Solid Foundations

Buxton Construction

The company is itself long-established – more than 40 years – but it is no longer owned by the family of the same name. Andrew Briggs, who joined Buxton Construction in 1994, liked it so much he bought the whole company in 2009. “It is my company and I am sole director and sole shareholder,” he explains. “When I first joined the business it had a turnover of around two million dollars and from there we have grown into an seventy million dollar-plus company.”

But as he explains to Construction in Focus, he has resisted the temptation to change the name because of that pedigree and reputation. “I have no wish to get rid of something which is so valuable in the marketplace.”

As Buxton Construction has burgeoned and changed direction significantly since the change of ownership, would the time not perhaps be right to change the name and image too? Andrew is reluctant, especially in these tricky times for the industry. “I never say never, but the industry at the moment is very tight because of the economic climate and there is a shortage of work in general, so it is extremely important to be a well-established construction company in today’s market. Now is not the time to change; having a reputation is number one and it’s something I have worked on a lot over the years – even more so during the last year and a half because I realise it’s of overriding importance. People want stability; they want to be able to see a company that is ‘built on solid foundations’ which is one of our slogans. To change the name now would be fraught with danger.”

Reputation and familiarity may indeed be factors in the type of work that Buxton Construction tends to specialise in. “We do try to concentrate more on projects that are more out of the ordinary, more prestigious projects rather than the run-of-the-mill. We have always tried to be a little bit unique in some form and we try to stay away from repetitive projects,” Andrew shares. The company is very pleased to do repeat business with clients and architects, but not repeat, production-line type jobs – minimarts or warehouses, for example. “We prefer something we can get our teeth into so for us, every single project can be unique in its own special way.”

Andrew and his team have rather more than just kept their heads above water during the economic storm that is the Victorian construction industry. Last year was “probably the most successful year since I have been associated with the company. We are not the only ones – I am sure there are others out there who are doing well on the bottom line.” But these stand-out successes largely have one thing in common: their attitude to the business. “There are two aspects,” Andrew says, “customers and subcontractors. Of course you have to look after the customer and work with them, and the best way to do that is by trust. To be able to provide that trust you need to display integrity and honesty, and if you can do that it is much better than battling over every little matter. If the customer knows you are looking after their interests and doing the best for them, it makes our life a lot easier.

“On the other side you have the subcontractors. We are a construction company whose role predominantly is management – it is the subcontractors who physically do the work on site. If we are able to spend the time and put the resources into managing it, hopefully making life better for the subcontractor so they can be more successful in what they are doing, that then also reflects back on our bottom line too.” With such a relationship a project becomes a team effort and, crucially, “it all comes back to time: time is money and if you can do things efficiently and effectively first time, in the long term it provides better returns.”

Nevertheless, Andrew believes there has never been a more challenging time in building and this often leads to the kind of adversarial conflicts that are all too common in a crisis. If you are not careful to manage efficiently, “things become far more of a battle than they need to. The focus has to be on removing that element of conflict and battle so it becomes easier to get on and build.”

Buxton Construction prefers to specialise in and around the Melbourne area, rarely if ever straying further than Portsea on the Mornington peninsula to the southeast or Queenscliff on the other side of the bay and concentrating very much on the CBD. Andrew had hoped to see some upturn by now in the general business climate, but now says he doesn’t expect any lifting of the general gloom. Financial institutions continue to be exceptionally lending-averse, making it hard for a number of projects to get off the ground and contributing to a growing feeling of pent-up frustration among developers. “I don’t see any let-up in that situation in the near future,” he says, and he is mildly sceptical of the amount of planned or promised work being bandied about as ‘imminent’. “There is money out there, but I think the situation is a lot tighter than many people realise.”

Buxton is not immune, though – last year’s solid profit result was actually achieved on a far lower turnover. Andrew sees 2013 as similar; “with the projects we have in hand I think our turnover will increase again and our return on turnover should be maintained.” To be sure, there is a balance that must be struck. “It all comes back to the management. Ever since the GFC we have focused on being lean but delivering with sufficient resources on a project.”

He believes firmly in ensuring a project is adequately serviced though: ‘lean’ should not simply mean fewer resources and putting sufficient people on a project to ensure delivery is something that maintains the bottom line and retains the happy customer. “You can’t have one project manager looking after six jobs. It’s physically impossible. It is vital not to spread yourself too thin on the ground.” Buxton has just short of 40 staff members, around ten fewer than in the best of times. “You have to structure the business to suit the market conditions,” Andrew says, simply.

Some of the company’s recent and current projects reflect an interesting mix of the challenging and unusual. There is the restoration of the 1890s heritage-listed Bridge Inn Hotel at Mernda; Claremont and Southport Aged Care Limited appointed Buxton Construction as construction manager to manage the design phase of its $23.4 million, 142-bed aged care facility in Napier Street, South Melbourne; conversion and refurbishment program for a sports centre at the University of Melbourne; a striking $8.1 million four-level addition to St Kevin’s College at Heyington; and the company has been appointed by Catholic Homes as construction manager – initially for the design and development stage – for a $35 million retirement apartment complex to be built at 97 Elgin Street Hawthorn. Comprising 70 two and three-bedroom apartments, the development spans five levels over a basement car park.

The company does not have a specific niche or specialisation and has worked across a very broad range of market sectors. But current favourites include hospitality, aged care and education, as well as industrial and commercial. Buxton performs multi-unit residential work but mainly on a negotiated basis.

This diversity should not be misconstrued, however: Buxton will not price any old job just to keep turnover ticking, like some in the industry right now. Andrew and his team have carefully compiled criteria and if a project does not tick all of those boxes, they will not price or tender. “We are quite selective about what we go for and what we build,” he says. Luck is a part of it, he concedes, “but there again, you make your own luck.”

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’?

May 29, 2020, 6:20 PM AEST