Fourth Generation Ethics

T C Clarke & Son

At the beginning, T C Clarke & Son was already ranging far and wide across Queensland, as far up as Ayr, where one building completed during the period is now listed with the Queensland Heritage Register. As Geoff Clarke told us recently, “he was doing both residential and commercial work. We used to do a majority of work for banks around the countryside and did a lot of rural work.” Morris, Geoff’s father, joined Thomas prior to WWII as an apprentice and the team built numerous landmarks. Then, following the war, Morris completed his apprenticeship and ran the business with his father. In the early 1960s it became a proprietary limited company, doing a majority of work for banks and schools, mainly establishments in the private sector. “We also built many commercial buildings, such as warehouses and service stations,” explains Geoff.

The company is an accredited member of the Australian Institute of Petroleum, representing Australia’s oil industry and is “certified to work on petrol stations and train employed and subcontracted personnel on these sites. We also still do some work in the country areas of Queensland.”

In 1963 Geoff himself started work as an apprentice, “and I have been with the company ever since.” After completing his apprenticeship, he took over as an estimator then as foreman, and after Australia’s metrication around 1973 he took near-complete control. “My father said he didn’t want anything to do with all that decimalisation, although he retained his hand on the purse-strings!” From the mid-1970s Geoff controlled the business and around that time started working with what was then known as Coles Supermarkets, spreading into refurbishment work with the likes of K-Mart. “There were quite a few more school building projects and then we moved into a majority of supermarket work,” around the time of the start-up of the major shopping centres. “We were more involved in fit-out and then refurbishment of the retail outlets.”

The company continued building offices, smaller shopping centres, commercial sheds and a number of factory buildings. “Moving into the 1980s we continued with the supermarket work and formed a maintenance division that looks after a large number of Coles facilities.” Into the 1990s, Geoff expanded the business to take in full construction of warehouses and factories as well as continuing the supermarket work and setting up a cabinet-making and shopfitting division “so that we can do all of that in-house instead of subcontracting it out.”

This has proved far-sighted, given the somewhat patchy business climate at present, because T C Clarke & Son can optimise its refurbishment and maintenance capabilities even when the construction side of the business is slow, keeping the company from losing pace. Recently, says Geoff, he has been pricing some work that is not full fit-out but keeping the staff busy. “We also diversified into full fit-out of restaurants and have completed many of them and also been able to subcontract our shopfitting division to other building companies.”

Although it is not possible to control all elements in the building process – weather or product supplies for example – the company’s planning accounts for elements some builders miss. “This is especially so for construction fit-out and refurbishment or retail shop fit-outs, each of which has specialised requirements,” says Geoff. “Timely handover and delivery of your project is on top of our priorities list.” Another high priority is minimal disruption to clients’ operations while performing services such as industrial or commercial building maintenance services or an office fit out done around existing offices.

As Master Builders, the company’s “varied design, building and construction services cover the south east commercial and industrial sectors, from brand new shops, offices and buildings to interior fit outs of offices or shops, and from renovation of commercial or industrial premises to roofing installation or reconstruction.” Geoff oversees the construction project management and, though the majority of projects run smoothly, should issues arise the experience of Geoff and his team makes short work of them. “You need to know your chosen commercial builders have what it takes to move forward when construction surprises unfold.”

T C Clarke & Son maintains its own showroom, where it can proudly show customers what it can do. Reputation and a lengthy track record put the company at the front of the queue and there is a quality, craftsmanship difference that the company brings to its work, although Geoff suggests that “the magic dollar seems to be driving most people just at the moment. In some instances though we can still sell on quality; for example at present we are building the infrastructure cabinet work for a furniture manufacturer.”

But he adds there is a serious and growing problem with products that are being imported from China at a very low rate and being sold on here at rates below what local companies can operate at. Much of this product comes in as flat-pack and requires assembly and the company has even on occasions been asked if it is interested in assembling the packs! Geoff says T C Clarke has looked at the option of importing materials to compete, “but at this stage there is a quality problem and we could not guarantee it. We would not bring in anything that is unsuitable.” Much of the imported material is of indifferent quality and a false economy as money is required to be spent on repairs and replacement at an earlier stage than would otherwise be the case. Home-built quality would last longer, he agrees.

Geoff says he has been involved with the industry for quite a long time and admits conditions in the region are not good right now, with companies coming from far and wide seeking work and sending resumes. But the company maintains its relations with long-term suppliers. “We have quite a large network of subcontractors and many of them have been with us for up to 20 years. We are loyal to them and they are loyal to us.”

T C Clarke & Son has a new and sophisticated customer relationship management system (CRM) in place; fourth generation Scott, who joined the company in 2001, has completed a bachelor’s degree in construction management and is driving the computerisation of the business – CRM, project management, accounting and many other things are being integrated. “It’s not the sort of program you can rush into and finish in five minutes. You have to progressively get everyone trained.”

Customers are seeing the benefits and the paper trail is reduced as more documentation is done on-screen. Keeping everything modern and lean is vital for the company as it looks to complete its first century, says Geoff, something which is rushing up at them at a startling pace. “We are making sure we have the ability to keep producing results. At present we are integrating our accounts into the CRM system.”

Geoff says he is reasonably confident about an industry upturn next year. “We are quoting some work up in north Queensland right now because [clients] don’t seem to be able to get people up there to quote. Not sure what the problem is, although we know some of them have gone to the mines, but we are tendering in Mackay and looking at jobs in Gladstone and Cairns and with Coles Group work we have gone as far as northern NSW.” Clients’ requests to spread the net wider have given the company an unexpected opportunity to expand and Geoff’s team has responded. “We have also been contacted by another client who wants to expand. We have worked for them in Brisbane but they want us to work for them up north too. We are not going further afield to look for work – we are being asked to go there and quote.”

Despite the troubled industry times, TC Clarke & Son retains “ethics and honesty. We treat every client with respect. Something I have drummed into all our staff is the ethical element – when we get a quote from a subcontractor we don’t shop that quote again. If we win the job, they win the job. I tell them up front to give me their best price. We are not old-fashioned in our approach but we do have some old-fashioned values. That’s one reason we have been able to retain our relation with the Coles Group for so long.” With so many successful commercial projects completed over the past 90 years, clients know they can trust their construction, renovation or building maintenance to the trust built by TC Clarke & Son. 2019 is not so far away – roll on the first century.

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’?

June 2, 2020, 2:00 PM AEST