bill hero

Building a better industry

Bill McDonald OAM shared his insights and wisdom in this year’s DR Dossetor Address. Here he talks more about the challenges and opportunities currently facing our industry.

Above: Bill McDonald is presented with the DR Dossetor medallion from Pino Monaco, Immediate Past President (left) and Graham Wolfe, HIA Managing Director.

Author

Gabrielle Chariton

Bill McDonald OAM has come a long way since he first set foot onto a building site as a young carpentry apprentice in 1965. Today, he is a highly respected member of the housing industry and co-director of the MJH Group, which directly employs around 750 people, provides work to more than 2000 subcontractors and suppliers across NSW, Queensland and Tasmania, and has 1155 homes currently under construction. 

In 2007 Bill became a Life Member of HIA and then in July 2015 received one of the industry’s highest accolades, the HIA Sir Phillip Lynch Award. More recently, in June this year he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his significant contributions to both the housing industry and the wider community – an achievement he describes as both humbling and overwhelming. ‘It was a huge honour and something I never expected,’ he says.

 
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Bill and wife Judy at the Gold Coast in 2015 where Bill accepted the HIA Sir Phillip Lynch Award
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Bill onsite with the Build for a Cure team in 2014

Bill founded McDonald Jones Homes (now part of the MJH Group) in 1987, after 20 years working on the tools. Looking back, he consid-ers the company’s extraordinary growth to be his greatest professional achievement. ‘I was just a carpenter from Waratah in Newcastle and served my time in the industry,’ he says. ‘We just kept working…the opportunities came along and we took them and it’s all worked out.’ 

Bill is quick to credit his business partners and suppliers for helping McDonald Jones Homes navigate its path to success. However, there’s little doubt that the company’s formidable momentum is due in large part to Bill’s business nous, affability, and unerring ability to find and implement new innovations – all underlined by a rare generosity of spirit. ‘I’ve always believed in life you have to give to succeed,’ he says. 

And he has given so much, leveraging his standing within the industry to drive change, to help those in need, and to support the wider community. In 2012, he launched the McDonald Jones Charitable Foundation, and has worked tirelessly to raise funds for many causes, projects and initiatives across NSW, ACT and Queensland. One of the foundation’s key campaigns is ‘Build for Cure’, where McDonald Jones Homes – with the support of many industry partners, suppliers and volunteers – builds, furnishes and auctions a home, with all pro-ceeds going to the Children’s Cancer Institute. So far, four ‘Build for a Cure’ homes have been built and sold, raising well in excess of $2 million. 

At a professional level, one of Bill’s biggest concerns is the ongoing issue of skills shortages, a situation he believes has come about ‘mainly because everyone’s focused on money, not on the end-game’. Bill’s OAM was awarded partly in recognition of his efforts to promote trade apprenticeships and help attract young people into the industry, both as a HIA host trainer and through other avenues. 

 
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'I've always believed in life you have to give to succeed'

‘[As an industry] we need more government incentives to facilitate the apprentices,’ he says. ‘We need to make it easier for tradespeople to transfer their skills onto the younger generation.’ 

Bill’s affinity for innovation has significantly transformed the face of the housing industry. He’s always looking for smarter, better ways to build. In the early 1990s, for example, he made the controversial decision to focus on bringing steel-framed homes to market, after an eye-opening trip to Las Vegas. Bill shared an anecdote about this in his DR Dossetor Address: ‘I remember very clearly looking out at an estate of 700 homes that had been manufactured off-site and erected within six months,’ he said. ‘The sheer scale of it blew my mind. Just the logistics of that made me rethink what we might be able to do.’ 

Thirty years later, Bill is still committed to looking beyond the status quo and pushing the boundaries to improve performance and effi-ciencies – not just within his own company, but across the industry. He’s currently drawing inspiration from MJH Group’s recent alliance with Japanese company Asahi Kasei Homes. ‘They build about 8000 homes per year, and the thing that really intrigues me is the scheduling of the building process,’ Bill says. ‘It’s down to ten minutes — the crane arrives, the steel frames are delivered and unloaded…ten minutes after that there’s another truck to unload the Hebel. This level of organisation enables incredibly tight construction times.’

 
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Bill attained HIA life membership in 2007
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Bill and Judy at the 2019 HIA Conference

If such a delivery system could be implemented here, Bill believes the impacts on both productivity and housing affordability would be enormous:‘It will eliminate the “white days” during the building process; where no milestones are reached, yet you’re paying for toilet hire and temporary fencing, you’ve got a supervisor driving there and nothing’s happening…if you could eliminate the cost of these things with more efficient scheduling, then everything becomes cheaper.’

Bill is also keen to investigate the as-yet untapped potential of new technologies. ‘Technology is one of the things that we need to get a grasp on,’ he says. ‘Our Japanese partners already use robots for welding steel together. When we get back to that problem about labour shortages, we need to understand that technology is going to be a help for us.’

Does he see technology and automation as a solution to skills shortages? ‘In the long term, maybe. Because the jobs will change: instead of becoming carpenters, people might become drone operators, for example. The supervisor won’t have to go to site, he’ll use his drone to look at what’s going on from the office.’

However, as Bill pointed out in his DR Dossetor Address, the future of our industry is still very much about people, and the success of any innovation or technology will always be dependent on how it’s deployed by humans: ‘I think that should be front of mind when we are talking about this brave new world of innovation, automation and artificial intelligence,’ he said. ‘My hope is that the craft of building is not lost and that the importance of people is not forgotten.’

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