A Bridge to the Future

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-By Aleisha Parr

When Karl Waeger was ten years old, riding on a bus to a soccer game, he noticed across the way a team of young men at work building a bridge. He was struck by the nature-defying aspect of the task – man’s ability to create something which could span a river and enable someone to drive further. Six years later, Karl was working alongside those very men he had seen that day, helping to build bridges.

He reminisces, “I just liked the fact that [working in] engineering, at the end of the day you can stand back and take a photograph of what you have achieved. Somebody once asked me what’s the most important profession and I put my hand up straight away and I said bridge building. People laughed a bit but I said “˜Try and go home tonight without crossing a bridge!'”

Karl Waeger started Waeger Group with the help of family and friends – and the trusty family station wagon – back in 1985. Over time, through hard work, personal dedication and smart business strategy, he developed what is now a comprehensive group of three companies, offering solutions in bridges, precast and construction. Though the company focuses primarily on large volume, repetitive precast items, it also offers a wide range of unique one-off products, such as sea wall repairs, rock fall protection fences, or the recent water play area constructed by Design Landscapes at the Commonwealth Bank Building Development in Sydney – a project Karl is particularly proud of.

“People say, “˜oh, you’re lucky to start a business’, but you don’t have to be lucky, you just have to be determined. You have to have the passion, you have to know what you want and if you can visualise what you want, you can actually achieve it. And that’s the great thing about bridge building – you can visualise that and you can go through and do it and then you can stand back and say “˜I built that’ and be very proud.”

As a smaller, family business, Waeger Group brings to the table a passionate, personal and flexible approach to every project, while also offering clients the same diversification and specialisation across a broad range as the larger companies do. Says Mr Waeger, “We’re inspired to construct . . . the passion of the construction comes through.”

In a booming industry with plenty of work but also plenty of competition, the Waeger Group has secured its position, receiving more than enough work. Karl Waeger feels that the company has been able to set itself apart in the industry because of that passion that he and his staff share for the work they do. He says, “[Our staff] are excited about the challenge of doing it and they are excited about working their way through it, and they’re very proud to stand back and see it finished. I think that sets us apart from some of the bigger companies because at many of the bigger companies the people are just there because it’s their job . . . Now a lot of people love their job, but I see how with us everybody here is proud to be part of what we’re achieving. Obviously it’s contagious. People who are very keen to see good jobs done enjoy working with us.”

He also notes that, due to the current boom in the market and the associated skilled labour shortage, retaining employees can be a difficult task for smaller companies, as the larger companies are endeavouring to entice workers away from smaller companies by offering significant financial compensation. Smaller companies generally can’t compete in this way, and so run the risk of losing valuable staff. This has not been the case for Waeger Group, whose dedicated workforce has demonstrated loyalty and faith in the company. Many employees have been with the company for over ten years due to the ample opportunities within the organisation for upward growth and development. One such employee started out with Waeger Group straight out of school as a draftsman, subsequently working his way up through the company over the course of seven years; he is now the Assistant Production Foreman in the Precast yard. Waeger Group also welcomes young apprentices, with four currently on staff. Explains Karl, “That’s all directly related to our philosophy of getting young people in, giving them the opportunity, letting them develop and they then become loyal employees. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth.”

Furthermore, Karl Waeger has created a stable and supportive environment for his clients, who he obviously cares a great deal about. During the economic downturn of the GFC, while other companies were laying off skilled employees, Karl was utilising his employees to expand the company’s infrastructure. He explains his strategy: “We’ve just gone through a dramatic pick-up with the GFC as we actually expanded our infrastructure while all that was happening, because our men were available. I wanted to keep them employed, so with the downturn in the financial world, we’ve actually expanded and now that things are picking up we’ve got all of our infrastructure in place. The banks didn’t like it; they couldn’t understand why I was spending money when it was hard to earn money.”

Waeger Group is especially focussed on growing its capabilities, especially within its Precast yard. On a recent Over Rail Pedestrian Bridge project at Maitland, NSW, Waeger Precast utilised its very first in-house precast Super-T. This project already presented significant challenges, as it required complete adherence to a strict operating schedule in conjunction with railway stoppages scheduled four months in advance. With a window of about forty-eight to fifty-six hours, the team was required to set up machinery on the railway lines, carry out the scheduled work, remove all machinery and fix the railway lines to allow safe transport for the trains.

Previously, for a pedestrian overbridge such as this one, Waeger Group would have had to outsource the construction of the required Super-T, a precast concrete bridge girder. However, Waeger Group had just recently increased its capabilities in its Precast yard, allowing for the successful precasting of this thirty-four metre long, fifty-six tonne girder to be done in-house. It was manufactured in three pieces and post-tensioned afterwards, a challenging but significant milestone for the company. As Karl Waeger explains, it was the “changeover point” from being a small organisation to a professional competitor.

It is through these types of benchmark developments that Waeger Group has become a true one-stop-shop for its clients, offering design services, in-house manufacturing of precast concrete products and complete installations. Says Karl, “It starts to reflect through the job, because at no stage do we say “˜Oh those other people must have done that’ or “˜We’ll leave it for someone else to fix’. It’s our responsibility, so it’s our ownership.” Offering these comprehensive services also ensures that clients receive rapid turnover times – especially for last-minute changes – and reduces inefficiencies and overheads.

Looking to the future, Karl feels confident that Waeger Group will continue to flourish as it has for the last twenty-five years. “We’re a very strong company,” he says, “and we’ll continue to grow through revenue because I see that as one of the critical things in our growth. We never have said “˜Let’s just grow’, we’ve always had a purpose to grow, and we’ve always grown within our own means, which basically gives us a very strong foundation as a company.”

That company, however, will be led into the future not by Karl, but by his youngest brother, Michael, who brings with him the vigour of a different generation. Karl reports with pride, “He’s now worked for me for ten years, and actually before he even went to university, he worked for me on his school holidays. And I look at some succession where he’ll be taking over as the new guard. His forte is that he’s from the engineering background, whereas I’m more from the practical background, so he brings in a different level of expertise.” The change in management, which has been in the works for some time now, is expected to come to fruition within a few months.

Karl intends to spend some of his new found spare time investigating new fibre composite technologies for bridge building, an exploration which he hopes will help Waeger Group as it continues its expansion. And, though he wouldn’t give us the details, we’re certain he has many exciting bridges yet to cross.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 18, 2021, 10:13 PM AEDT