Thinking Big

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-By John Boley

Surely ‘ Plumbing Contractor’ is a rather inadequate way to describe Axis Plumbing Group, given its technical and geographical diversity? That’s the question we put to Managing Director Clem Morfuni, General Manager George Spyropoulos, Estimating Manager Patrick O’Brien and Robert Elliot, who heads up the NSW operation.

Commencing operations over seventeen years ago, Axis Plumbing, through the guidance and vision of both Clem Morfuni and George Spyopoulos, has steadily grown its operations throughout Australia, creating arguably the premier hydraulic contractor serving the commercial building services and construction industry in New South Wales. In 2003, the Company expanded into Queensland, a year later in the Australian Capital Territory and then followed by Western Australia, New Zealand, Victoria, London and Thailand.

With over 350 full time employees and offices in five regions of Australia and New Zealand, Axis Plumbing is able to both respond to and meet the rigorous needs of multinational and local construction organisations operating throughout the Australasian market and beyond, now with offices as far away as Thailand and the UK.

Clem Morfuni explains, “Thailand has been set up for estimating, quantity surveying and drafting whilst the UK is a multi-disciplined business with mechanical, electrical and hydraulic services because that’s the way the UK market likes to do things. Our Chiang Mai (Thailand) office prices hydraulics, mechanical and electrical with a long-term aim of expanding the design component to provide design services for the Group.”

“There is a combination of strategic and cost reasons at work here. We had to grow the business and it also works well with time zones. From an estimating point of view it gives us coverage over a longer business day. The office has a mixture of predominantly local Thai staff and an Australian General Manager who has relocated to there.”

In the UK, Axis’ business has at least doubled in the space of 3 years, the biggest increase coming over the last 12 months after a slow first two years as the offshoot found its feet.”We are trying to carve a niche in the market to find our best fit. The UK is different to Australia – you’re not just a plumber over there, you have to be multi-disciplined, and because we worked with mechanical contractors in Australia – mechanical is not foreign to us – it wasn’t so difficult to extend the service over there.”

“I think we have a different approach to construction in Australia to what they have over there (in the UK) – a more flexible attitude. Not only that, Australians still value our tradesmen here, we believe we have some highly skilled people here in comparison to what the UK market has to offer and what it has effectively done to its tradespeople by shopping work out to less experienced and trained people.”

Some of Axis’ existing staff have gone to UK to work there. “We have a pretty skilled workforce” which is also ready to pack a suitcase. “Key people, and we also have plumbers that are a little nomadic, value the UK experience or the Europe experience.” It’s similar to big projects in Canberra that Axis worked on, where the labour pool was limited and the company supplemented the local labour with tradesmen & apprentices from its other offices. Some of those moved at the end of the projects to another big job in Perth, and some of those then progressed to the UK office.

The company trains from within. “What we say to our apprentices is ‘a job with Axis is what you want to make it.’ We are offering more than an apprenticeship – if we find the right person it’s more like a cadetship” and many staff remain and move through the ranks to senior management, rendering plumbing into a career rather than just a ‘job’.

“Very rarely do we need to advertise for tradespeople – mostly it’s word of mouth. What we find – not only in Sydney but a couple of other locations – is that because we do cover a broad range of services rather than being simply a residential unit plumber, it’s attractive to the guys because they are not just doing the same thing for two years. We can offer the guys variety, and because we ride the peaks and troughs – you know, when units die off there may be some commercial, or hospital, or mechanical work – that gives us a stable workforce and that’s attractive to the tradesmen and the apprentices.”

Stability comes with versatility. “Because we are spread across quite a few markets and quite a few destinations, not every state has to perform year-in, year-out – although we’d like them to, we don’t always have that luxury. But as long as something is contributing somewhere, the business keeps going.”

Western Australia, for example, is currently a focus for Axis. “We have plans for growth into the mining industry through accommodation camps and mining establishment camps… We are trying to tap into that market at the moment.” Axis is talking big, as usual – “substantial camps, for 3,500 men, for example, where you are building a small city to house them.”

Can Axis simply ‘walk’ into a new location and secure landmark projects? “To some it may seem like that, but we don’t just turn up overnight. We do the hard yards for maybe three or four years before we could say we nailed a cornerstone project.” There is also a suggestion that the entry of Axis into some destinations may have stirred up the local market, where a few majors had been operating with relative comfort for some time. “That gave us the opportunity to exploit our strengths in offering alternative solutions and ideas rather than the standard up-and-down package everyone else would put on the table. It’s not all about cutting margins, it’s about value management in design, and because there is a depth of design capability in the background of our key people, we can offer alternative solutions that maybe some of our competition can’t. So we can still maintain a little bit of margin but also retain an edge.”At the same time, many clients are becoming increasingly sophisticated in terms of what they want. One example is that Axis now has a national safety Manager “who can liaise with the key safety people of major corporations and talk at that level.”

Axis has a good name on both sides – the trade and the clients. “You need both to make the business what it is. It’s one thing to be able to win a job but you have to be able to back that up time and again and we need quality tradespeople to be able to do that.” In relation to Australia’s much talked-about skills shortage, Axis finds it may have to interview from a pool of, say, 40 to find a new group of staff instead of 50, as in years gone past, but the ‘shortage’ has not yet begun to bite hard.

In the meantime the company continues to explore growth opportunities in new geographical areas. Clem Morfuni in particular has been investigating some serious possibilities and the “we think we have something unique here in the quality and the way we do things. We have the expertise so another market would just be another step.” Watch this space, is the message. Axis, as we said at the start, is not just your average ‘plumbing contractor’.

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’?

March 28, 2020, 7:23 PM AEDT