They weren’t exactly boom times when Charles Howarth started his career at the Herrenknecht subsidiary in Australia. But he successfully built up a team of experts for the German company on the other side of the globe. To this day, he and his team are the bridge between continents and time zones. Encounter with a tunnelling pioneer who likes clearing obstacles out of the way.
Extreme heat, long distances and the enormous geographical remoteness from global hubs: living and working in Australia can be quite demanding. "We don't have the access to goods and services you do in places like Europe, Asia and America," says Charles Howarth, Head of Herrenknecht's Australian subsidiary. "To do business here you need to be resilient and resourceful.” That, he says, characterizes people down under anyway: the art of turning adversity into opportunities.
At a minimum, there is always the Indian Ocean between his country and the rest of the world. "If a TBM component fails in Europe, the Herrenknecht factory is nearby in Germany, you can arrange quickly a new part or, if it’s not available, Herrenknecht Headquarters can manage via closely supported network of sub-supplier’s in the region," says Howarth. "If you don’t already have the part in Australia, your next chance might be Singapore." The consequences are a lot of organizational effort and long delivery times, but also people who learn to improvise on location: "One time, a rubber hose between the slurry pump and the slurry pipe of a running TBM tore," recalls the 46-year-old. "A pretty simple part, but not available anywhere." So he ordered the hose from a TBM 900 kilometers away that had not been assembled yet and had a replacement delivered to the jobsite there.
To Germany and back
Howarth knows life on both sides of the ocean. In the Nineties, he came to Germany with his wife to design probe drilling and bolting rigs assemblies for an Australian Herrenknecht supplier and to manage the joint projects. Back then, he flew from an Australian summer at 36 degrees Celsius directly into a harsh Central European winter. "When I landed, everything was icy and thick fog covered the landscape," he recalls. "I also had a tough time with German." But Howarth wouldn't have been who he was if he hadn't struggled through back then. He supported Herrenknecht projects from Europe to the Middle East and helped design the TBM for the Gotthard Base Tunnel. He learned to love the very different seasons in Europe - and opened an office in Offenburg for his company at the time.
After his wife gave birth to their first son in the Lahr hospital in 2004, the calls of the grandparents in Australia started. After the birth of their second son in 2006, calls grew louder: the couple should finally come back together with the grandchildren. So it was perfect timing when Herrenknecht won the contract a year later for CLEM7, the construction work on the Clem Jones Tunnel in Brisbane, Queensland. Having proved himself as a project manager on location, Howarth was asked to build up a team for the Australian Herrenknecht subsidiary in Brisbane.
Always on call
The 2008 global economic crisis also shook the Australian construction industry and was the next major hurdle Herrenknecht had to overcome. "We were lucky the order for Brisbane Airport Link came in while CLEM7 was still running," he says today. It ensured work for the next three and a half years. "This enabled us to gain a foothold in Australia."
In the thirteen years since, Howarth and his colleagues have managed numerous large-scale projects in Australia and New Zealand, including Legacy Way in Brisbane, Waterview in Auckland and Forrestfield-Airport Link in Perth. Because the time difference from Schwanau in Germany is up to twelve hours to Auckland in New Zealand, Charles Howarth's cellphone is never in sleep mode – and he himself hardly ever has time off. “I find it hard to switch off," he says with a laugh. "When my body is resting, sometimes my brain is still at work on the jobsite.” Regular bike rides with his sons and long jogs through the neighborhood are all the more important to him as a result. There he can really go at it and clear his head.
Once a year, he takes his family inland to his parents' farm at Bathurst. They usually spend a few days there around Christmas, far away from their electronic devices and the hustle and bustle of the big city. Here his boys can ride their bikes, explore the river landscape and roam the bush (forests). Then Charles Howarth takes a break too. Or you could say: he gets ready for the next tasks.