Remote But Not Forgotten

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-By John Boley

Tim Stewart apologised for being “busier than a one-legged goalkeeper.” The Nortruss Group has a huge catchment area as it supplies almost the entire north Australia region from its headquarters in Darwin, and Tim is kept fully occupied with ensuring the full range of building materials is delivered throughout that area whatever the weather or the time of year.

Nortruss was founded nearly 40 years ago and is nowadays three companies in one, all under one banner – the Nortruss Group, including Nortruss Builders Supplies, Kimberley Truss and Gorrkbuy Industrial Supplies, is the largest building supplies company servicing the north of Australia, from Broome to Darwin and Gove, as well as the mining companies and remote communities in between. In turn, Nortruss is part of the Dahlsens Group, a large regional building hardware company.

General Manager Tim is not a native of the north – his origins are the UK and its southwest – but he has been in the area for 25 years following a stint in Malaysia and is fully conversant with the unique challenges of working in the region. He says there is no shortage of people that have come to the territory to try their hand and have found that the Northern Territory is not an easy place to do business. “We had a couple of unfortunate interstate business closures earlier this year,” he remarks. His advice for those considering the move would be “to fully understand what they are letting themselves in for.”

Tim’s view of the market conditions in and around the Northern Territory is that it is some way from its best but the company thrives on diversification. “We are rather at the mercy of the market. We don’t do any construction on our own behalf, but that simply means we have to cut our cloth accordingly.” He points out that the NT single-dwelling housing construction business has decreased by about 40 per cent over a ten year average according to HIA figures. “What that does is force us to concentrate on other areas such as commercial construction or multi-dwelling construction.” Nortruss is not limited to residential building but, “we supply or manufacture anything that is needed for construction of all types.” In all, the company has over 100 employees.

The company manufactures light structural steel, steel trusses, and steel wall frames. “We also manufacture timber roof trusses – we have two plants making those, one here in Darwin and the other in Broome.”

Nortruss also designs roofs, with an in-house design and engineering team that deals with making trusses for individual customers. “We can receive drawings from the architect. They generally work around concepts rather than practicality, and we have to design around what they are looking for, bearing in mind this is a cyclone region (Darwin is a category C area) and roofs have to be built to withstand those events.” Tim says sometimes designs are submitted that take little or no account of the special requirements of building in the area. “We spend a lot of our time assisting architects and designers to ensure their roofs fit well, comply with the building code and won’t blow away in a cyclone.”

A prerequisite for survival up north is an understanding of the logistics of getting building supplies to remote areas. “Certainly logistics is quite challenging and it ranges from using our own semi trailers and trucks to transport materials within 100 kilometres of the greater Darwin area, to then using a combination of barges for remote areas, going out to the island communities, and/or third party transport companies,” to get items beyond that 100 kilometre radius.

For six months of the year, “we have to barge supplies to Gove because the road is flooded, so the fastest and easiest way is to put it on a barge in Darwin. We also send supplies to East Timor, Bathurst Island and other remote communities.”

Does business fluctuate with government spending? “Yes, to some extent, and we are continually at the mercy of either the Territory government or the federal government in the way they release money for various projects. Northern Australia has quite a large number of Aboriginal communities that need vital infrastructure; many of these building projects are supported by either Territory or federal [funding], so it is necessary to wait for sign-off on various projects and until the authorities actually put their hand in their pocket.” Sometimes that procedure can be somewhat drawn out, Tim suggests.

Pricing is keen, Tim says. “But we understand the way the Territory works and the logistics of doing business in the Territory, and without any doubt it is more expensive to move things around up here – distances are huge.” Tim says with some feeling that there are plenty of people who come to the Territory “that think they can do business here but then soon find the reality is a bit more difficult; roads are flooded or washed out during the rainy season, and all of this adds to the cost.”

As a manufacturing company, Nortruss can provide the full range of componentry for any type of construction. “The other thing we do is we have a business group which is a remote supply specialist and will get anything for you – anything at all the builder wants, we will get and it’s not limited to construction materials. We source tyres, safety equipment – all sorts of things – and we are able to get it to the customer in a timely way.”

To some extent this is a logical extension of putting a truck into a remote location – you might as well fill it up with other useful items as well as construction materials. “We will follow the chain all the way down to the end user, bearing in mind that these items might have to be taken off and put on different trucks as it goes down the line.”

Nortruss bends over backwards in its efforts to adhere to schedules and deliver its products on time to its customers, says Tim. “We have an internal programme that measures our own performance and we endeavour to get 95 per cent of all supplies delivered in full, on time – regardless of the weather or the location.” Incoming supplies have to be scheduled and dealt with in a timely fashion, regardless of whether it’s wet or dry “or whether the train has been derailed at Katherine and we have to arrange more trucking.” In return, he points out, it is necessary for the customer to be able to accept the realities and do their ordering in good time and Nortruss is ready to provide advice in this direction.

What this all means, Tim explains, is that “we have to carry probably more stock than other building suppliers in this same industry in other states.” There is a clear cost implication here in terms of inventory. “Space is not at a premium here but dollars are. If this business was in – say – Brisbane, we would be able to get by on running 2.5 million dollars of stock. Here in Darwin I carry nearly six million dollars worth of stock, simply to cater for the location aspect.”

Given its regional pre-eminence, it is hardly surprising that Nortruss has had a considerable involvement in the various intervention housing projects in Northern Territory. “We have done a number of very innovative things, including setting up mobile truss manufacturing plants which allow the Indigenous community to get involved in the actual making of the trusses for their own houses and gives them a sense of ownership – ‘I built this roof.’”

Nortruss acknowledges that without reliable input of incoming supplies, it would not be able to offer efficient service to its end customers. “Suppliers are key to our business and we work closely with them to ensure they can get the raw materials here in a timely fashion. In that context it is important that communications channels are kept open – we give them forecasts in relation to what we expect to sell for a reasonable time in advance.”

Tim says Nortruss always looks for staff with the ‘can-do’ attitude. “The job must get done and it takes a special sort of people. In my time here we have been building a team with the right culture and that has been very important. We have had many people come up here from southern states and most find they just can’t take the weather, especially in the run-up to the wet season when it is hot and humid and there are very tough working conditions. We don’t have a problem getting staff but we have had a problem keeping them because of the environmental conditions. There is not much we can do about that – we can’t air-condition Darwin, unfortunately.”

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 21, 2021, 9:44 PM AEDT