Posted: 11 Nov. 2020

Building a strong team: The construction companies putting people first

L-R Wayne Zeng, Ida Jean Murray, Bronson Murray, Dave Bulling

People make up the backbone of any organisation, so for any business leader, supporting and growing their team is a crucial key to success. That’s nothing new to Fast 50 alumni Chancellor ConstructionNorth Drill and Cook Brothers Construction, whose people-first mentalities make up a central part of their organisations. As part of the trades industry that supports New Zealand, they’ve provided important opportunities to people looking for a trades career.

Recruiting by attitude, not experience

Chancellor Construction was started by Wayne Zeng, whose first attempt at building his own house in New Zealand sparked inspiration in 2010. Now, his company builds homes for people in the Auckland region and beyond.

Many of his staff are recruited from university, through their own programme called the Chancellor Academy, where students can spend time with the company while studying before being invited into a permanent role.

Wayne is a big advocate of recruiting based on attitude rather than experience. The programme includes a buddy system to help people feel supported and Chancellor Construction also has a full training system.

As Wayne explains, ‘we believe that a successful business should also have a robust training capability within the business itself, so most of our team members are trained on the job. Most of them had no previous experience but now they are top performers in the industry.’

In the South Island, construction company Cook Brothers Construction was started by a team of three friends, who also proved that success can be put down to attitude as much as experience. They were new to the industry and trying everything – as Managing Director Dave Bulling remembers, ‘I think because we were so young, we didn’t approach things the same way as other people had done. While others would see a stop sign, we would go, “how can we get around that?”’

Now Cook Brothers Construction is a successful business with office locations across New Zealand. Dave and his co-founders have built a strong team of their own, and this is set to grow even further – they’ve just received the Provincial Growth Fund from the government to hire and upskill 25 more apprentices.

Apprenticeships and people are also essential to the success of Whangarei-based North Drill, which specialises in providing drilling services for utility installations and civil services. Started by husband and wife team, Ida Jean and Bronson Murray, and three family members in 2015, the company brings in apprentices and sets them up with clear career pathways to follow.

From Ida Jean and Bronson’s perspectives, a business has to do more than just provide a strong work life. Facing a housing crisis near their base and beyond, they actively support their team with getting into accessible housing and have KPIs in the business to measure their success. As Ida Jean points out, ‘we have a good work environment but if things aren’t right at home, it definitely affects what happens at work. We try to bring the whole package so we can grow together - at home and at work.’

A strong team of players and supporters

For these companies, creating a strong culture is just part of their daily work – and their methods for motivation have some unusual inspiration. At North Drill, founder Bronson Murray brings his experience as a former professional rugby player to instill a sporting drive. As Ida Jean describes, ‘he’s great at coaching, and lots of our business concepts have been based around the management of a sports team’.

They also ‘do loads of outside activities – hunting trips, fishing trips, activities that can incorporate our families and whanau.’

Cook Brothers Construction have taken a similarly sports-inspired approach. Dave explains, ‘we have a People & Performance manager who has a background in sports psychology. She’s worked with some of New Zealand’s top sporting stars and she’s come on board to work with our team around wellbeing, resilience and building a strong career journey.’

The company also regularly unites the team and their families with charitable initiatives, most recently fundraising for the Child Cancer Foundation with ‘Wig Wednesday’.

As Dave puts it, ‘we live here, our families are here, our kids go to the schools that neighbour our projects. We just want to be able to give back.’

Finding solutions through working together

For all of these companies, putting people first is what’s enabled them to grow and flourish. However, that growth has come with its own challenges.

For Chancellor Construction, their biggest strength in their recruitment can likewise make retention tricky. Wayne says ‘as a young company, most of our staff members are not long out of university. When they grow to a certain career level, they tend to move on to bigger companies.’

However, Wayne has a realistic view of growth. While he recognises the strides his company has made, he says, ‘we’ve seen many other businesses outgrow themselves and not manage that growth. Our way to avoid that is to keep within our comfort zone, which in financial terms for us is $20 million year on year.’ In turn, he balances his team numbers to reflect that steady approach.

Meanwhile at North Drill, their approach to building the team has sometimes made it tricky when they need to hire more people. As Bronson points out, ‘we’re all family and we all look up to each other. Some of the challenges as we’ve grown have been in retaining our structure, to make sure that even with new staff there’s no hierarchy. At North Drill, we’re always as important to each other - we just have different roles.’

The team recently took the national lockdown as an opportunity to assess that approach, saying, ‘for those six weeks, our whole team stayed on and we assessed everything – career mapping, how the company runs. We saw the rewards immediately in terms of clarity.’

For all these companies, their people-first approach has seen them land on the Deloitte Fast 50 with fantastic results, going to show the importance of a motivated and driven team. It’s not as simple as pushing for performance - in today’s world, it’s about looking out for the people you lead.

As North Drill’s Ida Jean describes, ‘’We don’t just look at the business as a way to make profit, but a way to improve the wealth and wellbeing of our people. The business is a tool that enables us to do this.’

Chancellor Construction ranked 5th on the 2019 Deloitte Fast 50 Master of Growth Index.

North Drill ranked 50th on the 2018 Deloitte Fast 50 index and 37th in 2019.

Cook Brothers Construction ranked 45th on the 2009 Deloitte Fast 50 index, 49th in 2010 and 19th in 2011.

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Jen Scouler

Jen Scouler

Senior Digital Content Advisor

Jen Scouler is a Senior Digital Content Advisor at Deloitte, working across the firm's digital communications and social media.