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Habitat NT

There is no magic formula for Habitat NT, just some attention to the basics. The company’s logo says: ‘Quality builders that return your call’.

How unusual is that? Very, says Paul Winter. “You would not believe how many people, when I call them back, say ‘thank you’ because every other builder they called is either too busy or in an area where reception is poor.” Paul says he put the motto on his business cards before he even started trading; it was based on personal experience as, he explains, “I called five or six builders and not one returned my call. Not one.”

He believes this is a regional rather than a national problem, possibly caused by the general ‘laid back’ demeanour of people in the Territory; Paul’s father has the opposite experience down south, with builders queuing up outside his door after a call. But in NT, “you’ve got the job straight away, just because you’ve called the customer back. It’s not rocket science; it’s something called ‘customer service’. The customer is the boss and if you don’t call the boss, you get fired.” The industry is not good enough at customer service, he agrees. “If you have a website and it says things, you have to do those things. Do what you say you are going to do.”

To be sure, the residential market around Darwin is very strong right now because of the imbalance between supply and demand. “Building a property up here as an investment, or to live in, you will always be ahead of the game and the return on investment outstrips anywhere else in Australia at the moment,” shares Paul.

To succeed is largely a matter of understanding the peculiar local conditions. “Not just as in material and labour; weather too. If you bring up guys from down south, many of them cannot handle it.” Paul cites the case of hiring a concreting team some time ago, which had promised “red-hot” prices. Midway through the concrete pour – literally on the day of pouring – “they were all lying on the grass out front with a hose on them, and I had to bring in my own team to finish the job. They could not handle the heat.”

Part of the extra cost is to do with logistics. This is not an easily accessed part of the world and a builder needs to be on the ball in terms of ordering supplies. “If you don’t order things early, you will never meet your deadlines. Our saying is ‘on time, on budget and safe’.”

Paul is a former army officer with some 20 years of service around the world including tours in East Timor and Iraq. He runs Habitat NT with his business partner George Kamitsis, a builder with two decades of experience in the conditions of the Darwin area who can both design and manage projects. The company was established in 2008 before Paul left for deployment overseas. At that time the market was not strong; its first tenders were for government and the first to be successful was for a brick disabled-access toilet in a school. From there, the company progressed in leaps and bounds as more government work flowed; “most of our residential work is for government,” says Paul, “including a lot of social housing projects, anything up to around 15 houses at a time.”

Primarily, business is located in the region immediately surrounding Darwin itself, but Habitat NT is part of a panel of builders that undertakes any form of rural work and Paul is happy to do that too (the panel is largely concerned with Indigenous housing programmes, although there have been a number of challenges with the programmes themselves, not least their cost). Such work has its own challenges as well. “Logistics is a primary issue there – not just getting the freight in but manning too and running a workers’ camp.” At several times of the year, of course, supplies cannot be moved by road and need to be barged down the coast instead, adding to the general fun.

Habitat NT is the kind of construction company for which no job is too small or too large and Paul turns down nothing; he would welcome another brick toilet. “We are into absolutely everything. Sheds, commercial offices, warehouses, custom houses, modular houses, renovation of a bathroom or renovation of a complete house.” The company built show houses for Bunnings’ modular home range and the demo homes bear its name; most customers for these homes come to Paul and his team, who can finish a cyclonic-rated house within three to four weeks. “People love that. These are properly constructed houses, not the sort that will fall apart,” he shares. He says there is no downside to the ‘we’ll do anything’ approach and upmarket custom-home customers are more impressed by the illustrations of successful projects on the website than they might be turned off by the fact that Habitat NT also works on far more basic projects. Paul listens to the customer, establishes just what kind of upmarket home they want (and the budget), then takes them to the architect most appropriately suited to the specific project.

Fittingly, this approach has seen the company growing fast. In the last two years Paul has taken on five more staff, used mainly as site managers – previously it was ‘just’ George and himself. “I don’t employ trades, but our site managers can bring a project in on time and safely, within budget.” The managers can run three to five sites each at a time, George and Paul are able to run five or six each – and Paul assures that they are all keeping very busy right now.

He admits that breaking into the burgeoning oil and gas industry boom in NT is not easy. “I have given it a go, submitted tenders, but haven’t really heard much back,” he says. “It hasn’t been a good-luck story yet. They are looking for tier two or three companies but I would prefer to be tier one.” He says this is not a company to just work on a small part of a project and then walk away; the team prefers to see a project through from start to finish. “Yes, we will do anything, but my preference is to do the whole job, not just walk away.” Rather, he thinks Habitat NT is doing so well around Darwin precisely because some of the larger competitors are now wrapped up in the work in oil and gas.

The company believes community involvement is very important. “It’s about getting out into the community – they give me the money so I should give some back.” It’s also good marketing. Much of the company’s involvement revolves around sports sponsorships – Habitat NT is sponsor of the NT Premier Soccer League and the Indigenous Soccer Academy (Johnny Warren Foundation), and supports the NT National Defence Volleyball Team, the National Sailing Championships for the NT Minnow Association, BMX championships and the St Vincent De Paul’s CEO sleep-out, among a variety of other events and causes. The annual CEO sleep-out raises awareness and support for an estimated 105,000 homeless Australians. “The funds assist to provide relief to the homeless through crisis accommodation, domestic violence support, access to budget counselling, life skills courses and legal advice. Educating people on making better choices and helping them plan for change and return to independent living.”

This is what used to be called enlightened self-interest, as the company is putting its name across in virtually all the regions socio-economic brackets, avoiding a ‘downmarket’ or ‘upmarket’ label. Paul says his philosophy is simply that, “if you want anything related to building, call me and I’m there.” Oh, and he promises to ring back.

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May 26, 2020, 6:02 AM AEST