I had the opportunity to chat with Oliver from OB Carpentry in Brisbane. Like every good writer, I started with what I thought would be the story, chatting about some of the projects that Oliver has completed. However, that never ended up being the case.
Oliver has been in the game for more than 30 years and has watched complexity steadily grow; this complexity is all the younger generations of construction workers know.
But it has been the rise of social media over the last few years that has changed the way marketing takes place in construction. As Gary Vaynerchuk (Gary Vee social media and business icon) mentions in numerous videos, if you are in business, you are a media company that happens to sell something.
In terms of marketing in the field of construction, the best form has always been word of mouth. As the digital age has taken hold, word of mouth is slowly becoming less valuable. Once word-of-mouth-generated business was what really showed the strength of someone’s workmanship.
Does that mean a shift in what word-of-mouth advertising is?
For industry veterans like Oliver, the shift in marketing is adding another complexity in an already complex industry. Going back six years, before the explosion of social media, word of mouth came from personal experience of working with someone. But now, people are starting to recommend people by what they are watching on social media without having that personal experience.
As Oliver mentioned, “for someone, who has always been strongly recommended, making the shift to social media has become more prevalent than ever for him and his business.”
At one time it was automatically granted when a trusted friend or family member recommended you. Now, as more and more of the younger generations become homeowners, gaining access to them is forcing people like Oliver to shift away from old forms of marketing. It’s one thing to be recommended in today’s market, it’s another to demonstrate your work over time.
As times change, it’s tradesmen like Oliver, willing to back themselves, move with the times, and adapt, who will continue to thrive where others may not.
In the wake of Sydney’s Opal Tower fiasco, the New South Wales state government’s approach is geared toward improving the construction industry and alleviating public concerns by cracking down on private building certifiers. For all in the industry, this can be likened to taking the paintbrush off a child and leaving them with the open paint tin.
Let’s be honest: What is the purpose of building certifiers? They check that the proposed building design meets all the regulations, standards, and building codes for the proposed “classification” of the building. Once the building is complete, all they are checking to ensure the building, in its “finished” form, meets the classification requirements. The certifier will also compile every consultant, subcontractor, and builder alike, that all the appropriate evidence (aka paperwork) stating they have completed their job correctly.
At what point has the private building certifier walked onsite? Unless you are doing a partial handover, they will only come to the site at the end. How is this relevant to the Opal tower in Sydney?
Building certifiers and Opal tower
First, we need to ask: was the building certifier there when the concrete was being poured? Was the certifier there when the precast panels were being installed? It is highly, highly unlikely.
How is this the certifiers problem? Frankly, its not. Who’s responsibility is it? It’s ours; we have all done it: didn’t blow/clean the formwork deck off properly, didn’t remove the over-spilled concrete from the top of that column. And before everyone jumps up and down, I am not saying we are doing a bad job. The Opal Tower is one major incident that has emerged after the handover in how many buildings that we all have collectively built? More than anything, this is a timely reminder.
We all have tight timelines, and hundreds of meters of concrete booked weeks in advance, all while managing teams of contractors to meet these fictitious dates. We have become masters of balancing risk, timing, and ever-pressing constraints of construction. Of course, we let things slide; how else do you build a tower in under 12 months?
Opal tower’s timely reminder
It’s easy for us to get complacent when making decisions of what we will let slide and what we won’t. Just like the guys on the ground at Opal tower would be feeling the weight of their decisions made throughout the project, we, too, have to live with our decisions.
Maybe we have been lucky, maybe not. And with all the quality and consultant inspections that we have to complete on a daily basis, not to mention the continual re-checking (I know we all love re-checking everyone’s work), it’s the detail that will always cause sleepless nights.
As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” By having the person (private building certifier) that has a broad brush stroke being responsible for painting between the lines will only cause a mess. After all this has blown over, as we are the people responsible for building our buildings, we will have missed the direct government scrutiny, but we will feel the added pressure with our ever-shrinking project constraints.
Tell me if this sounds familiar? Working day after day, we get frustrated, see an opportunity to start a business; we sit on it for a while, daydreaming in our downtime. We chat with our colleagues over smoko (lunch), listen to everybody’s two cents worth of advice. Then the people that would be our potential clients give us the unofficial, “yeah we will give you ago.”
I am pretty sure that we all can relate from our own experience or know someone that has/or is going through the whole “startup” of their new business. Just the same as Yusuf, the founder of Precision Cranes.
Then it happens, on the back of everyone’s support we throw caution to the wind and get the ball rolling. Just like Precision Cranes, most guys, in the beginning, start out as a labour-hire business. Let’s face it; construction is so capital intensive that most of us are putting a second mortgage on our homes to get started. And that is where labour hire lets us leverage the principle contractors buying power with materials, and we take a much smaller margin in return for a significant reduction of risk.
Precision Cranes startup route
And as Yusuf founder of Precision Cranes has begun his journey into the expensive, heavy lifting sector, the labour hirer route allows him to leverage the builders market position. Where the builder can dry hire tower cranes and Yusuf can arrange everything else; the operator, doggmen, lifting gear, crane installation and all the rest.
It’s like a safety net, a way that allows the principle to remain competitive while we get our foot in the door. There is a downside, and I am sure a lot of us have found this out the hard way, much like Jim did from Starbuck Excavations.
Where Jim had purchased his first digger and to get the “ball rolling,” he would do manual labour when his machine was not in use but still onsite. To the builder’s advantage, he would only charge full price for the few hours the machine was in use. And for the remainder of his time, he would charge a much lower labourer’s rate.
The true nature of construction
And it highlights the underlying culture of the industry, the sense of comradery, yet the dogged world we call work. Where on the one hand we are more than willing to give someone a go, yet once you have started, you are now just the same as every other construction business out; fair game, where you can be eaten alive or taken advantage of at any moment.
Yusuf is no stranger to the in’s and out’s of the construction industry working as a tower crane operator. I am sure as he grows Precision Cranes from labour-hire into equipment hire, there will be plenty of war stories to be told.
I had the opportunity to meet David from Ratcliff’s Landscaping. David is 14 years old and has been in business for a few years now.
At first, the new business venture was well received at school, and as time went by the bullying started. However, David is getting the last laugh as his school colleagues are now starting to look for work.
With the help of mum and dad (aka Uber as they like to call it) and the ever-present threat of being grounded, David has managed to secure and complete his very first landscaping package.
On the project, dad was employed to operate the machinery required as David’s age-restricted him from operating the machinery required. The project was a success on all fronts with the workmanship and final product speaking for themselves.
Even with the success of his first project, just like most people, David is finding his place in the market. Unlike the older generations, David has the added hurdle of managing his age regarding customers expectations.
As you watch the video, you will see David’s attitude is not that of a typical 14-year-old. He truly is a young business owner that is tackling the world of business head on.
For the people who aren’t too sure what brush fencing is, it is a native-grown tea tree, which gets cut and constructed it into hand-made fencing.
Matt: So I spent the day with Rob and the team building fences a few days ago. It’s not rocket science. It’s not fun, sorry, it wasn’t fun. The guys you have working for you are fun. Fill me in on how you acquired your workforce.
Finding a brush fencing workforce
Rob: Yeah, well, the workforce is a bit of a treat. For anybody who’s ever had to get their own workforce, it’s easy to work out why it’s a tough game to get the right people.
I have been building brush fences for about 30 years and to do the part I do, hand-thatching, takes about two or three years to train someone. To train them to a point where you could leave them on a job without having to repair their work completely. So, my workforce has pretty much come from, pot-luck. The universe has put somebody in my path, and they’ve come to work with me. I haven’t gone out and chosen anyone realistically for their skill sets.
So currently I have, three workers in the 65-66 category. I have myself at 58, and my other worker is 40, we don’t have a lot of youth on our team.
Matt: How do you and the team go when there are large numbers of meters to be built?
Rob: They’re tough.
Matt: I could just imagine with your team, fill me in, I have my opinions.
Rob: Well, the main game is to try and make sure you only take on the easy jobs. So that’s the first thing.
I look at the jobs, even though I could assure you every one of my workers would question my statement. Because as far as they’re concerned, every job we do, we seem to be going off to the Sahara Desert or going on a trek. Most of the jobs aren’t too bad. However, we’ve had a couple of jobs where we’ve had to carry gear over 100 meters. And that takes something, luckily the last time I was on a building site where that was the case, the builder lent me a few of his labourers to help.
Of course, our old boys were struggling pretty heavily by the time they went 100 meters. I tell you, a couple of them are smokers, and they did the walk-about twice. I wasn’t sure if they were going to make it.
It’s not easy finding the right younger generation to employ. Over the past six months we have been looking, but not wanting to be inundated, we went off to a couple of employment agencies. And then we even heard, better than just getting someone; they’re going to pay me some money to hire someone. So there was a couple of little games you could play with the state and the federal governments. They would give me a couple of workers, and if I employed them for six months straight, there was a $6K-$10K rebate that you could get back.
I thought I’d have one or two of those and see how we go, but unfortunately, the employment agency sent me a few resumes that were pretty much more of the same. And given that I already have a grey nomad working family, I didn’t want to add a few more 60-year old’s. They did offer me one 25 year old, but he had no license. Given that in my game we aren’t on a project for two years, we are at a new address every two or three days, getting the bus everywhere doesn’t always work.
That’s how my workforce has become the way it is, pure pot-luck and whoever the universe has put in front of me is what I’ve got.
I have brought in some sub-contractors from Queensland and New South Wales, guys I have a good relationship with and worked with previously. I was able to pick up the phone and ask them to come down and lend me a hand for a while. They have saved my bacon; they’re all very experienced, quick and very good at what they do.
Managing an older workforce
Matt: So it’s more like, you’re 60?
Matt: 58, sorry. My bad.
Rob: Very close to 60.
Matt: Please forgive me. Um, so seeing as the guys are, how do I put this politely?
Rob: Given that the guys are old and decrepit [laughing].
Matt: I wasn’t going too quite say that, but sure [lauging], we’ll roll with that.
Rob: Yeah, given the guys are old and decrepit, we do have to pace ourselves. And we try not to do too many hard physical days in a row.
It’s a bit like I have to have a clever, grey nomad management policy of my workers where I can’t do five hard days in a row. And when I say that, I’m old school, we knock off at midday on Friday anyway.
I do Saturday mornings but it’s not really work, it’s just playing. I only make them work four and a half days and our days aren’t too bad. Normally we don’t start before 7:00 am, and they’re normally tucked up, sitting at home by 3:00 – 4:00 pm and on the bad days, it’s 8:00 or 9:00.
Matt: In the morning?
Rob: In the evening [laughing]. Not many of those, but we have had a few where we’ve knocked off at 8:45 pm.
Matt: Oh wow. Right, I know I’d be questioning my life choices at that point [laughing].
Rob: Yeah, you do big time. I mean, there’s a limit to what you can ask of people. But a couple of times I have asked them to work late. And they’ve all been happy to do the late nights; it’s not a long-term life choice to get home at 8:30 at night though.
Matt: I can only imagine.
Rob: Yeah so it’s interesting for a small business how we find your workers. Mostly it has been word of mouth, but I’m still out there looking.
Matt: Like you said, just whatever comes along.
Rob: Whatever comes along, if they’re happy to try the work and as you said, the truth is with fencing, it’s not rocket science. It isn’t hard work.
Rob: I mean, it can be hard work, but there is not a lot of mental capacity required. It’s a little bit of common sense, a little bit of brute force and then just knowing the job. And, as you said, you did the one day with us.
So everyone knows, Matt didn’t do a hard day, it was a quite an easy day, but he did do a day with us. It’s a case of, finding someone who fits into the team as Matt found, it’s a long time with each other, so you want life to be a bit of fun. I’m very clear; we’re at work for a lot of hours a day, I don’t want people who don’t blend in too well. So, as you said, the people we work with was a lot more fun than the actual work.
Matt: It was a very good day.
Clients reception of the team
Rob: My employees are all unique characters, and that makes work a bit of fun. They’ve all got their own little things going on.
Matt: It’s one thing for you to be the owner of the business coming and knock on the door and all the rest. But how is the client’s reception when the team rocks up?
Rob: Well, mostly I warn them that my team might be a bit scary and don’t be offended by how they look. I’m mostly on song with my clients and where I can I’m a bit cheeky. With some of the clients, I am always a little bit keen for them to bake some scones or get some cakes or pie or put something on for us.
Not always appropriate in every house we go to, but for some, I’m in fighting for the team that we all get a fresh morning tea or a fresh something for lunch. And it works great. We did one job a couple of years ago in Mount Eliza and this delightful lady, decided every day she’d go and get us pies for morning tea. So each day we had a little treasure trove of cakes, and at lunch, we’d all get a pie or something.
Matt: Oh nice.
Rob: It was stunning, unusual though.
Most of my clients, being serious inside of looking at my workforce, they certainly raise their eyebrows as we walk through. They all look, I can see them looking at us thinking, “When’s somebody young going to turn up here?” Some of them have asked me, “Are they going to make it through the day, Rob?” So it’s always scary when your clients are coming up and say to you, “Do you think your workers are up for working for the whole day?”
Matt: I can understand their, um, concern, I had that moment too.
Matt: Alright Rob. Thanks my friend.
Rob: Thank you, Matt, anytime.
Matt: And I’ll see you sometime in the future.
Rob: See you sometime in the future. You might be back down working for me.