Christian Damstra never wanted a university education. He’s an ambitious man who picks up new skills easily, and who throws himself into new industries with relative ease, but academia was never his style. “I always wanted to be an electrical engineer, but I wanted to do it through practical means,” he says.
“I didn’t want to go to university and just be a textbook engineer; I wanted to be somebody who could do everything from the power point through to the engineering, and it’s been the same with all aspects of my career.” He believes that you can’t manage or improve on people and processes unless you have actively taken part in it yourself, which is perhaps why a management role in his father’s mining recruitment and human capital management firm appealed.
Having worked at the now-defunct Drayton Coal Mine for almost a decade, starting as an electrical apprentice before running the whole department for 5 years, he knew he had some practical wisdom to impart, but it wasn’t without its challenges. “Along comes the boss’s son. He’s the general manager now and he is younger than a lot of his employees. How do you handle that?” he says.
“To assist me there, I went and did my own open-cut examiner’s ticket, which is a very highly respected ticket in the mining industry and quite difficult to achieve. I haven’t used it a day in my life, but it showed people that I could get it and that I understood the work. I have been in the field, I have been on the tools, and I have an open-cut examiner’s ticket, so I am competent to not only direct people in their roles, but also to work alongside them.”
From mining to technology
After a few years, the company – formerly Damstra Mining Services – evolved to adopt new technology systems to better facilitate the management of skills, competencies and training data for its workforce. With the company’s systems becoming more sophisticated, Christian’s father sold the organisation to the Skilled Group, where it dropped the labour hire division and became an entirely technology-focused business.
“I agreed to stay on with Skilled Group as general manager of the Damstra division, on the provision that it would only be technology-focused. They agreed, so I spent the next nine-and-three-quarter years there, refining the technology and growing our services to suit markets outside of just mining,” says Christian.
In March 2016, the Skilled Group was going to be acquired by Programmed Facilities Management, so Christian approached Programmed with some investors and negotiated to buy back Damstra Mining Services. He became the CEO of the newly independent business, and renamed it Damstra Technology. Christian had 2 reasons for dropping the labour hire element of the business to pursue a purely technology-focused future: it was becoming clear that technology was the way of the future, but he was also aware of the burden of managing large workforces in often-dangerous environments.
“When you’ve got all those employees to keep safe, it keeps you awake at night. Now, instead, we are stressed about our computers shutting down, but at least a computer hasn’t got a family. We can replace it, we can repair it, and we can move forward.”
Despite not being a technology guru, Christian still places a strong emphasis on the application of practical experiences for developing the best human capital management and workforce systems. “Practicality is still extremely important to me. I’ve worked on mining sites, I’ve helped build a business, and now with technology I think it’s especially important to keep that practical view of things,” he says.
“I work with a lot of software developers who might say ‘this works’, but it doesn’t work for me. And if it doesn’t work for me, it is not practical; it is not realistic. It needs to flow well. I am not a software programmer, but I tell people how to write it so that it works the way the industry needs it to.
That is important, because most software comes from developers who are really clever, but they’ve never had industry experience.” As a result, Damstra Technology’s web-based Total Workforce Management System (TWMS) delivers a complete suite of service capabilities, with most developed as a direct response to clients’ needs.
These include Contractor Pre-Qualification, Online Inductions and Training, Skills and Competency Management, Asset Management and Equipment Tracking, Human Capital Management, Site and Access Control, Visitor Management, plus apps and other tools which enhance workforce visibility and control in the field. The system has proven itself so valuable that Damstra’s clientele has quickly grown to include over 11,000 companies across the telecommunications, manufacturing, construction, resource and utilities sectors.
Staying on top
Christian also still actively participates in more menial work, such as processing paperwork and verifying details, often using his spare time approving ID documents. “I sometimes sit at home on the weekends and approve photographs and driver’s licences, because I want to see what my staff are doing, and ask ‘Is there a better way for them to do this?’ The only way to know is to experience it firsthand,” he says.
As well as working hard to address unique challenges within the company’s serviced industries and learning to speak the same language as its clients, Christian says the technology race means Damstra is constantly evolving its offerings to keep up with the market, releasing one new product a week on average.
“It can be a minor update, or it can be something major, like the new fleet management system we just released,” he says. “Our development life cycle comes from several different areas, but especially from our existing and potential clients, when they articulate the unique challenges in their environment.”
Technology introduces its own unique challenges too, though Christian says he has fortunately taken to it quite naturally, and he is amused by how his career has evolved just by throwing himself into new things. “I certainly wasn’t a computer whizz at school. If somebody had said to me that I’d end up the CEO of a technology company, I would have laughed at them,” he says.