John Alexandrou spent 20 years of his working life in the automotive repair business and was a joint owner of a smash repair business he started with a mate in Currajong, Townsville.
He may still have been there if not for a debilitating illness which forced him to look for a less physical way to earn a crust.
“When I was ill I went through the CRS (Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service) and I actually did a profiling test to see what career path would suit me,” he said.
“It came up with something in chemistry – which was really, up to that point, something I had never thought about.”
The test proved spot on.
The Townsville resident is retiring this month (April 2018) after 25 years with Australian Laboratory Services.
As operations manager for ALS Australasia east, he manages laboratories in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania and oversaw the establishment of branches in Fiji and New Caledonia.
The company’s work includes analysing core and soil samples for mineral exploration projects as well as grade control and mill work for mineral processing.
Starting work with ALS was a light bulb moment, he says.
“When I first started, I just thought ‘this is me’. It suits me and I like the work and the analytical side of it,” Mr Alexandrou said.
“I progressed through the company fairly quickly, I guess because of that.
“Within a year I had gone from lab assistant to laboratory manager and really haven’t looked back since. Probably getting sick was one of the best things that ever happened to me, or I would never have gone in that direction.
“It’s just one of those things – it changed my life.”
To get there he studied part time through the University of Central Queensland and gained some work with CSIRO and GBRMPA before landing at ALS.
The painful rheumatoid arthritis that acted as a catalyst for the move is now under control.
Mr Alexandrou started at the Townsville laboratory but moved in 1993 to Charters Towers – a hive of mining activity, with sites including Mount Leyshon, Pajingo, Thalanga, Highway Reward, Rishton and Hadleigh Castle in operation.
“There was a fair bit going on in those days,” he said.
“I stayed there until about 2001 and at that time several of the mines had either closed or were in the process of winding up operations– Pajingo and Hiway Reward were pretty well the only two running, so ALS moved me back to Townsville to look after Townsville Laboratory.
“That was the bottom of one of our industry cycles. Exploration dropped right off so we actually closed the Charters Towers and Cloncurry Offices.
“I guess after about 18 months things started coming back and we opened a new laboratory in Mount Isa.”
One of the hardest things to deal with in his profession had been the boom and bust nature of the mining and exploration industry, he said.
“I have probably closed more laboratories than I have opened over the years. In the last 25 years I’ve probably seen four or five of those cycles.
“It’s not easy to deal with but to survive you cut right back and try to control expenditure and keep the business going until the cycle turns around.”
Letting people go was the toughest part.
But he believed much of the innovation in his industry had emerged from the lean times.
“A lot of the automation and a lot of the equipment and techniques have definitely been redeveloped through necessity,” Mr Alexandrou said.
Over the course of his career the technology has evolved from labs reporting small suites of elements in parts per million to reporting in some cases parts per trillion.
“Fairly recently we had a client who went back to a lot of old drilling samples and had them re-analysed using the new techniques, which cover a lot more elements and have much lower detection limits,” Mr Alexandrou said.
“They did quite a large study with the historical samples to try and identify drill targets, which they have.”
Modern techniques including Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrophotometer (ICPOES), inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICPMS), X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and hyperspectral imaging allowed laboratories to produce much more usable data within a similar timeframe to the older methods, Mr Alexandrou said.
“There is a lot more quality control now as well. A lot more testing and checking and certified reference material used, many more field duplicates etc.,, which didn’t necessarily happen as much 20 years ago,” he said.
“But nowadays if you want to have something that’s JORC compliant it’s just an integral part of the process, just something that has to be done.”
Mr Alexandrou’s experience has seen him develop a clear vision for sustaining contract services in a volatile market.
“I think it’s all about building and maintaining relationships, having confidence in your clients and your clients having confidence in you and the product you’re providing them,” he said.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of major projects over the years and it’s all about communication and providing quality service and having regular meetings and feedback sessions.”
“The very nature of the industry means the people you’re dealing with, either now or in the past, would inevitably turn up on another project down the track, having and maintaining a good relationship with these guys certainly helps” he said.
“It’s actually fairly common that you’ll come across people again on several different projects over the years, both here in Australia or different countries even and all of these relationships pick up where you left off,” he said.
Mr Alexandrou stressed the value of AusIMM as a means of keeping in touch with people in the industry.
“You really have to foster relationships,” he said. “You catch up with a lot of people at conferences etc. AusIMM have great events as does the AIG (Australian Institute of Geoscientists),” he said.
“We like to attend and sponsor those quite avidly when we can, It pays you back, it’s an investment”
“We like to meet the younger people AusIMM and AIG bring into the fold, we encourage them to bring those people around to our labs so we can show them around to help give them an understanding of what we do.”
Mr Alexandrou is on long service leave, transitioning into retirement in April. He plans a break to spend time with family.
“I will come back at some stage and do consulting once I’ve had a decent break,” he said.
“I want to stay in touch with things so I’ll be putting myself out there, maybe at the end of the year something like that.”
Although he regularly attends AusIMM events he has never joined the group as a member.
“But I might join now,” he laughs.