As I sat down with Debra Bourke, I became captivated with the story behind her family’s humble frame and truss business, Macarthur Frames & Trusses (MF&T). I was taken aback by the challenges her family has overcome, and amazed at their positive attitude today, despite everything.
When Debra’s parents, Peter and Julie Coenen, started working in the timber industry in the 1970s, little did they know of the trials and triumphs that would lie ahead. In 1982, with two daughters in tow, they made a family decision to go out on their own and start a frame and truss business.
The move to Smeaton Grange NSW, was a leap of faith. It was that same courage that would prove to be the family’s greatest asset over the years to come.
As Debra was growing up, she would work at her parents’ business occasionally, and when she finished high school she was keen to continue working in the family business. But her parents had other plans, and encouraged her to firstly continue on with her education – a message she has since passed on to her own two sons, Jayden and Joshua.
Following her parents’ wishes, Debra originally worked at Ernst & Young (E&Y) on a traineeship, which she completed while she studied a degree in business accounting.
“My parents were hell-bent on me gaining real life experience. After that, when I was 25, I came back to the business to work full-time,” she says.
Debra began working again at MF&T after getting her experience at E&Y. When she started working with them, she had no idea how vital her new found skillset would be in changing the course of the business completely.
Being a small, family-owned business, Debra explains that her parents had always considered their staff as an extension of their own family. So what happened next came as a shock to everyone.
“The best, and worst, part of working at E&Y early on was completing my training in auditing,” Debra explains. Worst, because Debra absolutely hated the work. “It was so boring!” She exclaims.
However, it proved to be the best part of her training, because the first thing Debra decided to do when joining her parents’ business was to put those auditing skills to the test, and fully review the MF&T books.
“That’s when I realised the amount of fraud that was going on behind my parents’ backs. It was huge,” recalls Debra.
Employees within the tight-knit team had been committing significant deception, enough to nearly take down the business.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been stolen,” Debra explains. “It was heartbreaking because my mum and dad worked so hard, and they were just so trusting.”
To make matters worse, Debra’s parents were going through a tough time after Julie Coenen, Debra’s mother, was diagnosed with cancer. This meant that the family was absent from the day to day operations of the business.
“It was a time when, as a business owner, you rely on your team of employees the most,” she says.
“Our eyes were off the ball – and understandably. We were told by doctors that Mum wasn’t going to make it, and consequently it was that time when my parents were taken advantage of the most,” she says.
In the wake of the crimes being uncovered, Debra’s parents were remarkable in their forgiveness.
“My parents could have gone to the police and placed charges, because of the amount of money involved, but they were happy to send the offenders on their way instead,” she explains.
“From that day we, as a business, were able to implement correct procedures to avoid fraud happening again. Today, everything is double checked,” she says.
Debra’s parents are still owners of the business but have left the daily operations with Debra and her husband Phil. Production manager Mark Moppett is also considered one of the company’s greatest assets following the challenging period, a time that occurred when Mark was first working for the business at the young age of 16.
After MF&T nearly lost it all, Debra implemented various procedures and strategies to safeguard the business for its future.
“Before, we would load stock on to trucks and go out, and it was very easy to not invoice that stock; but stock is always invoiced now. We also stopped taking cash completely, so none of our builders can pay us in cash anymore, and that has worked really well for accountability,” she explains.
MF&T is still operating as a family business today, with Debra and Phil’s youngest son Jayden now working behind the front desk.
“Jayden has enrolled with the Timber and Building Materials Association (TABMA), completing a traineeship in business administration while he works here.
“The first year he was here, Phil and I insisted he worked on the factory floor; so he did a certificate with TABMA for timber manufacturing. Whether he stays or not is another story!” she laughs.
Debra explains that if Jayden was able to stick around a bit longer, it could mean an early holiday for herself overseas.
“That’s probably the biggest downfall of having a family-owned business as small as ours, the only break we get together is when we close over Christmas.”
While it can be difficult to find time for themselves, Debra explains that implementing a “˜big picture’ perspective is key.
“My husband and I have changed our mentality in recent years, and made the decision to still enjoy our lives regardless, so we are going to do it in shifts. He is actually heading overseas this year on an annual golf trip, and hopefully I will be heading to Europe next year with my best friend.”
TURNING IT AROUND
The business has witnessed a revival in the last 18 months, with the last 3 months proving to be the company’s biggest sales numbers ever.
“It’s a really positive time for our business, but before that, we witnessed the biggest slump. There was a severe lack of work, and it affected the entire industry,” she says.
Debra and Phil were forced to scale back considerably during the slump, and the long hours started. Soon, it became the norm for Debra and Phil to work 60 to 70 hour weeks.
“It’s a lot better now, but for a long time we were surviving on the smell of an oily rag; it was tough,” she says.
Recently, Debra and the team had the opportunity to take the business to the next level and expand, but it was a move that they surprisingly decided against.
“We had the option to almost double in size, because we owned properties adjoining ours. In the end we decided that size doesn’t necessarily equal success,” she says.
“We would prefer to focus on consistently achieving good results in what we do now, and maintaining a good quality product and the relationships that come out of that,” she explains.
Debra and Phil today focus on training current employees in skills that will be mutually beneficial for both the employee and the company, training that is carried out by the company’s supplier Pryda.
“We have been with Pryda for over 25 years, and have a great working relationship with them. They have the same philosophy as us, which is to be a partnership, rather than just a supplier and a customer.”
The business also recognised the potential in investing in new technology, by recently purchasing a computerised linear saw from Alpine Saws in the United States.
“We also purchased some large floor presses so we could get into the floor truss industry, and ironically, we now make floor trusses for other frame and truss companies who don’t have those facilities,” she says.
“Even though they are our competitors, we actually saw it as a great example of how much trust there is in this industry, it really blew us away,” she explains.
After a turbulent trip to the top, Debra, Phil and their team, are now sitting pretty. And they are happy to keep it that way, through established good practices and procedures, straight out of Debra’s auditing textbooks.
“It’s a fantastic example of listening to your parents’ advice when they tell you to stay in school!” she laughs.