Rising gas prices blamed as Advance Bricks says its oven will go cold after 82 years in Stawell

Regional businesses are beginning to buckle under the pressure of unaffordable power as Australia’s gas crisis continues to bite.

In the Victorian town of Stawell, about 230kms north-west of Melbourne, local manufacturer Advance Bricks is shutting after more than 82 years in business.

Managing director John Collins says the company, which employs 23 people, could no longer afford the power bill after the collapse of commercial gas supplier Weston Energy in late May forced it onto a plan with “retailer of last resort” Energy Australia.

Mr Collins said the company, one of the town’s biggest employers, went from paying $6-to-$8 a gigajoule of gas to more than $37 a gigajoule overnight, and that no other gas retailers were able to supply the brickworks because Energy Australia was the only other retailer that had access to the gas pipeline.

“The assertion by (Victorian) Premier Andrews and (federal) Minister Bowen that heavy industries can transition to renewable energy is complete and utter fantasy,” he said.

Local Nationals MP Anne Webster said she feared a “rolling tsunami of closures of businesses at the very time when we are needing manufacturing to pick up in Australia”.

Energy Australia said it took on 390 business customers from failed gas retailer Weston Energy on May 24 under the Victorian retailer of last resort process, a feature of the national energy market.

Energy Australia said the gas rates it was offering were based on a range of factors, including what it cost to buy gas in a market where all providers were paying unusually high prices.

“Stawell and the broader Wimmera region in Victoria is an open market and we welcome greater competition that would provide businesses more choice,” a spokesperson said.

“Other energy retailers may set up arrangements to provide gas through the pipeline owner.”

Devastating affect on Stawell

Robert McIntosh has worked at Advance Bricks for more than 30 years, following in the footsteps of his father.

He started as a boy and was paid three cents a brick to clean bricks after school.

Rob McIntosh started working at Advance Bricks more than 30 years ago, cleaning bricks for three hundred a brick after school.(Gillian)

The former bricklayer now has an office job at the factory and said the closure of the business would have a devastating affect on Stawell.

“I think the [brick oven] will get turned off next week,” he said.

“The bricks that are in there will be cooked … and once they come out it will slowly be turned down and then turned off.”

Mr McIntosh was not sure when the factory doors would close for the last time but “I have a holiday in a month’s time for two weeks, so that might be it.”

‘Hard to see them suffer’

For the past 20 years, administrator Lynne Scott has been processing accounts and payroll at Advanced Bricks.

When she saw the handwritten names of the former employees in the old ledgers, she realized the business had employed a lot of people in the small town over many years.

Woman with blonde hair, beige cardigan and pink floral top in front of a display yard of pavers and tiles.
Lynne Scott has been working with the family-run company for 20 years and worries about the future of the owners.(ABC Wimmera: Gilian Aeria)

“It was so nice to come to a family business and work for a family and not be a number,” she said.

“I’m very concerned about the owners because they have been here all their life and they live and breathe the business,”

“We just work for them so we can walk away and do something else but it’s hard to see them do it and suffer,” Ms Scott said.

“You let your staff go, you won’t get them back.”

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