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Family ties

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From sibling rivalry to common goals: when running a successful family business, what is the formula for success? Housing finds out how two groups of siblings are making it work.

Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

Family-owned enterprises are the backbone of the Australian economy, making up 67 per cent of all businesses nationwide and providing 55 per cent of private-sector employment.

While the family business model seems particularly well-suited to the housing industry, and offers a number of professional advantages, working with family is always going to bring with it some unique challenges.

Here, Housing chats with two groups of siblings who have capitalised on their close bonds and shared values to build successful companies together. Find out the best and worst bits about sharing an office/worksite with your brother or sister, and their advice to anyone else who’s thinking of setting up shop with their nearest and dearest.

Marlon, Manny and Mason McAullay of McAullay Builders
Design by McAullay Builders

Business: McAullay Builders, Geraldton, WA

Names: Manny, Marlon and Mason McAullay

Relationship: Three brothers

Brothers Manny, Marlon and Mason McAullay never imagined they’d one day be running a successful building business together. Growing up in Geraldton, a picturesque town located on the WA coast about an hour north of Perth, they originally planned to follow in their father’s footsteps and become cray fishermen. But, Manny explains, when their father exited the fishing industry following a run of bad luck, the brothers embarked on trade apprenticeships.

There was never a formal decision to go into business together; it happened more through circumstance. ‘Marlon and I joined forces [as subcontractors] and started doing our own bits and pieces around Geraldton,’ Manny says. ‘But I ended up snapping my neck and was in a halo for about three months. Mason finished his apprenticeship and came on board to help Marlon. When I got back on my feet it was us three. I got my builder’s registration and we went from there.’

Fast-forward a few years: McAullay Builders are in high demand as one of Geraldton’s leading custom-home builders. The brothers’ natural aptitude and passion for their craft is evident in the faultless execution of every project. They’ve picked up multiple industry awards and, with 15 new houses and two major renovations currently on the books. ‘We're pretty much run off our feet.'

The three have settled into roles that suit their own individual skillsets. Manny, the eldest, is the ‘run-around guy’; builder, supervisor, client liaison. The middle brother, Marlon, looks after quotes and onsite work; and Mason is the leading hand carpenter. ‘The great thing is that we're all on the same page, so if Marlon or Mason do something at a job, I know it's done to the standard that we want,’ Manny says. ‘Whereas if we get another trade or someone else to do it, you'd have to oversee and double-check the quality of the work.’

While it wasn’t exactly planned, working together was always something that made sense to the brothers. ‘We always thought that if the three of us stick together, we'll get ahead quicker than if we do our individual things,’ Manny says. Being in a three-way partnership automatically alleviates the daily pressures, and when one of the brothers has things going on outside of work, the other two are always ready to pick up the slack.

That’s not to say every day is full of sunshine and roses. Combining family and money can get ‘a bit sticky’ but Manny credits their accountant for keeping things under control in that department. Other than that, ‘It's just family. It could go one way or the other. It's not all smooth sailing, I'll just leave it at that!’ he says, laughing.

When asked what makes the partnership work, Marlon says it’s about having a shared vision and motivation. ‘Make sure you all have similar end goals for where you picture the company being down the track. We all know where we want to be in five to 
10 years and it keeps us all keen to succeed.’

Challenges aside, it’s clear that for the McAullays, working side by side is incredibly rewarding. ‘From a professional point of view, it’s great to have complete trust in each other as business partners,’ Mason says. ‘And being able to go to work every day with brothers and build some amazing projects is pretty special.’ 

Manny agrees: ‘I've got them to lean on and they've got me to lean on. We wouldn't have it any other way.’

Mark Bernardo (centre) with Danielle Sernio and Sam Bernardo
Design by Renmark Homes

Business: Renmark Homes, Melbourne, VIC

Names: Sam Bernardo, Danielle Sernio and Mark Bernardo

Relationship: One sister, two brothers

Renmark Homes is a family business in the truest sense of the word: established by Renato and Carmel Bernardo around 30 years ago, and now run by their children Sam Bernardo, Danielle Sernio and Mark Bernardo. 

The siblings came on board with the company one by one in the late 1990s and early 2000s, each bringing their own professional experience and skills to the table. Together, they have nurtured it from humble beginnings into a highly respected company that specialises in building high-end, luxury homes in Melbourne’s north-west. 

After a career in the corporate sector, Sam first started working with Renato to set up the branding for Renmark Homes. These days, as a registered builder, he’s in charge of sales, marketing, contract management and ‘anything that requires technical assistance from the site in line with specifications and customer contracts’. Mark – Renmark’s supervisor – joined the team shortly afterwards, followed by Danielle, who describes herself as ‘Sam and Mark’s right-hand person and the engine in the business’.

While not all groups of siblings could imagine sharing an office and business with each other, these three have been making it work for 20-plus years. Their secret? Danielle simply puts it down to personality.

‘This industry's really challenging, so you all have to complement each other and identify who's got strengths and weaknesses in what area and then compensate for that. If you're all working well together, you can then work with the client to get a good result and hand [each project] over happily,’ she says.

The emphasis on family is something that the three siblings firmly believe gives them a competitive edge in the marketplace. ‘Clients like the idea that it's a small family unit and there's not a big chain of command. We can offer the professionalism that some larger companies have but we've still got the personal element,’ Sam explains.

It’s contributed to the business’s success in other ways, too, Mark adds. ‘Employees are never there for the long term, whereas with family, you're committed. You're there for one goal and that's to build up a business, get homes built on time, on budget, make some profits and enjoy the rewards at the end. 

‘With family, you're striving for the same goals, so you go forward: it's a lot easier.’
There’s no sibling rivalry here: their mutual respect for each other is clear. ‘We're family-orientated so we all support each other. We all back each other up,’ Danielle says. ‘We don’t compete; we just work with each other.’

Mark adds: ‘I'm not saying it's perfect, we have our disagreements. But we move on quickly because we're there to work together and you've got to move forward and get on with it.’

A conscious decision to keep their personal and professional lives separate has helped avert problems arising from the inevitable squabbles. ‘Business is business and family is family; we try not to talk business at family gatherings,’ Sam advises. ‘Keep everything separate as much as you can.’

Although he’s still a director of Renmark Homes, Renato is no longer actively involved, and Danielle and Sam both say he and Carmel are very pleased to see their children at the helm of the family business. ‘I think they're happy because it started off small, and now it's something quite tangible.' 

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