Northern Delights

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-By John Boley

At Australian Construction Focus, it’s relatively rarely that we talk to companies based in or dealing with the Top End. According to Greg Thompson, managing director of Norbuilt in Darwin, it’s very much our loss.

His company operates largely in that area bounded by Broome in WA to the west and the Queensland border in the east, a region that takes in a vast amount of relatively empty land where construction projects come with a whole truckload of their own challenges and problems to be solved. Oh, and opportunities for fishing, too.

Norbuilt has been going since the early 1980s, mainly under Greg’s own name with the exception of a period of around seven or eight years when he had a business partner who has since retired, leaving him again as sole proprietor. “I personally have run a building business for most of my life and it’s just been getting bigger and bigger,” says Greg.

Almost all the work is done by subcontractors with the exception of administration and a plant operator who drives some trucks and machinery. Norbuilt has offices over in Kununurra and Broome “so we do have our own transport for carting gear around the Kimberleys. In addition, at the moment we have a couple of police stations to build out in Arnhem Land so we truck things over there.”

That is the main reason for running the transport – “there is no regular service out to Arnhem Land; those jobs are quite big,” and, says Greg, contractors demand large fees for going up there “because the road’s so rough.”

It goes with the territory. Likewise, Norbuilt has done jobs in the remote areas in the north of Western Australia, such as Kalumbaru River, where there is only barge access – “we don’t have any dramas with that because we watch the gear go onto the barge and make sure it goes.”

Greg has many years of experience in dealing with these remote areas. “I was brought up in that region and I have always known how to look after staff and get the gear up to them.” There is little difficulty for Norbuilt as long as appropriate measures are taken, he explains, and included in this is the need to look after good staff when you send them out there. Greg has a very clear policy – send your best staff to remote projects and they will get the job done well.

Many other companies tend to send their least valued workers to such outlying spots, on the basis that no-one wants to be there and it might be more difficult to persuade the best staff to go there. “But it really ought to work the other way round,” says Greg decisively. “You have to send your best people out into the bush; you need people who are forward thinkers, who can fix something if it breaks, not prima donnas in those sorts of places. You have to have really good staff out there.”

So “you need to look after staff in the bush. There is nothing more demoralising out in the middle of nowhere than waiting for supplies that don’t turn up.” Hence the need, for example, to ensure supplies are loaded on a barge, so there is a good chance they will be offloaded at the other end. Greg makes a point whenever possible of going to some of the most remote jobs to make sure the lads are okay. It’s evident he enjoys it, or at least manages to make the best of it. “I hitch up the trailer to the 4×4 and I always try to pick the jobs where the fishing is good – that way the boys are happy. There are compensations,” he adds, especially compared to some of the central Australian locations where it is beautiful, certainly, but it’s so empty (which may be code for ‘no fishing’!). “At least around the Top End, with the coastal locations there are ways to get some R&R.” Greg tells a story of crab-pots and after-work line fishing “in some fantastic spots.”

Keeping staff in remote areas is not just about money, stresses Greg – “look at some of the things the miners are doing,” such as squash courts and other relatively exotic distractions. “You would go crazy without something to do.” He and his staff prefer not to go the FIFO (fly in, fly out) route preferred by some who appear not to enjoy the country and want to spend the least time possible on the job. Greg’s staff are given complete freedom to come and go and stay as they please, within the obvious framework of getting the job done. He evidently trusts the people he sends to remote areas to do that with a minimum of supervision.

“When the boys go out there they stay as long as they want, there’s no formal arrangement about what you can and can’t do.” It is not unknown for a staff member to take his wife up there for a kind of holiday; Greg mentions one who did so and recently took some days off so they could go camping. “Right through the Kimberleys – they had a yahoo time; he didn’t come home for eight months! We are very flexible here. I don’t really care what people do or how they do it as long as the job gets done in the end.” The only rule is in the office, he says, where someone has to answer the phone.

Greg reckons there are others out there with the same attitude and skills, but there are plenty of others that fail to share his viewpoint and neglect to look after their staff adequately. “They put their people in tents and the quality of the work is low because no-one wants to be there.” Some clients based down in Perth believed that Norbuilt and everyone else would of necessity produce less and less good-quality work the further they got from the built up areas. “But once we started getting involved, they couldn’t believe how the work improved up in the Kimberleys.”

But surely there is a cost implication in having your best staff out in the bush and looking after them. Doesn’t it simply cost more? “Not necessarily, because if you know what you are doing, you don’t have to put in contingencies. A lot of people do put in contingencies when they are going to the bush, because they are a bit frightened of it. But if you are not frightened and you know what you are doing, your price can be on the button.”

Norbuilt does quite a lot of public work, complying with all Commonwealth OH&S regulations and standards. That is important because a substantial amount of the work that goes on in Northern Territory has Commonwealth funding involved. When Norbuilt finished its Casuarina police station project, which was quite a large design and construct project, “we were told at the end of the job we were better than most – in fact recently we were selected as a ‘role model’ for the industry in general at a public meeting to showcase selection procedures.”

The company is currently building two football fields at Palmerston in a $10-12 million design and construct project. Norbuilt is prepared to do residential projects but not for private clients. It’s happy in the area of projects for Defence Housing, for example, building groups of 15 or 30 units. But Greg says he believes housing is the “hardest thing to do – everyone thinks they can build a house.”

There’s the question of dealing with non-experts who can be tricky to deal with; people always want more than they can afford, he says; and “very few people are satisfied with their house – unless they have a very great deal of money.”

At the end of the day, Greg says, there is no magic formula for success. “We’re just a builder, that’s all.” The one thing he does insist on and tells his staff constantly is that quality must never suffer. Quality comes first every time and second is “to have a happy customer. Of course we all strive to complete a job on time, that’s important nowadays, but our attitude is that we will try to finish on time of course, that’s what we are programmed to do – but we won’t let quality suffer because of it.” The thinking is simple enough – over the long term, people quickly forget if a building was finished on time or not, but they certainly note on an ongoing basis if there is something not quite right about it. For Greg, although the time frame is not unimportant, it’s less important than quality, customer satisfaction and cost. If you do a good job that does not make for problems ten or fifteen years down the line, he says, “nine times out of ten if you manage that, you have a happy customer as well.”

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’?

December 13, 2019, 4:43 PM AEDT