When you consider the scale of Prime Build’s present-day building projects, it is ironic that its early success hinged on just one lock. One small lock, on one site door, that changed the course of his career forever.
A decade ago, co-founder Dean Willemsen was the toilet guy. Together with his friend Tim Thompson, Dean had accidentally fallen into the toilet refurbishment game. Like most young builders, the duo found themselves jumping on board with any job they had been offered, whether it be interstate, last-minute, or, well, toilets.
They were working on a toilet refurbishment at a Kmart branch when they heard the ‘big boss’ would visit the site the following day.
“I said to Tim, how can we get noticed? How can I prove that the guy doing the toilets can do more than just the toilets?” remembered Dean.
With not a great deal of real estate to flaunt their talents, Tim suggested they instead concentrate on the details. He proposed they prove their worth by replacing the traditional chain-and-padlock on their site walls with a slick new digital lock.
It was a clever move. The big boss noticed their uncharacteristic attention to detail, and thoughtfulness regarding their site presentation in a highly-populated customer thoroughfare.
“The Development Manager walked through and said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a builder take such pride in how they present their site’,” recounted Dean. “He asked me for a coffee, and that night we got the tender drawings through for the next project.”
Maintaining the same customer-first approach and eye for detail, Dean and Tim sailed through their first major project with flying colours, only to be signed on for what has turned out to be an eight-year contract to upgrade Kmarts nationally. It was their big break.
When you run a building company, it’s tempting to cut corners. To remain unflinchingly honest in your ethics, and thorough in your approach, is hard. But this commitment to quality has become the Prime Build calling card. Today, they manage upwards of 100 projects each year, including with Kmart—which, by the end of this year, will see Prime Build complete a staggering 50% of the national store’s refurbishments.
With their origins in dynamic job sites, Dean and the Prime Build team have since gained a reputation for his outstanding ‘live environment’ projects. Executing a construction project amid swarms of customers, busy shopping centres, nosy neighbours and eyes on you at all times is not easy. It’s a stressful work environment, one that demands more from a building team than just excellent building skills.
Dean and Tim have had to handpick a team that is just as comfortable showing a customer to the toy section, as they are knocking down walls.
“When it comes to the live environment niche, we’ve learnt that we can’t be everything to everyone,” said Dean. “We have actually changed our business to suit the live environment. That means things like employing our team directly and using fewer contract staff. Yes, it’s expensive, but it helps us create the type of customer interface that our clients are looking for.”
“When it comes to the live environment niche, we’ve learnt that we can’t be everything to everyone.”
Prime Build’s expertise in live environment work has seen them take on a variety of exciting, large-scale projects: university campuses, schools, funeral homes, medical centres, and hospitals. All highly sensitive settings that required the work to be completed quickly, discreetly, and with as little interruption as possible: skills that might just have given Prime Build an edge in what was to come.
Dealing with Disaster
No one could have possibly prepared for the seismic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic beforehand. And yet Prime Build comes pretty close—as a company, they were already equipped with so many skills specific to new industry protocols.
Working in proximity to his customer’s customers taught Dean the importance of always doing things the right way. No cutting corners. So when he introduced extreme new safety measures to keep his team healthy and virus-free, he knew they could handle it. One concern remained: the mental health of his team during the lockdown. His answer? Some good, old-fashioned fun.
“We’re dealing with a situation that no one has dealt with before,” said Dean. “We’ve tried to step up our communications. We have an all-hands Friday afternoon catch up, and ‘Quaratini Hour’. We play trivia. I even shaved our Construction Manager’s head. Basically, we’re just trying to equal out the heavy stuff with a bit of fun, and keep everyone’s spirits high.”
This month, Prime Build’s People and Culture Manager ran a staff survey to gauge how the team have felt during the coronavirus lockdown. The results are promising. A 75 per cent engagement score across the company, reflecting, for the most part, that people felt safe and happy. Whilst Dean’s true goal remains 100%, he’s happy that the majority of his staff are satisfied. This, he feels, can be credited to both the close-knit nature of the team, and the tech-savvy work environment established over the years that’s allowed for a smooth transition to remote working.
With help from Procore, Dean already had an array of remote working technology in play by the time the lockdown hit. “As a product, it allowed us to operate during this time,” said Dean. “When something works well, it’s not even a conversation…it just wasn’t something we had to worry about.”
Where There’s Pain, There’s Growth.
With the true fallout to the Australian retail sector yet to come, Dean recognises the need for long-term planning rather than a spot-fire approach.
“It’s a challenging period ahead. I don’t think this will be an overnight fix,” said Dean. “There’s a long road ahead.”
Looking past the COVID-19 crisis, however, he is optimistic about the future of both his business and the wider construction industry.
“Approached in the right way, this is an incredible opportunity for a reset,” said Dean. “How often do you get the chance to stop? At Prime Build, we’ve really taken this opportunity to change the business and change the way we operate.”
“At Prime Build, we’ve really taken this opportunity to change the business and change the way we operate.”
When it comes to the industry, Dean feels now is the perfect time to reconsider the client-builder relationship. In what other industry, he asks, would it be tolerated for projects to run over deadline, past budgets, and with such an air of authority? Very few. This, said Dean, is a great place for us all to start rebuilding the building industry post-lockdown.
“It’s uncomfortable now, but I really believe that where there is pain, there’s growth,” said Dean.
As the long-lasting effects of the world’s dramatic coronavirus lockdown start to come to light, Dean’s story is an important one to consider. Yes, job sites will reopen, and clients will regain budgets. This time around, though, we have the opportunity to do things better.
Dean and the Prime Build team have a motto that we can all heed: Learn to love the details. You know—like one small lock, on one site door, of just another toilet job in the suburbs.