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AJR Construct’s Adam Ritson doesn’t like being told a job can’t be done, which is just as well considering the direction his business has taken.
Not many builders take a chopper to work, and there probably aren’t too many in Tasmania up for the challenge of building walkways, cabins and luxury accommodation in the state’s wild places for months at a time. A can-do attitude and a willingness to find solutions, combined with an obsession for quality has seen him build a business mostly on reputation and through word of mouth. Yes, there is a website and a Facebook page but when asked about marketing the response is almost sheepish.
A former national apprentice of the year and World Skills champ, carpenter Adam started out on his own in north-west Tasmania, building mostly for friends and acquaintances, and one thing leading to another, as he puts it. What it has led to is a 35-employee strong business that has cornered the market in remote eco-tourism infrastructure to feed Tasmania’s booming tourism market, pioneering construction by helicopter and prefabrication.
‘I’m not your traditional builder,’ Adam says, a master of understatement.
He now runs an outfit that flies crews, equipment and components into some of Tasmania’s most beautiful and sometimes inhospitable places. But he also finds the time to craft homes like the one at Stowport in north-west Tasmania that won the 2019 HIA Tasmania Custom Built Home (over $800,001) award.
Adam has staked everything on quality, even being prepared to take a loss to uphold it. ‘I had an old painter once tell me, “Look, make sure you always leave quality projects even if it costs you money,”’ Adam recalls. ‘And I can tell you now that has definitely happened on more than one occasion. But we’ve got a clientele that recognises that now. You can’t just focus on the money, you’ve got to make sure you get the quality right, and then the rest will fall into place.’
And he loves a challenge. ‘I’m drawn to things that are a little bit difficult whereas others would probably turn away,’ Adam says.
The Stowport house and another project entered into last year’s state awards both presented challenges that others may have foregone. Stowport, designed by HIA Tasmanian President Xavier Carthew-Wakefield, included a lot of painstaking stone work, as well as tricky interfaces in the roof, floor-to-ceiling glazing, extensive joinery and polished timber floors.
But its signature was the stone feature, laid by a mason over six months at the excruciating rate of 0.8 metres a day, and the exacting nature of the task meant he could only work three days a week. ‘His skill level is exemplary. The quality of that stone work is rarely seen,’ Adam says.
The other house, at Leith on the north coast, was a distinctive two-storey design with a ramp up to an upstairs garage with its own turntable. But it was the twisting, helical staircase that the client had been told could not be built that really got Adam’s attention.
‘It was pretty amazing. We had to re-engage the engineer to alter the structural design,’ he says. ‘We had to pour those stairs in concrete then face them off with timber and plaster, so you wouldn’t know there was concrete under there, but it was about the only way that we could successfully deliver what they wanted.’
It’s a client-focused approach that has seen the business literally take flight.
Adam says the day in 2015 that the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife engaged AJR Construct to build an overnight stop on the Three Capes Track in southern Tasmania was the most pivotal in its history. AJR is now the go-to company for delivering eco-tourism infrastructure in Tasmania, and responsible for a large portion of the projects in Tasmania constructed by helicopter.
In 2018, the company completed two high-end sites for the Tasmanian Walking Company, which provides fully guided, high-end wilderness experiences. The 18-month project was a step up in degree of difficulty and quality from AJR’s first job on the track, the crew battling time and the weather to construct top-end facilities that included pools, massage rooms, full solar arrays, hot and cold running water, ovens and dishwashers.
AJR has developed its own systems to manage the military-like operation to safely drop in men, provisions, equipment and components, and set up facilities for a long campaign. To save time, labour and money it has established its own workshop to manufacture prefabricated components, and that has had spin-offs in other areas of work.
Adams says that on some projects site time has been slashed by 80 per cent. His crew includes a couple of boilermakers because the company makes all its structural steel as well.
But for an old chippie, the eco-tourism projects’ extensive use of hardwood timbers is a real treat. ‘Our boys love dealing with that sort of work. It’s real bespoke carpentry,’ says Adam, who still enjoys being on the tools when he can.
The work is demanding and requires a multiskilled and adaptable team, which Adam has taken pains to build over the years, with a strong focus on training. Eighty per cent of the team trained with the company and it employs a half dozen apprentices as well.
‘We like training new tricks into new dogs, it always works well,’ Adam says. ‘We have some kids working for us who get in a helicopter to go to work and they simply don’t know any different.’
Monthly evaluations, formal feedback sessions and personal accountability are part of AJR’s training culture. ‘If someone makes an error on a project or there’s been a defect and I can track that back to an individual, I try to get them back to that project to deal with it rather than task that to someone else, so they get to see what went wrong, what it means and what it cost,’ Adam says.
He also encourages apprentices to learn how to read plans and specifications, a skill they will need when they progress to leading hand or foreman.
A HIA member all his career, Adam says the company has always been able to depend on its services and support as it grew. Its next phase will likely involve more eco-tourism work but Adam the artisan is not one to put all his eggs in one basket.
‘We’ll always be a company that’s here for a client who wants a bespoke build,’ he says.