henley

Stronger than ever

Henley Properties has experienced rapid change over its 30-year history, and today the 2020 HIA Australian Professional Major Builder is focused on maintaining its size, keeping nimble and providing the best customer experience possible.

Photos courtesy Henley Properties Group

Author

Ian Bushnell

Too big, too fast. It’s a common scenario for a growing business and one that can often end in disaster.

That fate could have easily befallen Henley Properties, the winner of the 2020 HIA Australian Professional Major Builder award, if its management hadn’t taken stock and made changes to the way it was doing business.

It may not be the biggest home builder in Australia like it once was at the turn of the century but today it is stronger, equipped with what CEO Tony Blackshaw calls ‘a winning culture and singular focus on its customers’.

Twenty years ago, Henley was building 4200 homes a year across four states. These days it’s more like 2000 per year, mostly in its home state of Victoria and Queensland, but still with a presence in NSW and South Australia.

 
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Tony Blackshaw, CEO Henley Properties
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Henley Properties is the recipient of the coveted 2020 HIA Australian Professional Major Builder Award

Henley started up in Melbourne’s south-east in 1989, found itself without much competition after the 1990 slump and boomed, becoming the largest builder in Victoria by 1995 and then Australia in 1999. ‘It was a phenomenal growth story within 10 years to achieve that,’ Tony says.

But post-GST the business could have easily failed, he says. ‘What we will do today and what we won’t do today are actually driven by the lessons from that big growth period.’

With that growth came issues around site management and construction, requiring a review of practices on the ground, as well as how the business was being run. This meant being more selective about which sites the company would agree to build on to limit potential problems, reducing the number of changes in the build and tightening supervision to achieve a consistency of product. 

A site supervisor today will typically manage around half the number of sites at one time compared to the late 1990s, meaning more can be done to care for customers, trades, safety and quality. 

But Henley can have about 1200 sites under construction at any one time – that’s a lot of balls in the air to juggle without dropping.

For Tony, however, making it work is all about having the right systems, the right people and the right culture. In addition to the site supervisors, the company maintains its own quality assurance teams to conduct independent inspections. Relationships with trades and suppliers are also vital, ‘because, ultimately, they will build the quality into the product on day one, which is as critical as anything, that we’re all on the same page and we’re holding people to account’. 

 
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In addition to site supervisors, Henley maintains its own quality assurance teams to conduct independent site inspections.
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Henley can have about 1200 sites under construction at any one time.

But the real focus is on whether what the company does makes for a better customer experience, and if not, then it asks ‘why are we doing it?’

Henley’s independent internal customer service excellence team surveys customers eight different times during the entire build so it can better understand their concerns and needs during what can be a long and exhausting process.

‘It’s understanding where the pain points are and working really hard to make sure they don’t become an issue in the relationship,’ Tony explains. ‘It’s really important to understand that. We all know that sometimes things don’t go exactly to plan, but we want to minimise the numbers of times this happens and instead help our customers have a great experience.’

But being able to deliver the best possible experience to the customer just doesn’t happen on its own. It’s a product of clear, guiding principles, consistent expectations, and a holistic and inclusive approach to training and mentoring so staff have a stake in the company’s success. 

A tried and tested business planning and budgeting system gives managers a clear understanding of their responsibilities, accountabilities and targets. ‘There is no shifting of the goalposts,’ he says. ‘If staff have a very clear understanding of how they can win – and we make it easy for them to win – that creates a culture of wanting to come to work and wanting to deliver the absolute best you can.’

The company has dedicated trainers and training systems so its 500 staff can see what success looks like from day one, and a mentoring program from the CEO down that includes one-on-one sessions.

There are also meetings with suppliers and trading partners so staff can get an understanding of their businesses and how they interact with Henley. ‘We don’t practice exclusivity here, we’re all one big team,’ Tony says.

 
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Running a successful company is 'all about having the right systems, the right people and the right culture'.
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The other factor in Henley’s success over the years has been to embrace innovation.

The other factor in Henley’s success over the years has been to embrace innovation, whether that is including garages as a standard feature, making two-storey homes affordable for average buyers, developing open plan designs, offering finance or adopting five-star energy ratings before they were government mandated. 

A decade ago it built a zero-emissions house with the CSIRO, and now offers a six-star energy rating across its standard house plans. The company has taken sustainability and high environmental standards seriously, not just because in doing so it adds value to the business but because it’s the right thing to do, Tony says.

‘You need to be at the forefront of that corporate and social responsibility, whether the consumer can see the value of it or not, you need to be doing it anyway.’

Henley has also been a keen adopter of IT, making a big investment in business management software in 2006 and using other systems and digital platforms to enhance its processes. Tony says a business needs to be really nimble in that area, and the COVID-19 situation has highlighted this. But at the same time, he says a business should not overcomplicate matters and should continue to ask the question, ‘will it make life better for the customer?’

Innovation can often involve risk, and bringing Japanese firm Sumitomo Forestry into the ownership in 2009 – in what Tony calls the most defining moment in the company’s history – has greatly strengthened Henley’s hand in that area. 

Being awarded the HIA Professional Major Builder is a reflection on how far the company has come, and is valuable recognition for the Henley team who work incredibly hard, he adds. It also gives confidence to Henley’s customers that ‘we’re doing something right’. 

‘It is making everyday builders raise the bar to try and win these awards and that’s a great thing for the industry.’

Looking ahead, Tony says that as lot sizes get smaller it will be important to stay ahead of the game from a design perspective, as well as finding ways to speed up construction to counter land supply and planning delays that are besetting the industry. Having enough land to build on is the key to affordability and is currently one of the most pressing issues for government and the industry.

 

Not an HIA member yet? By joining Australia’s largest national association for the residential building industry, you’ll get access to a range of member benefits, as well as industry products and business services designed to help you manage, operate and grow.

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