own company doing it, and subcontract to you?’ So I did. I set up Subterranean Solutions in October 2014. I couldn’t have asked for a better walk-up start than having my brother’s on-the-rise business to bring the jobs in the door. We must be doing something right, as we’re still cracking on now.”
Gavin counts himself thankful to be where he is professionally. “In this current situation, we couldn’t be much luckier, being able to sustain a living the way things are. The robustness of these businesses - it’s a great gift. We’re busy.”
He’s currently doing the Loreto Girls’ School project for Geotech, and another job on Punt Road Windsor. When he looks over what he and his brothers and nephews have achieved, he likes the idea of being a part of the wider ACCIONA Geotech family. He wonders how much the company has contributed to the local economy in their hometown of Colac, as there’s been “loads of blokes over the years come down from that way.”
Gavin’s known Bede and Andre Noonan for a long time now. “They know we’ll do a job well, and we know we’ll get paid – and that’s not always a given in our industry. Heaps of guys I’ve known for over twenty years now are all part of this system created by the Noonans et al. In amongst those are people like Danny Dugina, the original shotcreter, who taught us all a lot over the years and although he’s retired, he still gets the odd call for a slice of advice.
“I’ve always admired ACCIONA Geotech’s willingness to innovate. They’re definitely leaders in a tricky environment. They’re highly specialised contractors - it’s far from glamorous work, but they push the boundaries of what’s possible. I recall some time back Corey was involved in a combined research project with the University of Melbourne where they were drilling these deep piles and running pipes with water down to depth and back up again to see if they could use the ambient temperature of the ground to both cool and heat buildings. No one else does that kind of stuff!
“It goes to show - even working in the mud, you can push the boundaries. They’re just good people.”