There’s not much Hamilton contractor Dave Connell hasn’t turned his hand to over the years, from digging ditches to running the national organisation, and his achievements were recognised when he was made a life member of Civil Contractors New Zealand recently.
It was a big night for Connell Contractors at the industry conference in Hamilton as Dave’s wife Margo was on stage with him to receive a service to industry award, and the firm also won a major training award.
The recognition comes after Dave played a pivotal role in transformational changes to the industry, including the formation of a single body and the introduction of a trade qualification.
If there’s one thing that marks out Dave’s approach, it is strategic thinking, and that came to the fore during his tenure as chair of the NZ Contractors Federation.
When he was appointed there were two separate contractor organisations, NZCF and Roading NZ, for reasons largely lost in history. He was unimpressed by the way in which Government was able to play the two separate contractors’ organisations off against each other, and the loss of lobbying power.
Roading NZ also had a new chair at the same time, Cos Bruyn. It was a case of right people, right time.
“We got together, and I said, this is ridiculous, it needs to change.”
The ultimate upshot was an annual meeting in Christchurch full of tension for Dave. The much smaller Roading NZ had already voted for change, and now it was NZCF’s turn. There was some resistance from those used to a certain way of doing things and concerned they could become marginalised under a new structure. He presided as the votes were taken and reported back. The result, to his relief, was a vote for change.
“It was amazing.”
He became chair of the new organisation, CCNZ. They had to find a new CEO, and that took nearly six months while Dave kept an eye on things.
Having seen the change in, with a new CEO appointed about three years ago, he followed up with two more years on the board as the past chair, stepping down just a few weeks ago.
He can reflect on a job well done, with the organisation in good health and also in good hands.
But his commitment at the national level didn’t stop there. His lifetime award also recognises his central role in helping set up an industry trade for the first time.
It was enabled by the formation of the new single organisation and kicked in two years ago through delivery partner Connexis. Training is offered right through to a level six Diploma in Civil Engineering, and the promotional Epic programme has just started rolling out.
“We [contractors]build seriously good stuff. and we need to now let parents see what we actually do,’ Dave says. “We’re now getting recognition as an industry of what we’re about and the opportunities for smart young people.
“It’s the perfect time for me to step away, don’t you think?” he remarks. “I’ve caused enough trouble!”
Now, for him, the focus turns to the business he is managing director of, and more strategy. An example of that came after the GFC in 2008. That saw the firm turn its back on commercial contracting and focus solely on civil construction. Dave says that they have probably lost money over the years from doing that, but at the time work had dried up, and the switch has enabled them to take a much more planned approach. “Commercial work ramps up quickly and drops off a cliff.”
Ten years on, it’s looking like the right decision.
They target the three waters – sewer, stormwater and drinking water – and also work on power. From their Hamilton base in Foreman Road they are able to work in the Auckland and Tauranga markets depending on which one is up at any given time. Right now, they are eyeing a Hamilton market that is about to boom.
“We’ve never really seen an opportunity here, and now we see nothing but opportunity. This is going to be our target market.”
Their flexible approach also helped them see and take opportunities in Christchurch after the earthquakes, when they set up Connell Contractors South Ltd and took on difficult jobs in the rebuild.
Perhaps that foray also partly reflects a different, have a-go-side of Dave. Back from overseas in 1985, with a degree in geography and geology from Waikato University, he and two others headed to Tauranga to put in a sewer to make some money. Dave was the guy laying the pipe, while the others operated the digger and the grader. A business was born.
“What a difference today,” he says more than three decades later.
In Christchurch, they employed up to 40 staff doing difficult jobs, and the time was marked for Dave by the firm’s focus on diversity.
Like so many other firms, they recruited overseas, from a range of countries, to get the skills they needed.
“We learned about diversity, about embracing diversity. Margo said, ‘it’s like our OE’.”
Dave is at pains to make the point Margo has been with him throughout; he provides the construction knowhow and she provides the financial skills. Her lifetime commitment award partly recognised her input to the national organisation after she helped in its audit.
When they finally sold up and returned to Hamilton after three years, they brought back with them their new, more diverse approach, which Dave says makes a huge difference to the way they operate.
“We put culture above everything else,” he says.
“I think you should always be employing young people, moving them into your business. The trade has allowed us to attract smart young people.”
That approach sees apprentices making up about a third of their 40-strong workforce, and Connell Contractors now has its first female pipe-laying apprentice.
One unexpected result of their commitment to diversity was the Ministry for Women asking Dave if he would like to be part of a series of talks around the country on diversity and flexibility. Those events were crowned for the couple by Margo reading Louise Upston’s speeches when the Minister couldn’t attend.
It comes as little surprise that training is key for Dave, and he says the Connexis Training Development Award they won recently was the best award they’ve ever been given.
Connell Contractors is about to expand its building to accommodate a boosted training room, so they can get all the apprentices together.
“Most of our apprentices have NCEA level 3, several have university degrees and others have just come to us because they’d love to become part of the industry.
“We also actively recruit overseas for specific skills that we can’t find in New Zealand. And for those guys, it’s very important that they’re there to pass their skills on to the young Kiwis.”
In 2011, the firm made the decision to appoint a board. They chose carefully, and the three independent directors include accountant Jerry Rickman, who established the Hamilton office of PwC, Gill Cox from Canterbury, and a third director from Auckland to help them understand that market. All three are extremely well connected and have sat on the board of NZTA.
“You couldn’t buy these guys, but they all like us,” Dave says.
“We really are part of the industry, not just our own little silo – in that board, we have got intel.”
His commitment to the future is seen also in the ownership structure of the firm. He co-owns it with staff who have bought into it over the years – Wayne Collinson, who has been a partner for 12 years, and Lester Foxall, who has been a partner for 12 months.
“If I drop dead tomorrow, the business would tick over just fine. I challenge most SMEs out there to put that test on their business.”
With some understatement, he says: “For a small-medium business I don’t think anyone beats us for a strategic view.”
Park with a view winner for Hamilton firm
Hamilton’s iconic new park, Victoria on the River, was a winner for Schick Civil Construction at the CCNZ annual awards.
The amphitheatre-style park connects the city to the river, and was a complex build, with 194 timber piles for the boardwalk, rammed up to 7m deep, 2680 linear metres of decking timber and 672 metres of precast concrete retaining walls in the terraces.
Stage one saw the removal of 6300 cubic metres of contaminated material in 2016.
Hamilton-based Schick Civil started the construction contract in April last year, with stage two taking eight months.
Schick won from a strong field of nine finalists in Projects with a value of less than $5 million (company turnover greater than $10 million).
The judges praised the project for its collaborative nature.
“Set in the heart of the city, on a challenging site with many unknowns and difficult conditions, the parties involved collaborated closely to reduce costs, share risk and plan a facility that allowed council to meet its budget,” the judges said.
“This project is an excellent example of what can be achieved with all stakeholders working closely together to deliver an outcome that overcame initial difficulties, while at the same time producing an asset for the city that is very attractive, functional and affordable.”