Successful NZ construction business owner talks about his companies journey

by Brendan Torazzi

Nov 15, 2018

Brendan: welcome to Episode 8 of the Australian Health and Safety Podcast. I’m Brendan Torazzi. The founder of OHS.com.au. We’re working towards making Australia's number one health and safety marketplace. Today I’m here with Steve Bowling from Bowling Infrastructure Group. Good day Steve.

Steve: good day Brendan how are you?

Brendan: I’m well. This is a continuation of the Fiji series, the last night here over in the Coral Coast. I’ve met Steve who runs quite a large construction group in New Zealand. Tell us a little bit about what your business does Steve.

Steve: our business is a sort of a multifaceted construction company that we run a management company that runs the daily operations for five construction companies which range from piling and retaining civil construction, general construction building. Also run and engineering shop and the business is based Whangerei but we also do business in Auckland as well. We do move around a little bit.

Brendan: how long have you been running the business for and what was your journey getting from when you started? How did you start and to where you are?

Steve: I naturally did a carpentry apprenticeship as a young bloke, 15. Finished my apprenticeship. Did a little bit of high rise construction in Australia for a year or so. Came back to New Zealand and got involved with a piling company. I had a real interest around bigger machinery, drilling and piling and stuff like that. That sort of was my basis of my training in the early days and then I ended up working for a local piling company but obviously the owner of the company, it was a smaller company so I was never going to get much further than sort of being the foreman or something like that. I decided to leave the company and start my own business. I think I must have been about 35 and bought a little blue truck and put my name on the door Steve Bowling Contracting and that is kind of where it all started.

Brendan: fast forward through today how many staff are you managing across the groups?

Steve: we run a 150 employees and probably run another 20 or 30 contractors who pretty much work full time for us here. We try them busy. They’re a big part of our business as well.

Brendan: the health and safety laws changed in New Zealand recently. Has that made a big impact in how you run your business and what sort of things have changed?

Steve: it certainly has. It brings a whole new level of compliance and obviously with the health and safety regulations coming into to New Zealand, we've just got to be so much more careful than what we did when I started off working for myself. We’ve actually just recently employed a full time health and safety officer for our business because it was getting too complex for the individual managers or site managers to run on their own. We’ve just step up and up the game for our businesses.

Brendan: has that been a positive for the business. Like I guess when you're going for tenders and that sort of thing?

Steve: just the people that we want to work for expect that we've got that level so obviously the work that we're tendering for we've got to have that health and safety level within our tender bids. We had no choice. We got pushed into that situation. We needed to get to a higher level so that is what we're trying to achieve now.

Brendan: do you think it's made the workplace safer? Comparing to before the act came in New Zealand or does that push the responsibility like in Australia we have the PCBU term which is the Person Controlling Business and ultimately they're responsible for the health and safety of workers.

Steve: we've also got exactly the same system working in New Zealand now. Has it made it any safer? We don’t use to have a lot of accidents. I think guys are probably a little bit more common sense around what they're doing. In the construction industry you're going to get little nicks and cuts. They're never going to stop but it's the big accidents that this just trying to avoid the disc and the head and serious arm accidents I don’t think we have any less because of the new system that is in place but in saying that I didn’t really have any figures to work off prior to that. We have nicks and cuts and those sorts of things but nothing more sinister than that. Nothing has really changed. We try to look after our guys and send them home to the families at the end of the day safe and sound.

Brendan: you mentioned that about four years go you got into asbestos removal. Can you tell us a little bit about how that started?

Steve: basically we're getting a contractor to do, a small town contractor coming in to do bits and pieces of asbestos for us. He was a bit of an annoying sort of chap to me. I suggested to my guys that we should be looking at doing the asbestos ourselves rather than using a contractor. I could kind of see that there was going to be a bit of demand with the asbestos how it's coming into a high profile hazardous material so we basically got a couple of guys certified. It’s now become a big part of our business. Probably the growth area we've had in our business for the last five years is around asbestos removal.

Brendan: do you think that the big earthquake that happened in New Zealand a few years back now, it was in Christchurch. Do you think that sort of brought it to the public's attention?

Steve: I think it did. Definitely there was a lot of asbestos issues down around Christchurch and they worked out pretty quickly that just didn’t have enough people there to do the asbestos work the way it was meant to be or needed to be done. There were some across the bigger construction companies the Fletchers and people like that did a few crash courses for staff to get them upskilled in asbestos. It certainly was influential and pushing it to the fore in New Zealand.

Brendan: are you still doing work in the Christchurch area? Where is your main demand coming from?

Steve: main demand at the moment is coming out of Auckland. We’ve got our local market but we find in that local market there is a lot of smaller guys sort of offering their asbestos removal without the level of compliance that I think actually needs to be happening. It’s something that needs to be tidied up in the industry because there are a few cowboys still out there doing a bit of asbestos removal. I think they'll slowly get weeded out. They’ll get found out. We go to a lot of effort to get everything compliant with what safe folks are wanting. We do our best to do it in a compliant way. These are the guys who get found out eventually.

Brendan: in Australia every now and then it hits the newspapers that there's been asbestos illegally dumped. Is that something that happens in New Zealand as well?

Steve: it does happen in New Zealand. Illegally dumped. Illegally buried on farms, demolition material getting burned and house lots taken to the back of somewhere and getting burned where people think nobody can see them or whatever. That does go on. I think that along with (0:10:18.4) in the industry will slowly get tidied up.

Brendan: is that do you think a result of convenience or is that more so the cost for disposing the asbestos correctly?

Steve: probably a little bit of both. I think the cost is for the general public I think. The cost is pretty expensive. I think before the commercial guys the cost is there but as long as they're passing that on there's no requirement for them to fly dump it anywhere and as long as they're covering their cost they should be doing it the right way.

Brendan: I’ve heard in Australia that there will be quotes. One will be from a company who is reputable, who is doing everything right. The other one is from someone who is not doing it right but I guess over time you build a reputation as a company that is doing the right thing and win work that way.

Steve: certainly some of the clients that we're working with are not, I wouldn’t say they're not concerned about the cost but they don’t mind paying to have it done the right way. Those are the clients that we want. We don’t want to be working for someone who is driving for the lowest dollar and inevitably that creates corner cutting and we're not interested in those people. We want to do the work in a compliant manner and that is what it costs to do it. That is what you need to pay to have it tidied up properly.

Brendan: what are some of the things that you've seen at the other end like when you're going to the local councils? I guess where I was leading this question coming back to Australia I’m sure that the issue is local councils perhaps don’t have the education or training behind them on how to when it goes to the dump how to then get rid of the asbestos that has been double bagged and properly sealed.

Steve: that always is an issue. You’re talking about how it's dumped and where it's dumped.

Brendan: yes like say you take it to the tip and everything is wrapped up properly. What happens then?

Steve: we go to a lot of effort to wrap it up nice and tidily and have it all taped and all the rest of it. Quite often when you see it get to the tip side it's just pushed into a hole and the bags are up to all the rest of it. You kind of wonder a little bit why so much effort to put, you know why the effort is put to having them and then for it just to be ran over by a bulldozer and ripped open and all the rest of it it's I call it defeating the purpose a little bit but I think the councils are slowly coming on board what it costs to get rid of it. We do quite a bit of the insurance industry and they are finally working out that they need to do things right as well. It’s not all about the cheapest price.

Brendan: it's not necessarily what's happened today. It’s what someone that has been exposed to asbestos what may happen in 20 years’ time.

Steve: you're right. We have some employees doing this asbestos removal work who family members of our management team who certainly don’t want to do them any harm so we make sure that they've got all the safety gear that they need to do the job right. We go the extra mile for those boys.

Brendan: looking at the New Zealand market are things growing at the moment? What is your outlook for the next few years?

Steve: we're pretty solid. Our workloads are strong now. We’ve had the last sort of three years have been good, strong growth. A lot of good project work around, massive shortage of good staff, really struggling to get the people we need to do the work. We can get the work but we've struggled to get the people to do it. There’s just not enough probably trained tradespeople. There’s plenty of labor but you need people to run the jobs, control the jobs and take lead roles. They’re just not there.

Brendan: I’m going to ask you a few questions now just to wrap up. How old are you?

Steve: I’m 58.

Brendan: what do you like to do to keep active?

Steve: my main passion is surfing. Whenever I get an opportunity that is what I’m doing. Also I do quite a bit of stuff around home. I take a lot of pride in my property and keep that pretty immaculate. I do like cars. I’ve got a couple of nice cars which is like to drive but definitely surfing is my main passion.

Brendan: how many hours sleep do you get on average per night?

Steve: I do tend to wake up at four o'clock in the morning these days but I find that I’m getting to bed a little bit earlier nowadays. If I get six or seven hours sleep I’m generally pretty happy with that.

Brendan: what personal goals do you have in the next 12 months that you're looking to achieve?

Steve: personal goals my wife and I are looking at a little bit of development work in the way of buildings. We’re currently building eight apartments which we're funding and our companies are building them. It’s a win-win for all of us. I think over the next year we'll be looking for another project to do and possibly relaxing a little bit more and spending a little bit more time with our grandkids.

Brendan: finally, what business achievement do you like to be most remembered for?

Steve: I think my wife and I, I can’t say that I’ve done all this on my own because I wouldn’t have done it without her. I think just building the business that we've gotten now is probably a pretty cool achievement for us. We started from pretty humble beginnings. We struggled to put food on the table every week. When we were reasonably young we had four kids. We had no holidays and things like that. To be where we are now I think is a massive achievement for us.

Brendan: that is amazing. If people want to find a little bit more about the business do you have a website that they can visit?

Steve: they can visit Bowling Infrastructure Group. Just google us, .com.nz.

Brendan: BowlingInfrastructureGroup.co.nz. Thanks very much for coming in.

Steve: all right, Brendan. Thanks very much. We’ll see you in the waves in the morning.

Brendan: if you've been enjoying the podcast make sure that you subscribe and telephone. See you next episode.

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