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Taking care of business

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As co-owner and office manager of Highwater Homes, Elizabeth Searle is enjoying a double celebration this year with her business’s 10-year anniversary and her win of the 2021 HIA Australian Business Partner award.

Kerryn Ramsey

Senior Content Coordinator
Elizabeth Searle, office manager of Highwater Homes

Why did you change your career from teaching to managing the business of Highwater Homes in southwest Sydney?

As an early childhood teacher, I spent many years working in preschools and long-day care centres. From 2004 to 2018, I taught child studies at our local TAFE part-time while also caring for our three young children. During this time, I started working in our business a few hours a week to support Toby [her husband and business partner] with administration. Initially, we were completing three to four homes per year, but it grew from eight to 10 homes per year. At that point, I decided to leave my teaching career to work full-time at Highwater Homes.

Our team is now made up of 11 employees, including a part-time administrator, a full-time estimator, site supervisor, construction manager and our own team of carpenters and apprentices onsite.
How do you offer outstanding customer service?

Being a small builder allows us to give clients individual attention. We limit the number of homes we build so we can focus on the client experience. Our guarantee to our clients is: ‘To provide busy families a beautiful home, finished on time and on budget, and promise a stress-free building experience that you will love.’ We place a high priority on our communication processes. This is shown from the initial contact made with us through to the completion of the home and beyond.
Explain Highwater Homes’ main differentiator.

We use an online project management system for each home we build, as well as for our estimates and tenders. Offering this system to prospective clients early in the sales shows how we operate during the building process. They can see their online building schedule and view specifications via online links.

I conduct regular evaluations with our clients to ensure satisfaction with the building process. I send surveys at various stages of the building process and share client feedback with our staff and trades and use it for marketing purposes.

We maintain superior customer service by following our processes and enacting our core values every day. We also developed a comprehensive ‘New Client Handbook’, covering frequently asked questions and job milestones.

Toby and Elizabeth Searle

You run intensive evaluation sessions. How does this work?

Toby and I partake in a full day of evaluation and planning every 90 days. We develop 90-day financial and strategic goals, articulate one-year goals, and set budgets and financial goals. We also plan for what the business will look like in three years, articulating a vision and image of our idea of success.

We use several ways to measure our goals and targets of the business. With the quarterly objectives and key performance indicators (KPI) set, a timeline is set, and targets are measured. These targets are set across all areas - marketing, sales and profit/loss. We also use a KPI spreadsheet to document our targets and actuals weekly. Here, we record our lead indicators and lag indicators.

Our work-in-progress accounting adjustment figure spreadsheet enables us to calculate the most important figure on a monthly basis. This gives us an accurate reflection of the financial position of the company each month.
Explain one of your business’s most effective systems

Our online system is fabulous. Our clients absolutely love it, as does our team. It offers clients 24/7 access to their project, direct communication with 24-hour response times, total transparency, tracking of the budget, regular updates on progress, online schedule, online selections and variation approvals, and location of all questions and messages in one place.
How do you guide consumers in the early stages of building? 

We educate people looking to build a new home by providing information that can be downloaded from our website. The pre-start checklist, for example, has been embraced by many potential clients as it’s filled with helpful information at the early stages of building.

Have you taken any courses to improve your skills? 

I partake in regular online training courses, webinars, training videos and training booklets. Recent topics include: ‘How to turn prospects into clients’, ‘Construction financials monthly checklist’, ‘12 KPIs that will transform your building company’, ‘How to advertise your building company’ and many more.
Do you offer any work incentives for staff? 

Last year when COVID-19 hit, we implemented a Team Member of the Month award. This acknowledges our team members but also supports local businesses. Our team members identify favourite local companies, and their prize is a voucher for their chosen one.
How do you manage to have a good work/life balance? 

In 2018, we moved from our home business into a commercial space in nearby Smeaton Grange [in the suburb of Camden, southwest of Sydney]. This was one of the best things we did for our business and our family. It meant I could focus on my role in the office, then come home to be a mum and wife. So, it’s certainly given me a healthy work/life balance. 

Since we have an awesome administration support staff member, I’ve started taking a day off work each week. I’ve now returned to casual work for children in a local educational setting. This allows me to have that perfect balance as I’m returning to what I love.
How do you cope when your business partner is also your husband?

I love working with Toby and am so proud of what we’ve created. It can be hard some days being constantly surrounded by each other. We try not to discuss work at home, so there’s a clear division between the two. We both have different roles within the business, which helps make it work. Having our own separate offices – with a dividing wall – also helps. And Toby makes the best coffee in town!