If you are an AFL fan (Australian Football League), you likely have heard of Stephen McBurney. Stephen reached the highly regarded milestone of umpiring over 400 games alongside four other greats.
Stephen comes into the ABCC commissioner role with quite an extensive legal career. Between the years of 2006-08 Stephen was the ABCC assistant commissioner (Legal) responsible for implementation of compliance powers.
The past nine years Stephen was working in the Victorian Office of Chief Examiner, assisting Victorian Police with investigations into serious organised crime.
Stephen McBurney’s new appointment as the ABCC commissioner comes at a time when tensions between unions, construction companies and the government are at an all-time high.
With the booming Australian construction industry across the private and public sectors, the ABCC will have its hands full as it has now come into full legislative power.
Who is the ABCC?
What does this mean for construction? We first need to understand the ABCC role. The Department of Justice, often referred to on-site, as the “Department of Safety” (WHS), are the watchdogs for all things related to Occupational Health and Safety. Whereas the ABCC is the watchdog of everything business related. Basically, the ABCC watch over unions and the construction industry’s industrial relation matters.
The ABCC role is to review and enforce the “Building Code 2016” which outlines how companies are to perform when undertaking Federal construction works. In short, the code aims to keep the CFMEU and other unions in check and operating consistent with all current industrial relation laws.
To give you an example of what that might look like; strikes that take place over menial matters similar to the firing of a union member could be considered illegal. Whereas striking over continual unsafe work conditions would be legal, broadly speaking.
Sometimes something different happens, and I am sure this doesn’t happen all too often. Earlier this week I was approached by a group of people that want to show their gratitude for their boss. They asked if I would write an article about their boss Shane, and his company SMCH.
And here we are, I am writing, and you are reading. Shane this one is for you, you have a great bunch of employees. This article is a credit to you and your business.
Let’s start at the beginning, Shane has 20 employees, and no one knows how he got into crane hire and fabrication. However, SMCH started it all with the introduction of the 20t Franna.
After the 20t Franna introduction, they went on to produce a 25t version. It wasn’t too long, and they started to manufacture the Kato NK 300. Due to business growth, the need for a yard crane became critical to the fabrication side of the business. So, they built their first tower crane, the Favco STD 750. With the new yard crane, they were able to start constructing a variety of tower cranes which are now available for wet and dry hire.
SMCH begins manufacturing tower cranes
Getting to where SMCH is today took some large-scale capital investments, to which the guys are thankful. They had concerns when Shane first announced his plans to manufacture tower cranes. At the time, they had no welder, forklift or trucks to collect all the required parts and materials.
With the continual growth that SMCH has experienced over the last few years, they have continued the well thought out capital investments. First came the purchase of a nearby hotel keeping everyone hydrated, and umbrellas to help beat the Australian summer heat. However, the guys are concerned about the umbrellas as Shane might want them to work in the rain now that they have this shelter option.
Shane’s approach to safety is second to none and is evident in the way that SMCH have had no incidents in the last few years. SMCH pride themselves on how they can undertake work that other contractors might hesitate over.
Heading into 2018, Shane’s Model Crane Hire has already secured an order for two new motorised tower cranes. According to the team, they are expecting big things for 2018.
Ken: That is a long story, I grew up on a wheat farm and the honest truth, I was pretty competitive. My older brother was the first one to start baking bread at home, and I thought I could make a better loaf than he could. So, I began to bake bread at home, and over time, I became passionate about sourdough.
Ken’s humble beginnings
Matt: You have had a colourful career in baking and worked alongside a few high-profile people.
Ken: Yeah. As I started baking bread at home, I had a friend in an old school teacher who managed to receive a quarterly biodynamic magazine from the US. In the magazine, there was an article about a baker in Massachusetts called Richard Bourdon.
My friend contacted Richard and asked if it would be okay if a young farm boy were come and work in his bakery. Before heading to Massachusetts, I stopped over in California, where I met and hung out with Alan Scott.
Alan Scott was the old Aussie hippie guru of wood oven building in the US. After California, I went on to Massachusetts to be a student of Richard Bourdon at Berkshire Mountain Bakery.
Working with the infamous baker Chad Robertson
By a fantastic window in time, while I was a student at Richard’s bakery there was a young fellow and his girlfriend who came to visit. The young guy fell in love with what we did, and he decided to take on an informal apprenticeship. That young guy was Chad Robertson.
If anyone knows anything about bread, they will have heard of Chad. Chad now has a bakery in San Francisco (Tartine Bakery) and has terrific credibility. He has done some fantastic work and has put sourdough on the map to a great extent.
After being in the US, we decided to stop in Melbourne. From there we did an around the world trip with the kids while they were still young and landed ourselves on a farm in Tuscany. We Woofed on the farm for three months before returning home to Australia. Woofing is where you exchange your labour for accommodation and food on a farm.
Not long after getting back to Australia, I contacted John Downs, which lead me back over to the UK. And while I was there in the UK I stayed in contact with the owner of the farm in Tuscany. The owner asked if my family and I would like to come back and live on the farm. We took up the offer and headed back to Italy, and we lived in Tuscany for two years.
Ken & Bread Builders feature in Vanessa Murray’s book
Ken: I don’t know, Vanessa got in contact with me and asked if I was interested in being in her book called “Made to last.” It was a privilege to be a part of her book.
Matt: So how do you go from being in a book as a baker to turning your hand to carpentry?
Ken: Well I reckon that comes down to the fact that I am farm boy and a jack of all trades. I have always had a love for carpentry and building. In the past three years, I’ve become a qualified carpenter. The emphasis is on building more than baking these days, but it’s still a mix of the two.
Matt: I have been staying with Ken and Amy for about four or five days helping to hang a few doors. The style of Ken’s home is called a light earth home. I’ll let Ken explain what light earth homes are.
Building their light earth home
Ken: Basically, a light earth home is a straw-clay infill in the walls. The wall studs are 200mm by 50mm in size and placed at 1200mm centers.
To make the straw-clay infill, you break up the straw bale, throw it into your straw canon with a mix of mudbrick mortar mix and water. And as the mix tumbles through the straw canon the straw is coated with the wet clay. The stud walls have formwork around them to hold the straw in place while it sets.
Once placed, the straw is tamped down, being careful not to compact it as you would with rammed earth. You just tamp it, so it compresses, and then the clay mixture dries and binds it all together. Work your way up the wall until you get to the top, and within 24 hours, you can remove the formwork. It is best to remove the plywood from the wall as soon as you can to let it dry and cure.
Matt: Have you been using a lot of repurposed materials?
Ken: As much as we can. I mean the new straw bale house we repurposed our old shearing shed that my younger brother and I pulled down. We repurposed as much as we could in the framework of the house.
But the main repurposing we’ve done is in the shed that we built next to the house. That shed is almost a representation of being a farm boy in the old days where you would construct a shed out of anything you could find.
Our shed is a post and beam style with all the material being either repurposed or salvaged. The rafters and beams have all come from fallen trees in the local bush.
Bringing in the experts
Matt: Yeah right, that is impressive because when you see the walls of this place, everything is straight. Did you do the rendering yourself?
Ken: No no, I can’t take complete credit for that. I helped with the rendering; we employed a builder Chris Rule for that work. I can’t take 100% credit for any part of this build. I can only take the credit for being here while it has been built.
It’s been fantastic, where possible I have tried to pull in as many friends or people that are experts in their trade. It’s been great to have their involvement because you get some fantastic work done at a high level and it becomes an enjoyable process. We have completed the majority of the build with labour exchange and mates rates.
We have used Work Away as well, and they have been fantastic help on this build. They are people that are travelling and volunteering their time for accommodation and have been an awesome part of the build.
Matt: Are you still looking for Work Awayer’s to help?
Ken: We certainly are. Any Work Awayer’s we can get that are willing to come and help to finish this build are welcome to stay. There is an excellent caravan to stay in, which is self-contained if necessary and has a nice double bed.
Matt: I can vouch for the bed. It is comfy, one of the best beds I’ve slept in so far in Melbourne. So anyone in Melbourne that I’m staying with take note.
The hardest part of the building process
Matt: What has been the hardest decision you’ve had to make with this build so far?
Ken: Oh that is a tough question. There has been a lot of hard decisions.
Matt: Oh, Right.
Ken: The hardest decision was how to start. Initially, when we bought this property, we had the local shire council heritage adviser came to have a look before we made the purchase. She said to us point blank, “are you sure you really want to get this property? This is the worst house I’ve seen in Maldon.”
I also had the town planning officer ask, “what does your partner think of this place?”
I said that she wanted to buy the place to which he responded, “my partner wouldn’t even set foot in this place.”
Ken: That was the response from most people about our purchase of this pile of rubble.
Some of our mates used to call this place the “pile of sticks,” so we had purchased a “pile of sticks.” (Laughs).
Probably the hardest point was getting over the first hurdle of designing and building with what we had.
Matt: Question, would you do it again?
Ken: Yes, I would do it again. But I am married, and I have another person to consult with on that one. (Laughs)
Matt: Thank you so much, Ken, it has been my pleasure.
Matt: The podcast was back in April, and the podcast went into your past in depth. With that, I’m not going to go too much into your history, aside from your 27 years old and you now have ten employees.
How Nicholson Builders has changed since April
Heath: We currently have 12 employees.
Matt: I recommend that everyone takes some time and have a listen to Martin’s podcast. Let’s talk about how business has been after the podcast in April.
Heath: I think in the podcast I was talking about the issues surrounding cash flow and all the standard problems that come with running a business.
Heath: Not long after the podcast, I bounced back and was going great. We are now in a position where we have grown another few levels. We have more staff; more overheads, and we are back in a similar situation. It all seems to be a pattern that occurs in business, so we are used to it now. Never the less, everything is still the same, except that we are doing a lot more work, with approximately 15 to 20 jobs on the go at the moment.
We are continually moving our guys around, as well chasing more good builders and contractors. As you know, finding the right people is one of the hardest things with running a construction business. However, everything is all going well.
Heath’s other business venture, Brother Pablo
Matt: How is the coffee shop (Brother Pablo) working out? Back in April you were halfway through setting up the store and started roasting your own coffee beans.
Heath: Yeah good, it is turning out a lot different to how I thought it would turn out. The coffee shop is very successful, we are about to start the wine bar side of the business. We are applying for a liquor license, and that is a living nightmare.
Matt: In my days as a site manager, a lot of the tradesmen had had enough of their respective trades. They would throw around the comment that they should go and start a coffee shop, something nice and easy. What do you say to that?
Heath: [Laughs] I am thinking the same thing at the moment.
I love running a construction business, it’s good money, good fun, challenging and there is always a lot going on. We get to meet a lot of people and do some cool jobs. Like most of the guys out there, it is the stress, the liability, the risk that adds up, especially when you start getting to this level. You begin to question where does it all end. You start waiting for it to all fall over or something bad to happen because it’s so likely that it will.
I have learnt to live with the stress, so it’s not too bad. I have more days than not wondering why I am doing this when I could go and work in my coffee shop. Maybe I should move to Queensland and open a coffee shop on the beach. It’s definitely a valid thought when you’re in this position.
Would you start Nicholson Builders all over again?
Matt: If you were to do it again, would you do it all again?
Heath: Yep, I think I would, just for the fact that it has all got me to where I am today.
It’s helped establish my family and our home. We have built a few homes because we can build them cheaper to help create our asset base. I mean the only reason we could afford the coffee shop was because we had equity in our home. The business has helped me learn and grow as a business owner and as a person, but also how to manage money.
Especially the stress that comes with managing millions of dollars. There aren’t too many businesses you can start at the age of 23 and handle millions of dollars. So I think I would do it all again to gain the knowledge and everything that has come from the business.
Nicholson Builders winning awards
Matt: What has been your proudest achievement to date?
Heath: My proudest achievement would have to be the Master Builders award we just won. The award took me by surprise, especially the fact that it was my first home I have ever built. It was our family home.
Matt: [Looking at the camera] Master builders is a national building association here in Australia.
Heath: I felt away out of my league being up on stage making a speech, and receiving the award. That was a considerable achievement; I loved it.
Heath: I have been to a few charity events lately and with my business dealings around town. I have come up on the radar of a few people in the council, and they invited me along to see if I was interested in the Chamber of Commerce. So I just sat in my first Chamber of Commerce board meeting yesterday.
It was pretty cool to watch how they work and the input they have in the community and council. These guys are nudging and keeping council accountable for what they’re doing and how they’re looking after small business in the area. So, being a business owner in Shepparton, and the frustrations I have with the council, it is a perfect opportunity being on the board.
That elusive work-life balance
Matt: You are a big family man, how does the business allow for family time?
Heath: It doesn’t. It’s hard. Look, I never advise anybody on work-life balance because I just don’t think there is a set formula.
Matt: Now that you employ a construction manager and a sales team is that allowing you to step back?
Heath: They are absolutely allowing me to step back, and that’s the plan to get the business to a point where I can stand back. Not necessarily be able to walk away entirely but where I can sit back, sell or whatever I want. To do that I’ve got the team and a system in place that it can run without me. So that plan allows me to spend more time with the family.
Matt: And you have your supervisors walking around the different job sites recording about the various projects. How was the request to start recording stories received by the guys on site?
Heath: Yeah, all I can say is that they’re all still nervous about recording the stories. I think some of them secretly love it. You can probably tell from some of the videos they can get a bit weird, but they know that it’s something that I’m implementing and it just needs to happen. It’s documenting what we do, and I can’t get to all the jobs all the time, so I have asked my boys to do it. And they’re excellent about it.
They need constant reminding because they don’t take it upon themselves and think, “I am going to film this today” and do it. It’s only when I remind them too that they do the stories.
Matt: One of your Instagram videos you are flying a drone from your front door over to a job site. Did the boys notice the drone? And did you receive a phone call afterwards?
Heath: They saw it coming, and in the video, you can see them poking their level and throwing nails at the drone. They knew straight away who it was.
When we reflect back on our careers, there are a scattering of times that we all remember for the right reasons. I look back over the last 15 or so years, and some of my fondest memories came from when I was working as a carpenter building decks.
That pocket of time started not too long after finishing my apprenticeship. I had been working for a small builder on government-owned housing upgrades. Soon enough I got sick of government work and looked for a new job. That was when I met Mike Glab, who has become a close friend and later in life a mentor. That, however, is another story for another day.
Highlight of my carpentry career
Building decks were the highlight of my time as a carpenter. It was hard, heavy work, we only ever built hardwood decks if I remember correctly. The hard work wasn’t such an attraction; it was the challenge of doing high-quality work that had my attention. We were in the top end of the market, so the standard of work that we had to delivery had to match.
It was in this environment I went from being a carpenter to a tradesman. The constant challenge to better my skills was what I looked forward to most mornings. I learnt so much, developed a lot of my style and techniques that still hold true today.
I would refer to guys I once worked with, as artists with a power saw. We would be hanging on the side of posts, cutting the verandah beam checkouts (housings). Cutting rafters for hand pitched roofs and watching the roofs come together, especially after screwing up the set out more than once.
I used to love the challenge of setting out decking boards and scribing them around whatever obstacle each deck through our way. And the never-ending race to see who could nail the most decking boards down in a day. They were good times.
Would I go back to carpentry?
I guess the question would be, would I go back to building decks or carpentry in general? And right now, I would have to say no. The thought of building again for a living doesn’t excite me.
As I have been working on growing The Travelling Builder, I have been doing casual carpentry work on the side. After a few weeks of the casual work, I am done, I just don’t have the passion I once had. I enjoy doing a little bit of carpentry work here and there as a hobby, and for now, that is where it ends.
With that, some of my best memories will always be of those days building decks. Not sure if you guys from those days gone by will ever read this. However, Chaps (Ross or Jamie depending on the day), thanks for putting up with all my BS. Woolly (Steve), I hope you have stopped cutting with the wrong side of the saw. Scott, thanks heaps for the lift home to take the bin out that morning, saved my arse entirely. Toddy, I hope all is well out west these days. Cookie, we have to catch up again soon and all the guys that I have forgotten that made those years great. Thank you for the fond memories and hope all is turning out well for each of you.