The Road to Success

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-By John Boley

York Civil Pty Ltd commenced operations in South Australia in 1990 with a workforce of just 10 people but the company has seen commendable growth over the intervening 21 years and now employs well over 300 staff. Managing director Dominic Vieceli has been with the company throughout its history, as a director since 2001, and explained that it began by primarily servicing BHP Billiton at Whyalla and gradually grew further into the infrastructure market.

Dominic says the company saw a niche for middle-tier players in this sector. “We worked towards building ourselves up to serve that sector of the industry and I believe we have done it quite successfully over the last 20 years.” It has been achieved, he says, by taking care over building relationships with clients. In the early days of the company, it was clear that too many relationships between builders and clients in general throughout the industry were less than ideal, with a constant whiff of litigation in the background and too much conflict, and York Civil was keen to encourage clients into a more team-focused role in a partnership.

An early example of this approach came with the Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure (DTEI) in South Australia, which was keen to enter into partnering and invited York Civil to adopt such an arrangement. “That contract was very successful so we kept entering into that kind of contract, and it reinforced our view that we were on the right track in terms of relationship. This format worked both ways, with the client and with subcontractors and suppliers.”

Dominic believes the less aggressive policy pursued by York Civil stood the company in good stead, and he agrees that the industry has been overly adversarial. “Very much so. In the late 1980s especially it was a very adversarial industry and very litigious.” But by then, clients were starting to realise they did not have the capacity to keep fighting contractors and instead began looking for a new model. This trend surfaced first in Queensland, says Dominic, and the DTEI was one of the early adopters down in SA. “They took this relationship on board and we have been running with it ever since.” In the past ten years almost all contractors have moved towards this style of contracting, says Dominic.

York Civil stays ahead by making sure it “punches above our weight”. This is far from easy but achieved by always trying to go to the next step in terms of relationships. In addition, “we always try to ensure that for our size of company we kind of ‘over-service’ our clients.” This entails a somewhat larger overhead than might be seen as strictly necessary, more than the bare minimum, but it turns out to be good value, enabling the company to keep servicing its clients in terms of design management and offering other services to clients that competitors either do not or cannot offer.

This is a constantly moving target though, as Dominic points out that “people are catching up and it makes it hard to stay ahead. All we can do is ensure we have the right people to keep on servicing our clients and that is what we are concentrating on right now.” He explains that the company faces substantial opportunities for growth, particularly in Queensland, but it wants to manage its growth carefully, in a measured way, “because we understand that if we take on too much work and we don’t offer the same level of service, all of a sudden we are back with the pack and our edge is gone.” Dominic’s priority is to ensure that the company can actually back up what it says it is going to do; part of that imperative is ensuring the right people – quality and quantity in staffing is vital. “We are very cognisant of the fact that in our industry, particularly infrastructure and mining, there is a shortage of good people. We feel we can currently service our clients well and we want to keep it that way.”

For most of its history, York Civil has been able to self-perform its works. There has been a “very loyal” staff – supervisors, carpenters, labourers, general skills across the board – something that Dominic values highly as they have been the face of the company, representing it on site. “They share the company values you don’t get that with larger companies who do have to employ a lot of subcontractors – that’s another edge that we have in that we are very much owners of our own destiny.” Retention rates have always been high “because of the culture we have built within the company.” It is important to strike a work/life balance and not drive people into the ground. Throughout the GFC, York Civil retained its entire staff. “We didn’t let anyone go; we stayed loyal to all our staff in recognition of their loyalty to us over the years. Neither did we use the GFC to cut pay rates – we maintained our current pay levels.”

Dominic recognises it is no longer possible to carry out everything from within the company and there is a need to strengthen relationships with reliable sub-contractors as York Civil keeps on growing. Also, he says – in common with most of his peers – it is getting harder to find new staff and to retain good people, so the company is looking at new ways of incentivising them.

But keeping people is aided by the company’s philosophy of staying in the space where it wants to compete and not straying downmarket or competing solely on price. “Our engineers are actually proud to work for us because of the fact we are not only about price but about delivering a quality product. It’s important to us and it’s important to the people who work for us as well. If we try to dive down and just get work for turnover then all of a sudden it erodes the culture within the company.” There are several good long-term projects in the pipeline through to 2012, says Dominic, including work on the Murray River and the Rail Revitalisation Project, and some valued, discerning clients to work for. “We work mainly for clients – SA Water, BHP Billiton, clients at that level – who really value our safety systems, quality systems, environmental systems and the like.”

As for the Railway Revitalisation Project, York Civil is in a joint venture with John Holland and Colemans and has delivered the first section already. Dominic notes it was handed over ahead of time and under budget “and it really has been getting glowing reports from the end user – which is the train operator.”

He says the DTEI has been very happy with the value for money they have been achieving on the project in terms of the design and the way it has been delivered. Design normally accounts for around 6-7 per cent of a project’s cost but York Civil has been able to deliver design for under 4 per cent “with a very quick turnaround.”

In general, says Dominic, the company relishes a challenge. Rather than run-of-the-mill projects, “we prefer the projects that have more technical requirements about them – then you are not playing in the field that anyone can do, you have to have good expertise and engineering backup and that’s where we excel. When a client comes to us, they are going to get surety of delivery. That’s what we are about. We don’t claim to be the biggest or the best. But we do think we are a good, consistent contractor that can offer surety of delivery for a client in every aspect.”

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’?

July 14, 2020, 2:05 PM AEST