Dreamtime, boomtime

Neville Stewart recalls the moment his company's fortunes turned during yet another confrontation with a senior mining executive. Did he want to be an indigenous activist or a contractor, the exasperated executive asked.

''I said, 'Give me a bloody job and I will stop being an activist','' Stewart shot back.

That was five years ago when this son of an Aboriginal policeman was banging on the doors of Rio Tinto, BHP and Chevron aggressively selling his services to a then reluctant industry.

'''For Christ sake,' I was saying, 'we are a capable company, give us an opportunity to show what we can do.' I was not being an activist. I wanted one of them to open a door to my company, and eventually they did.''

Stewart began his working life at the wheel of a borrowed grader levelling red dirt roads in the heat-soaked Pilbara - Australia's quarry to the world. Today he heads Australian Indigenous Enterprises with Daniel Tucker, a fellow Aboriginal contractor and owner of Carey Mining. These days, AIE is valued at $140 million, with ambitions to match.

''Daniel and I have big dreams. We want to be the first listed indigenous company in Australia,'' Stewart says.

''We want to own hotels, caravan parks, be big enough to have our [proposed] accounting and law firm staffed with Aboriginal men and women. We will pay accommodation and HECs fees for those willing to work and train with us.''

And that is just the beginning. They want to build AIE into a powerhouse of indigenous enterprise. They have plans for a regional airline, solar power networks, and a mobile health service for remote communities, as well being the nation's biggest employer of indigenous labour.

Stewart and Tucker are breaking down barriers of prejudice and industry stereotyping of Aboriginal-owned and operated companies as they garner a lucrative share of the staggering wealth generated by mining. The men stand at the forefront of an emerging class of savvy, wealthy Aboriginal entrepreneurs thrown up by a boom that Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh predicts may last another 50 years.

A growing number of Aboriginal men and women have started up businesses in the Pilbara to capitalise on the seemingly endless growth in ore exports.

Companies such as Peter Hicks' Civil and Mining have secured contracts worth almost $40 million; others, such as all-woman operated service company Refap, are small but fast growing.

Their emergence coincides with a profound and enlightened shift in corporate thinking that has led Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals to not only open their doors to indigenous contractors, but also accord them a degree of preferential treatment.

Stewart and Tucker regard Rio Tinto as the standout industry leader when it comes to indigenous engagement and employment. Rio is spending more than $1.6 billion on indigenous business in the expansion of Pilbara production aimed at iron ore exports, from 230 million tonnes a year to 360 million.

Andrew ''Twiggy'' Forrest's Fortescue Metals Group says it will spend around $1 billion to develop the Solomon iron ore hub. Other companies such as BHP are catching on.

In her recent ABC Boyer lectures, Professor Marcia Langton, chair of indigenous studies at Melbourne University, detailed for the first time the fast-changing economic landscape for indigenous Australians. She pointed out that last year in the Pilbara, Rio Tinto and Fortescue employed 1300 Aboriginal workers and awarded contracts worth $300 million to 52 indigenous companies.

While disturbingly high levels of disadvantage persist, Langton noted that resource companies were setting ambitious employment targets. They also had contracting and procurement policies to ensure Aboriginal enterprises succeed. ''There are hundreds of businesses, even more Aboriginal non-profit corporations, with income streams delivering economic benefits to their communities on an unprecedented scale,'' she said.

Langton, a regular visitor to the Pilbara, heads a four-year research team in law, demography and anthropology investigating the politics of poverty and plenty. The federal government's Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination, Rio Tinto, Santos and Woodside, and the Manda Mia Central Negotiating Committee, representing nine groups of Pilbara traditional owners, fund the project.

For Stewart, 55, it has been a tough slog from cadging his first grader to fulfil a tender he did not expect to get, to grader owner, to a ''top tier'' contractor to the big miners. Stewart's private company, GLH, is involved in multimillion-dollar projects, including the construction of a 150-person mining camp at Paraburdoo and a 250-person camp at nearby Tom Price. The company is valued at $80 million and 35 per cent of its workforce is indigenous.

Unlike Stewart, Daniel Tucker is media shy and declined to be interviewed. He was one of two Aborigines to graduate from Kalgoorlie high school in 1980 - the other was his wife. Fifteen years on he started Carey Mining, which has grown into the largest indigenous-owned company in Australia. It makes its millions crushing and screening iron ore and moving it from mine to rail head while providing a range of other support services.

Not so long ago, Stewart suffered the ignominy of having to sit through a speech by a cabinet minister on the value of hard work. While he brushes off the incident (there was apparently barely suppressed laughter from indigenous attendees far wiser, wealthier and hard-working than the minister), Stewart is derisive of government schemes to provide pathways for Aboriginal advancement. ''Aboriginal people are the most trained people in Australia, but there is never a job at the end of it, just more training. You walk into any government office anywhere and you hardly ever see a black face.

''What do governments do? They don't make anything, they don't export anything,'' he says with a mixture of contempt and frustration.

He prefers to look to the First Nations people of Canada for inspiration for ways to create indigenous wealth, lasting jobs and engage with the mainstream economy.

Peter Hicks was born and raised in Port Hedland in the days when it was mostly a wild west town awash with migrant labour from Europe and Pacific Islanders toiling on the Mount Tom Price railway. It was a time when most Aboriginal families lived on the fringe, racially isolated, trapped on welfare in substandard government housing awash with grog and domestic brutality.

''As a very young bloke I learnt to live with it,'' Hicks says over coffee. ''My mum and dad survived the hard times, but their situation drove me to want something better. I understood from dad that if you did not get out and work, you would be stuck on the dole battling. I made a choice.''

Today, Hicks and his wife Lisa own and operate Hicks Civil and Mining, a family company with a $37 million contract with Leighton in the construction of the $300 million Cape Lambert port expansion.

A man of stoic determination, Hicks has been anything but a fringe dweller. After quitting Port Hedland high school at the end of year 10, he took up an apprenticeship with Goldsworthy Mining, and when he was 32 bought his first house for $20,000 from the WA government.

Although rooted in the Pilbara by culture, family and tradition, Hicks has established a fast-growing enterprise generating wealth and security. His company has an inventory of equipment worth several million dollars, he owns a house valued at $1 million. There is an ocean-going powerboat and a smart top-of-the-line four-wheel-drive in the driveway. He has bought houses for his two daughters.

In 10 years, Hicks says much has changed for the good in the Pilbara as companies engage with local contractors to build new ports, mines, rail lines, provide catering, housing and other basic services.

With flexible, culturally attuned training and employment, skilled Aboriginal workers are in demand. It is not uncommon for them to earn more than $120,000 a year.

''For Aboriginal people in the north-west, these are the greatest opportunities we have ever had. If we don't seize them, people will say what hope have we got. I want my people to take inspiration from what I have achieved.''

At 46, Hicks admits little has come easily; his personal achievements are the result of grinding hard work, taking risks and some good luck. He read the shift to outsourcing early and set up his company to tender for contracts.

He deeply resents the ignorant comments he hears around the traps that ''blackfellas'' have had it too easy. ''There is a view that companies are paying buckets of money to Aboriginal people under land use agreements that is blown on grog and cars.''

Hicks says land use agreements struck today with mining companies are more equitable and respectful of Aboriginal culture than a decade ago.

But respect is not always forthcoming from the middle management of mining companies, especially if you are an ambitious singled-minded indigenous woman.

Triscilla Holborow, who left school at 15 to work for her father as a plumber's apprentice, is chief executive of mining services company Refap, which specialises in labour hire, postal and courier services and in cleaning and maintaining processing plants.

Holborow says corporate commitments to the goals of opportunity and equality do not always line up. ''We get a lot of resistance to Aboriginal labour. At the most senior corporate level they get how important it is to engage with Aboriginal companies, but there can be a major disconnect on the ground. It can get really bad.

''We are decades away from people working easily side by side with Aboriginal businesses. Anybody who says it isn't the case has his or her head in the sand. At the end of the day we are Aboriginal people, we are different and we tell them to get used to it. Too many people say we have to treat everybody the same. I say why?''

Holborow, 40, and business partner Kelly Grady, 31, a Melbourne University graduate who trained with Ernst & Young and worked with BHP, own and manage the Karratha-based Refap - Real Employment For Aboriginal People. In getting established, they have had to overcome old boys' networks, professional jealously and attempts to sideline the company. Holborow and Grady say the racism and male chauvinism directed at their all-female company has never stopped them from staying focused on building the company that last year delivered growth in profits of 432 per cent. They won't put a dollar figure on what the company is worth, but it is probably north of six figures.

Refap's strength - it won an award last year for the region's best small business - has been an ability to offer dependable services to mining and construction companies. Through clever management, single parents and those that do not want a full-time job because of family obligations, sorry business or traditional law are found work.

''I am a traditional owner, I know the challenge is to get people off welfare,'' says Holborow. ''We provide chances and try and change lives.''

Michael Gollschewski, chief operating officer of Rio Tinto's $23 billion iron ore expansion, shares Holborow's ideals and concerns but says the company has zero tolerance of racism in any form. ''Project managers are being pushed to get the expansion done, sometimes this boils over into inappropriate behaviour,'' he says.

There have also been incidents when indigenous contractors - and Rio has more than 50 - have got precious about their Aboriginality and have to be reminded there is a job to be done. ''Of course there can be cultural sensitivities, and Rio acknowledges and allows for that,'' Gollschewski says. ''As a company, we have an obligation to help Aboriginal contractors. When they need it, we give them a leg-up. The policy always is to be firm and fair.''

Aboriginal companies have been remarkably resilient given it is in a boom when companies are more likely to go under because they are unable to keep up with demand. ''Rio has not had a single indigenous contractor go bust, although some have had cash flow problems. We want them to be competitive when the expansion is over. We don't want them to fail.''

Rio Tinto assisted Russell Skelton's travel in the Pilbara.

This story Dreamtime, boomtime first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.