All About Brush and their grey workforce

Brush fencing, brush fence with hedge in front

Matt: Hi Rob, how are you?

Rob: Matt, great!

Matt: Right-o. What do you do?

Brush fencing, brush fence with hedge in front

Rob: Well, I build brush fences.

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.

All About Brush employees, brush fencing, fence building

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.

Brush fencing, brush fence

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?

Rob: 58.

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.

Matt: No.

All About Brush team building a brush fencing

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.

Matt: Not likely [Laughing as Matt walks off]

Rob: [laughs]


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Raimondi Cranes, thanks for joining me on my walk

topless raimondi cranes in melourne

Raimondi Cranes on King street MelbourneI have been in Melbourne, Australia for a few weeks, travelling around filming the next few episodes of The Travelling Builder Show. As we all experience from time to time, my plans had changed a little, resulting in a free day to do whatever tickled my fancy.

Personal challenge, photographing Raimondi Cranes

Just in case you haven’t seen my Instagram page, its full of photos of buildings and cranes. Instead of aimlessly wandering the streets of Melbourne taking photos of said buildings and cranes; I figured I would set myself a challenge. So, I reached out to Raimondi Cranes and asked if they would be interested in sending me a list of crane locations around Melbourne and I would send over a few photos in return.

A few phone calls later, and help from Clarke Cranes in Melbourne. I got my list of addresses.

Raimondi Cranes in RichmondThere is something about setting a goal that has no implications on whether you complete it or not. I was under no obligations to take photos. I thought it would be a great way to give my day some purpose, a challenge and hopefully build a new connection along the way.

Testing our own personal resolve

Completing this little goal tested my resolve way more than I could have imagined. Particularly heading over to my last destination in St Kilda. I had just finished walking 11km so far in what felt one of the hottest days I have had in Melbourne. The worst part, knowing that I now have a 6km walk to get to St Kilda followed by another 4km’s back to the hotel. It was at this point that the chatting to one’s self about quitting began.

The thoughts, so many thoughts about quitting. Thoughts like, you have bucket loads of photos (by this stage I have 200 plus), no one knows how many cranes you thought you would visit. And with all the images I had taken so far, I had more than exceeded what I thought I would shoot.

Raimondi cranes in St KildaAnd this is where the pull to give up and go home set in. That 6km was the longest, loudest walk of my life; my head would not shut up. The excuses, the reasons, that wrong turn down a dead-end street. But when I looked up from that intersection in St Kilda and saw that familiar round Raimondi crane cab, that sense of achievement was so much sweeter.

Not only had I set myself a challenge and finished it. “I nailed it,” no matter how exhausted I felt, it was worth it. That satisfaction for doing something that we said we would do for no other reason than saying we would, is the most satisfying, don’t you think?

So please, enjoy some of the photos from my day, knowing the victory over my reasons and excuses.

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Raimondi cranes with powerlines
Personal achievement

Raimondi cranes jib and window reflection
Keep going, one more stop


Starbuck Excavations, making it happen

Starbuck excavator on back of a truck
Cat Excavator, Starbuck excavations

Matt:  I am here in Melbourne, and I have just had an interesting morning with Jim from Starbuck Excavations. Jim has had his company in the industry for over ten years. As we all know, that is a pretty mean feat in itself. He started when he was 19 years old, and he took the biggest hit of his life.

Jim:  Yeah, it was s#!t house. I couldn’t find any work and did a lot of labouring. I would put the machine on site and only charge the people for the hours that the excavator was working. If I worked the excavator for two hours, I would only charge two hours for the machine time and six hours of labouring at $20 an hour. However, a lot of guys took advantage of that, and they’d have me labour for 30 hours a week and use my digger for one hour.

Growing Starbuck Excavations

Matt:  As Jim has grown, he is dealing with the productivity of the guys that work for him.

Jim: I make the most money off one job, in one day if I operate that excavator; the trucks work better, the site works better, and the machine is more productive. The machine less damaged because I don’t smash the windows, I don’t hit the rear end on things. I don’t break the trucks when I’m loading them, I might scratch them a little, but not fully break them. However, that one job makes the best money.

Matt:  Then as we grow our business the challenge is, do you focus on one job to make it highly effective and profitable, and let the other jobs run their course? Or do you end up going out and focussing on all the different jobs and get an incremental improvement across the board? I think Jim answers this question really well.

Cat excavator loading a truck

Jim:  While I’m completely focused on one job, I have 19 other jobs that are not running as productively. So, what you do, you get out of the digger, you take those 20 job sites, and you try and make them all 10% more productive. And if you make every job 10% more productive, you have now made triple, five times the amount of money you would have made by having only one job running like clockwork.

Taking Starbuck Excavations to the next level

Matt:  As he’s been working on growing the business, particularly when he’s not the main subcontractor to the principal contractor (builder). He’s had to work on the back of handshakes and promises.

Jim:  People ask me, “Do you have a signed contract for that job?”
No, no one will sign on the dotted line to say that there is five years’ worth of work. Unless you’re the main contractor signing with the principal contractor you don’t get to have those ducks in a row. You can not get to be that main contractor without being the secondary contractor. Which means, somehow, some way, you have to build your way up that ladder. How you do that, is by taking chances. Taking risks and trusting people when they tell you that they’ll look after you or whatever, but it doesn’t always work. Some people watching your video might make it a hurt. I won’t say who you are.

Cash flow is king

Matt:  We’ve all heard the saying that cash flow is king. Jim has good advice for any of the young players out there looking to start doing their own thing. I would really listen to what Jim’s got to say, it’s really valuable advice.

Jim:  It’s not about having cash in the bank. It’s about having that constant money cycling through your company. That makes things happen. You know it’s not just one big injection of cash at the end of the month. The cash is always constantly moving. If you can manage your cash flow, so you have that money there for when you need to take those hits, which they come around, then you will be alright.

Matt:  Jim is also a big believer in giving discounts to get payments early.

Jim:  You need to keep the cash rolling. I give discounts the people who pay early. Especially on the big jobs, you give them a five percent discount to change it from 45 days from the end of the month to 14 days from invoice.

Matt:  Sometimes it’s worth giving the discounts?

Jim:  Sometimes it’s worth it a lot.

Starbuck Excavations on Instagram

Starbuck excavations loading a truck looking from within the cab

Matt:  Because Starbuck Excavations Instagram following is quite large, 13000 people. Jim has been offered a few different promotions from people. His credibility is worth more to him than what is being offered. With an offer for an attachment, he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his credibility. At the end of the day like Jim said if he leads his friends astray it’s no good for him, it leaves people starting to question him.

Jim:  I had a company approached me to give me a machine part. It was about $100 000 part. And they said they’d give it to me if I made a YouTube channel and post once a week about it on my Instagram. And give me $100 000 part. But they expected me to say that it was good. And I said no.

Matt:  Was it good?

Jim:  No idea, I never got the part. I’m not going to sit there and spruik a machine when it shouldn’t be spruiked. If it’s good, let the numbers speak for themselves. What if I say the part is good and then 10 people that I know go out and buy it and then they all think it’s s#!t. I look like an idiot.

How deep has Starbuck Excavations dug?

Matt:  He’s dug a pretty deep hole in his career so far.

Jim:  25m down which is about six stories with car stackers. That is a monstrous hole, that is pretty deep.

Matt:  Question, how do you get the dirt out of a hole that deep?

Jim:  Starts off with trucks, then no trucks, then a digger, a bigger digger up the top, then an even bigger digger with a longer arm, then make no money. Go home and cry.

Matt:  That was a lesson learned obviously?

Jim:  Yeah. I didn’t make any money, and I did go home and cry, that wasn’t a joke.

Work-life balance taking its toll

Matt:  When he was busy he struggled to keep time for himself, keeping everything in check with his work-life balance. I think we all struggle with that from time to time. As we grow our businesses, particularly as we go from being a one-man band to having four, six, ten employees, it really starts to become a challenge.
Do you have a partner?

Jim:  Yep.

Matt:  How does she find your work-life balance and the like?

Jim:  Well, here’s a storey. I have an ex-wife that has a lot to do with work-life balance which I never had any. I have had to try and change that at some point as I was very much in the company at that point. I was still digging holes, driving trucks and doing everything else. Now I have the time to come out of coffee with Travelling Builders [laughing].

Matt:  It’s a little bit sad that a lot of guys in the construction industry have had failed marriages or relationships that haven’t worked out. It’s not a good thing. It’s something the industry that I think has a lot to answer too.

It was a good to have a chat with Jim and got some insights into what it is that he is up too.


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