October 3, 2014

A burner combustion business of Olympic proportions

Adelaide-based FCT Flames has ignited all but one of this century’s summer and winter Olympic Games cauldrons since Sydney in 2000. Con Manias reflects on the time he spotted this unique opportunity for his business as well as managing an unpredictable cash flow.

In a dramatic climax to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games, more than 200 furled copper petals burst into flame. The world gasped in wonder and Con Manias breathed a sigh of relief.

As Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Adelaide-based FCT Flames, he has overseen production of the stadium flames for all but one of this century’s summer and winter Olympic Games. With an audience approaching one billion people, ignition has always been a tense moment.

“These jobs are very different from our industrial projects in that they don’t have to work for very long but they do have to work perfectly first time,” he says. “In other industries, you have time to fine-tune any problems but the equipment needs to work for decades.”

When Sydney won the right to host the 2000 Olympic Games, Manias spotted an opportunity to get involved. “We had been a burner combustion company for 16 years and, even though we hadn’t done this kind of work before, we were able to demonstrate that we knew what we were doing and what had to be done,” says Manias. “We presumed that Sydney would be a one-off but, when we received a lot of accolades, we decided to see if we could do it again. It proved to be a niche area perfectly suited to our skills.”

In most cases, the technologies developed for industrial applications are applied to the events arena. However, the burning rings of fire on the lake at the Athens Olympic Games required very specific research and development. “It isn’t easy to burn a stable flame on water,” Manias says. “But, in the end, I think this was the most memorable effect we’ve ever achieved.”

Safety is paramount in every environment but it takes on a different scale when there are tens of thousands of people surrounding a flame. “There can be no chance of anyone being endangered,” says Manias. “In Sydney for example, we did some wind testing on a scale model of the entire stadium and found that some wind conditions could introduce an element of risk. So the height of the cauldron was raised six metres and it was moved to another location.”

Unpredictable cash flow

FCT draws most of its income from overseas. “Australia has a limited market for the kinds of specialised projects that we do,” says Manias. “We work regularly in North

America, Europe, Asia, South Africa and Turkey, and we’ve just finished projects in Russia and the Ukraine.”

Over the last few years, the exchange rate and high salaries in the engineering sector have made this model particularly challenging. “There’s no way we can compete on price so we have to compete on quality and performance,” Manias continues. “We also get a lot of repeat business which suggests we’re doing many things right.”

As with any small, project-based business, there can be times of feast and famine.

“Even our industrial projects are quite large so winning or losing two or three in a year can make quite a difference to our cash flow,” Manias continues. “We’ve managed to operate so far by maintaining a reasonable cash reserve and, now in Philadelphia, we’re developing a service-based organisation which should help smooth out the peaks and troughs a little. If it works in the United States we’ll take it to other parts of the world – although opening more offices in strategic global markets will present a whole lot of new challenges!”

This article was published in Business View magazine (Summer 2013). For more Business View magazine articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition for free via our app, NAB Think.

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