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Queensland Indigenous advanced manufacturer steering in the right direction

09 November 2020

Michael McMillan’s Townsville-based mechanical engineering consultancy has evolved into a successful advanced manufacturing business – Australian Expedition Vehicles (AEV).

As a young Indigenous lad raised by his mother and grandmother in the rural New South Wales town of Trangie, Michael McMillan left school at 15. He eventually joined the army with no clue that he would become not only a Senior Engineer, but a highly successful advanced manufacturing entrepreneur and regional thought leader.

Michael’s mother and grandmother instilled in Michael and his four siblings a committed belief in the importance of higher education. Michael says it is thanks to his grandmother’s insistence that education was the way to become the best person he could be that he was able to obtain a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Masters in Vehicle Design (only available through  the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom). Michael then went on to become a Defence Force Senior Engineer.

Leaving the army after 30 years of service Michael says was a challenge – yet he turned his feelings of loss and isolation around. He went on to establish a Townsville-based mechanical engineering consultancy which evolved into a successful advanced manufacturing business – Australian Expedition Vehicles (AEV).

AEV modifies vehicles to increase their gross mass, or carrying capacity. The business employs six people and is a fully accredited Supply Nation Enterprise, that is a 100 per cent Indigenous owned entity.

Michael says he is also committed to employing veterans, not only because he understands the loss of purpose they may feel, but because he likes the way an ex-army mind ticks.

“We are an institutionalised bunch and very process and procedure focused, so in my business I want my employees to be on the same page. I have a plan and system for everything.

“The army gave me a great deal, and employing other veterans is also a way of saying thanks. I know not only how difficult it is when you leave, but also the benefits in having someone believe in you,” he adds.

To take his business to the next level and gain a competitive edge over his intestate rivals, Michael applied for and was successful in gaining a $125,000 Queensland Government grant.

The cash injection comes via the government’s $135 million Manufacturing Hubs Grant program and will enable AEV to purchase an autonomous steering robot from the United Kingdom. The new equipment gives the company an upper hand and allows it to test the electronic control systems of the vehicles it modifies.

Michael says that previously the testing could only be conducted in Victoria. At $20,000 per vehicle model, this was a costly undertaking that slowed down turn-over.

He acknowledges that the grant has accelerated not only the production capacity of his company but also his company’s revenue opportunities.

“I only ever operate on a cash model so we would have to save for each vehicle testing procedure. Not only am I now able to test vehicles modified by my own business, I have also created a supplementary income through testing vehicles for other manufacturers so that they don’t have to rely on the Victorian facility. And thanks to the new equipment we will end up two years ahead of our production schedule,” he added.

Queensland’s manufacturing industry employs more than 165,000 people and has contributed about $20 billion a year to the state’s economy across the past decade. Thanks to the state government’s cash injection, AEV will add three new employees to this number, appointing an engineer, safety officer and fabricator, while also upskilling an existing staff member.

Michaels said that it is important to develop the leaders and doers that facilitate Indigenous businesses growth.

“Indigenous businesses are diverse and represent many sectors within the spectrum of businesses. Showcasing the diverse nature of these businesses is important, so that mainstream customers and businesses can see the value that an Indigenous business can provide to them.

“Queensland Indigenous businesses are not unique nor separate from the other opportunities that an Indigenous business can provide to the customer base, but they are best placed to support the local outcomes that build regional growth and support infrastructure within the regional contexts,” he said.

Michael concluded that for other Indigenous businesses going forward the best advice was to understand the landscape that they looked to operate within and to surround the group with great mentors.

“It is a crazy journey and well worth the effort,” Michael concluded.