Cablex finds space in offshore markets

| November 9, 2010

Adapt to survive and thrive could be the motto for Melbourne-based company Cablex, which traded telecoms for the space race and built a multi-million dollar business.

Nearly 30 years ago Michael Zimmer was working as an apprentice when he stumbled upon a gap in the engineering market.

“He saw a niche for cable assemblies (to deliver data to large machinery), so he went out and started Cablex. Michael started the business from his bedroom and later moved into the family garage,” Heidi Arebs, Cablex General Manager says.

Neither Zimmer nor wife Krebs had a background in electronics or engineering, but hard work and perseverance has driven the company’s success.

“It was all learnt on the ground, we just worked day and night to build it up. We’ve employed people that are in a lot of ways, smarter than us.”

For nearly two decades telecommunications was the core focus. But as the telecoms industry began to gravitate to low-cost base countries like China, it was clear Cablex would need to shift direction if it was going to survive.  

“We looked at other opportunities in major projects, defence, transport and trains, and we’ve been investing in these areas for some years now. Changing from telecoms into transport and rolling stock meant a lot of risk and investment.”

The strategic gamble paid off.  Cablex now employs 140 staff and records annual revenues of more than $15 million.

Headquarters in Melbourne are supported by sites in Brisbane, India and the United States, and an alliance in China.

Cracking the export market

A limited domestic aerospace market has forced Cablex to push its product offshore.  

“70 per cent of our business is aerospace, and 60 per cent of that is export. Transport and telecoms make up the remainder,” Krebs says.

Krebs says the government has lent a hand by advocating its capabilities to interested buyers and linking Cablex with export opportunities. Industry bodies such as the Industry Capability Network have also helped the company secure contracts. 

Cablex’s international success was recognized by a commendation in the 2010 Governor of Victoria Export Awards.

 “When foreign companies come looking for suppliers, we are there. We also go to countries like India and France on trade missions to meet suppliers and such, which are very beneficial.”

Train to retain

Operating in high-tech, high-skill but locally underdeveloped industry means talent can be a headache for the company.  

“There is a skills shortage. We’ve brought out engineers on visas to lift the benchmark in terms of the work we’re doing,” Krebs says.

“Training our staff and reinvesting into our people is a big part of our business. The majority of people we employ need to be put through training, our engineers and technicians. We send people offshore for training and we have been supported by the government to train people in the aerospace area.”

The challenge is then how to hang on to talented employees. 

“Retaining staff is an issue. We look at their skill levels and try and move them up, into more challenging positions. There is a growing core group of people that are with us – and staying with us – with good skills and attitudes. The future for the company is very exciting, and that helps retain them,” Krebs says.

For more: Cablex

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