Pride in the Work

John McDonald Building Services

Just how successful can any business possibly be if it is not marketing itself? Typically, any business has a portion of its monies set aside to invest in advertising because it needs to get the word out about its product and name. Very rarely can a company survive or thrive without it. John McDonald Building Services is that rare entity. The company specialises in many areas of construction, ranging from designer homes to construction surveying, project management and supervision, interior design, decoration and urban planning. Even heritage sites are not beyond its scope.

John McDonald Building Services does not have to do much in the way of sub-contracting; instead, it has developed a family of workers who work very well together. We spoke with Managing Director and founder John McDonald, to learn more.

John started by working with Baulderstone Hornibrook on Sydney Convention Centre at Darling Harbour. In that capacity he was a surveyor, and eventually, after establishing his own company, picked up a vast amount of the future Olympic works including the New Sydney Showground and the International Equestrian Centre. John continued to work on major works for the Olympics and many high rise projects throughout Sydney. Meanwhile, he continually watched the market very carefully and decided to expand by getting his New South Wales builder’s license. His company began with duplexes, and then large villas; after doing some research, John recognised an opportunity on the far north east coast, and ended up getting a Queensland builder’s license.

The business soon expanded to include shopping centres in Hervey Bay and villa projects down in the Gold Coast. The company’s reputation grew, and the government came calling with an opportunity to expand into Dubai. “They wanted to establish building companies over there. I came home and reported that I didn’t think Dubai would work, and it didn’t. Then I was introduced to the Qataris. They came to Sydney, and I played host.” John was invited back to Qatar and he formed an urban planning and development strategy. He took engineers, town planners, lighting designers and traffic consultants to try and sort out the needed infrastructure. For four years, he established a practice there, gaining invaluable experience, but inevitably deciding to leave Qatar and the Surveying industry, and concentrate on his passion which is building here in Australia

“The last three or four years, we have really expanded into a niche market of custom building/design,” he says. “We have never built the same home twice. We sit down with every client and go after their needs.” John can personally spend up to 30 or 40 hours working to understand those needs. In doing so, his company designs and builds exactly what the client wants. The client provides a lot of initial input and can then trust that their vision will be fulfilled. Requirements can be as detailed as what kind of door handle to use, colour schemes, floor coverings, etc, and John McDonald Building Services will strive to have a thorough understanding of every facet of the home’s construction needs before commencing work. “We don’t want the client changing their minds part-way through because it can cause nightmares for everyone involved,” John explains. “It’s best to get the systems into place when we have an understanding of what they want. That enables us to design it and progress it pretty smoothly through the job.”

John is very proud of the fact that he runs his business as a family affair. He employs his son who is now supervisor and his daughter, an interior designer, to come on board for some projects and address colour and other specifications. One needn’t be related, however, to feel included in this company. “Employees are an integral part of our business. We are like a big family that gets on very well. We all understand what is required; we all help each other out.” The tilers will help the landscapers who help the painters, and so forth. It is not unusual to see everyone help load and unload materials necessary for the completion of a job. Everybody knows everybody and as John says, “We have one of the best Christmas parties you are ever likely to see!”

The company’s niche market is higher end housing and developments. Even during the GFC, the company has done very well in this particular market. John is very concerned with the quality and finish, and as such, all of the company’s tilers, bricklayers, painters, carpenters, etc, are full time and in-house, not outsourced. John is cautious of expanding too rapidly, as bringing in outside parties could affect the quality and process. He knows exactly what to expect when the company starts a project, and clients, in turn, can trust the John McDonald name.

Word of mouth has carried John McDonald Building Services forward into a corporate success story. “We have not needed to advertise,” John explains. “We have received a lot of awards and recommendations from people we have worked for, which has given us a steady flow of business that keeps increasing.” Indeed, the firm has been steadily receiving awards since first winning the Macarthur Industry Award for Professional Services in 2001. The company later reached the pinnacle of success with one of the highest awards possible in the industry. “Housing Industry Association Spec Home of the year is what I’m most proud of,” says John. “We have won it twice – in 2010, and 2012. It is one of the highest recognised awards we could possibly get. It means that our concepts worked, and the finish we gave them worked.” 2012 also saw success with various Master Builders Awards for the company as well. With awards like that, it is easy to see why advertising is not needed.

Among notable projects is Harrington Grove, a new development in the Camden/Macarthur region. John McDonald Building Services was approached by the estate developers to create a concept design for the entry street. The desire was for an impressive façade greeting visitors driving into the estate. The company designed houses that looked good from both the front and the rear. These houses were very successful and won several awards, two of them receiving the aforementioned Housing Industry Spec Home of the Year. One home also won Custom Built Home of the Year, and another won the award for Display Home of the Year. “We are building the last one at the moment, which sets the whole street off. So the five are called the Family Series,” John explains. “Because we had to design them on spec, I created names for them. I named them after my daughters, mother and nieces.”

Another outstanding project of John McDonald Building Services is the Lady Fairfax Heritage renovation. This demanding job is in final stages of completion. The house dates to around 1860, and had experienced issues with fire, termites, subsidence, and flooding – just about every problem that could possibly have come up. An additional challenge was working with archaeologists and heritage architects. “They are very meticulous about maintaining the original character and substance. So doing some of the needed items can be a very long process. We have to do it in the proper way and keep the original materials. We were literally remaking the doors and windows exactly as they were by sourcing Australian cedar for the duplication.”

A major difference between a new home and a heritage site is that of restrictions and the use of materials. Nothing can be knocked down and the character must be maintained. “You can’t change anything. We have got to work out a way to secure the framework without demolishing it. Keeping it to code and standard is very challenging because we have to work with all of the old materials,” says John. As it stands now the company is working on the last master room, and the work is otherwise complete. There are around 36 rooms in total.

John speaks to the challenges that the company faces: the main challenge, he says, is to get the house right, and be specific with product requirements, including finishes, to minimise any client problems. To have the correct suppliers is fundamental so that logistics are in place and there are no delays. Cash flow is key in the building industry, since payments are top-heavy upfront. Building companies who spend it all, taking on too many projects, will end up short of cash and eventually go under. John McDonald Building Services, in contrast, is very efficient with planning and delegation so these issues do not arise.

And what of expansion? John believes in expanding in a progressive and controlled fashion. The company is receiving inquiries all the time, but has enough on its plate at the moment. It will also not be expanding outside of Australia. John has been there, done that and is in no hurry to venture outside the confines of home.

John McDonald Building Services is doing very well right now, and is looking strong for the foreseeable future. A sterling reputation, a family atmosphere and a niche market are all working in the company’s favour. “If we can improve our designs and quality every year as well as customer service, we will survive through the leanest of times. The ones that get greedy will fall over. You also have to keep a good rapport with your workers. You can’t treat them like subordinates.” John McDonald is doing it right and doing it well. It is safe to say that John McDonald Building Services will be in demand for years to come.

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, 5:54 AM AEDT