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Building on shifting sands

COVID-19 and the housing industry. Crisis or inconvenience? Minor change or enforced hiatus? Hope or fear? HOUSING talks to members and supporters on how they are handling the disruption.
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Winston Churchill once said: ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’. I think we can all agree life in COVID-19 times has been a crisis needing to be conquered. Call it pivoting or call it reprioritising – one thing is for sure: in the past few months, work and life as we have known it is different. Will it ever be the same again? 

In the residential building industry we have managed to remain an essential service, but it does not mean we have not been without loss of security or the need to find solutions in an ever-changing, ambiguous landscape. 

HOUSING has reached out to HIA members and businesses that support the industry to uncover what they have experienced during this time, their discoveries and thoughts on the future.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content
Susie Martin, general manager, Aaron Martin Construction
Rosanna Pappalardo, director, RJP Design & Decor

Q: How did you feel when it became clear that COVID-19 was a significant risk?

Susie Martin – Aaron Martin Construction
It was extremely unsettling and a period of high anxiety. We have three young children (six, five and three) and there was so much uncertainty around whether schools or childcare centres were going to remain open. I shifted a large part of my focus to marketing to ensure that we remained a presence throughout the crisis. My thinking was that even if new enquiries really dropped off, we wanted to be at the forefront of people’s minds. HIA signs went up on all our sites around expectations on behaviour.

Rosanna Pappalardo – RJP Design & Décor
Initially, it seemed a bit surreal, so I carried on as per normal, going about my day but with a weird unknown and concern lurking. Then the jobs dried up and financial stress set in. I started to ask myself whether I could continue on this business path or would have to look at getting back into the workforce as an employee for someone else.

Joe Rogers – Lawn Solutions Australia
At first I was a bit unsure and asked myself where this was going and how bad it was really going to get. Because we are a family business, the first real impacts were the precautions we had to take at work to ensure the safety of our team and customers.

Matthew Camenzuli – Companion Systems
Up until two years ago I had spent a lot of time away building our business, the irony is now I can’t even leave the house.

We had started 2020 with such excitement, events were booked and there were a lot of great things in the planning stage. This was the last thing we expected. There really was an overwhelming sense of foreboding as we tried to get a handle of the situation.

With three children aged 13, 10 and seven we were concerned about home schooling and missing out on social interaction, luckily they have taken to it well. I can actually say they love it! Although I am surprised we have not had a trip to the emergency room yet.

Matthew Camenzuli, owner/director, Companion Systems
Joe Rogers, commercial manager, Lawn Solutions Australia

Q: What have you uncovered since you have been in isolation?

SM: We feel very fortunate that our suppliers have been able to continue to run with limited changes to their service. This has meant that we haven’t seen huge shifts in our ability to keep clients moving through the selections and pricing process or on our onsite construction speed.

We have felt from our industry body (HIA) and the building community in general like everyone is banding together where they can to support each other through this crisis. We all want to see our industry healthy on the other side of this.

RP: Luckily, I am a sole trader and didn’t have the burden of employees and how to keep them going. I now have found I can work on the business rather than in it. I have enjoyed learning physically and emotionally with regard to running a business and being ahead of the competition. I feel I have gotten to know my business, and its financial position and goals much better than before. It’s great to see there is so much help out there with suppliers, professional bodies, and other businesses wanting to give advice or teach you something in this uncertain time.

JR: This entire experience has made us look at all aspects of our business and how we can make them more efficient by using the technology we have available. We have incorporated the Zoom video conferencing to connect with staff, customers and stakeholders. We have invested in and further strengthened our digital presence and focused on building online audiences who we can conduct a totally paperless and contactless transaction with.

MC: We have noticed that existing customers are relying on us to partner with them more and help them solve problems. Our service desk is flat out.

I really appreciate that our staff are amazing with process and people. It’s hard when you are in the innovation space to keep the human interaction, the collaboration and energy, but our team have worked together organically to keep the team feeling alive.

Q: What are your thoughts for the future?

SM: We thought we had clarity on our business direction and offerings, but [since the crisis] we’ve actually found laser sharp focus on who we are and what we can offer. It’s forced us to speed up jobs on our ‘to do list’ – to improve our marketing skills, look at our leadership styles and make improvements to how we communicate with our team.

RP: I’m looking forward to the freedom to move around socially and having physical contact with people again, being able to see family. To be able to go to the beach and just sit and relax on the sand, and take in the sun would be nice!

JR: Well, personally, like everyone, I am looking forward to people not being affected by this anymore and getting things back to normal. If I am being selfish, it is getting some live sport back on the TV! 

I’m also looking forward to getting the normality back into everyday work and life, and seeing how we do things as a business after the lessons learned from this crisis.

MC: What is interesting is that it’s clear that we are not augmented by machines, we are not made better, but technology is simply there to serve us. Nothing will ever take away from social face-to-face interaction. I need to be around mates and family. People by their nature want to go out, eat and be together, and do simple things together; perhaps we had taken it for granted [before this]. 

What can the residential building industry learn from this experience?

SM: Don’t take anything for granted. We should always be willing and ready to pivot or adapt to the way we work. Even when you feel like your business is in a really solid position and future projections are looking bright, things can literally change overnight. Having sound business foundations, systems and processes makes navigating these periods of big change that little bit easier.

RP: I believe the lessons will be in the importance of service and having more priority on the emotional experience for a client, rather than seeing only the dollar figure and making the sale. I think buying patterns will change and more will be wanting Australian made. [Hopefully] consumers will be more willing to see the value of using local.

JR: The importance of having a strong digital presence when it comes to marketing, providing information and conducting a transaction. People are looking more and more to gather information and make purchasing decisions from the comfort of their lounge room from brands they trust, with minimal human contact.

MC: Those that have been able to transition well had good systems in the first place. When a crisis or major shift comes, the better your systems online or offline, or the way you communicate and provide transparency and accessibility around processes with your team, the better you are positioned. 

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