The leaders in frame and truss gathered on the Gold Coast for the FTMA Australia National Conference, where information and inspiration were the order of the day.
Every two years, FTMA Australia brings its members together with industry leaders and specialist exhibitors for a two-day event on the Gold Coast. This March, some 220 fabricators, exhibitors and F&T specialists attended the event, the largest and most successful to date.
Day one was all about building better business connections – through the tried and tested professional tools of golf, jet skiing and clambering over an obstacle course through tall trees. It certainly built up a good appetite and thirst – the Ice Breaker dinner that night was filled with hungry people chatting merrily about the day’s adventures and catching up on old friendships. Classic carnival games dotted the tennis courts that were doing double duty as the dining room, with balmy breezes giving a tropical flavour to proceedings. Prizes were awarded for the golf (The Green Machine made up of Trent Bucholz, Leon Cheney, Matthew Smith and Malcolm Cheney took out the day overall, with Rob Armour from Framequip garnering closest to the pin) and Kersten Gentle cheerfully encouraged delegates to try their hand at the games, then laughed along as the giant Jenga toppled mercilessly for some of the country’s most adept fabricators.
Trade and legislation
An early start for the conference proper saw people slip away from dinner while the night was still young, keen to be in place for the first session. It was a good decision, because Kate Carnell, Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO), was first to take the floor.
After a brief introduction in which Carnell spelled out the role of ASBFEO (watch the short video at www.asbfeo.gov.au/what-we-do if you are unfamiliar), Carnell talked about the economic challenges facing the country.
Chief among these was flattening growth. The strong impacts of the drought and contraction in bank lending will continue to be felt, she warned, along with the fallout of global political uncertainty, but there was good news, too. While we are currently facing an oversupply of units, there’s an undersupply of housing, which remains popular in the market. Interest rates are likely to come down, which will encourage first home buyers, but more importantly, non-residential building looked strong with big projected spends on infrastructure over coming years. (And, while the upcoming federal election still hadn’t been called at time of writing, platforms already released show this will remain true regardless of which party wins.)
Carnell summed up some of the bigger political concerns voiced over the conference. Minimum wages are already high and there has not been the growth in productivity to balance a rise. Payment times remain too long for many, and are tied to a raft of other problems including illegal phoenixing and bankruptcies of smaller companies following the bankruptcies of larger companies that have spent months not paying their contractors.
ASBFEO has worked with state and federal governments to achieve real reforms here, with government projects leading the way in shortening payment times and a raft of actual and proposed legislation for protecting subcontractors, as well as laws that can stop or redeem transferred assets in a bid to halt illegal phoenixing.
Energy prices have gone up at the same time as access to finance has gone down, Carnell acknowledged, describing federal levels to ease lending by making access to capital more affordable for second-tier lenders. Yet some of the problems her office sees come from closer to home, such as a recent case where a company handed over $500,000 worth of airconditioners without updating their Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR). When the builder went broke, the supplier had no legal right to reclaim the units, even though they had not received a cent for them.
Carnell ended with encouragement, reminding us we’ve had it good for a long time and that we should balance recent drops against overall growth, not against the booms: “Generally the Australian economy is not exciting, but we’re in a good place overall.”
Jaqi Rota from Austbrokers Trade Credit followed and took up Carnell’s last theme. “Business relationships rely on contracts,” Rota reminded the audience, emphasising that the point of a contract was to put your company in the strongest legal position possible. She pointed out that legislation changes can have real impacts, such as when PPSR came in and retention of title died. “You want to stack the odds in your favour,” she said.
Much of her talk concerned terms and conditions, which were worth spending time and money for legal advice on as well written Ts&Cs can earn back their cost very quickly, and save businesses a world of pain. If nothing else, she recommended people establish jurisdiction and governing law in their Ts&Cs, as different states benefit different parties and you want any legal case to be held somewhere convenient for you. And check cost recovery – a court ruling will usually set it at 60%, but if it’s in the contract, you can demand 100%. Penalty interest has also been shown to really help encourage on-time payments.
Trusts were another area where Rota recommended extremely careful dealing, saying you want to be invoicing the trustee, not the trust. “At the end of the day, you want to be able to sue them.”
Rota recommended the terms and conditions that have been drawn up by FTMA as strong models, and was happy to talk with attendees about their specific concerns. Her talk exemplified the adage that hiring a lawyer at the start of a process will cost a fraction of hiring one at the end.
Two clever new solutions rounded out the first session. The first came from Joe Hackett, director of Complete Frames and DES founder, who took to the stage with Luke King, DES national DM. DES Edge System is a fall protection system born out of frustration. As a fabricator, Hackett found perimeter protection to be a “total nightmare. You need fall protection for two to three hours on most builds, and it was taking people weeks to turn up and put it in place, delaying jobs for everyone else.”
His solution was elegantly simple: steel brackets are fitted to the wall frame at the fabrication stage and go out in place, along with a set of steel posts that slot securely into the brackets. Timber rails are added and secured – a quick and safe job compared to third-party options – and then trades can immediately start work. As soon as the job is secure for workers, the rails and posts are removed and brackets unbolted; the steel components return to the fabricator on the truck that delivers the roof trusses and the timber rails are re-used in the build.
The cost is no more for the builder, but they have zero wait time. Meanwhile, the fabricator has a new earning stream. “We just did a 60-unit site where we increased our turnover by more than $30,000 supplying floor protection,” said Hackett.
The system is available to buy or rent, and any theft costs are charged to builders. “We’re drafting contracts you can use,” said Hackett, who had clearly listened to Rota.
The second team were Paul Harazim and Daniel Ramsden from Roadpod. An ingenious logistical solution, Roadpod also has a major safety focus. Starting with a flat Roadpod bed (‘pod’), a frame, or timber delivery, or any other product can be loaded at ground level and tied down with the integral straps. It doesn’t need to have a regular shape or standard container proportions. Once loaded, the pod can be lifted directly onto a customised Roadpod trailer (with location points and simple locking latches) for delivery or stored in vertical racks.
The whole process takes minutes and comes into its own on the not-infrequent occasions when loads need to be changed at the last moment.
Wasted driver time is eliminated, as are falls from heights, since loading all occurs at ground level. Trailers and pod beds become separate assets thanks to the racking system, saving on new trucks, and the neatly stacked pods also protect frames and trusses much more than storing on the ground.
Ramsden ran through a set of case studies, including one client who was able to save $414,000pa on truck downtime alone.
Information and perspiration
Practicalities were the order of the day in the sessions before and after lunch. Susanne Bransgrove of Families in Transition talked about the challenges of passing a family business on to the next generation.
The panel of fabricators who had done so made it clear she wasn’t being hypothetical. Jennifer Dorman from Wingham Frames and Trusses described the way relationships were tested with her in-laws during the generational changeover in their business. She identified a lack of processes as the reason behind the pain.
In contrast, the two generations from Riverstone Frame & Truss have planned their succession and are working through it fairly smoothly – ”We went out looking for help and direction from the accountants and from people like Susanne,” explained Philip Males, one of the founding partners.
Tim Woods from Industry Edge gave a talk about where Housing is Headed Next, rich in data, which he is happy to share at www.industryedge.com.au. He was followed by a quick presentation from Tilling Timber that included news about their new smartphone app: one that is able to survive the vicissitudes of Apple OS upgrades!
After lunch, the mid-rise panel convened to talk about their experience as fabricators moving into this new field. They represented a good cross-section of the industry: Mark Conlan of Emcee Truss & Frame has 8 staff, David van der Plaat of High Country Truss & Frames has 15 and Jim McAdam comes from TimberTruss, with 750 people.
All spoke with enthusiasm about the opportunities arising out of mid-rise. The panel made it clear that it doesn’t require an enormous investment to get involved. Conlan’s first mid-rise job was his first multistorey, too – 32 three-storey apartments. “We didn’t need any new equipment, just floor space,” he says. Innovative methods in moving the cassettes increased his margins and impressed the client.
For McAdam, WoodSolutions was an invaluable partner, helping to model cost savings and working with TimberTruss and the builder to retrofit and retrodesign the first project for timber cassettes. Subsequent builds have seen the success of the earlier projects and used timber from the start.
Replacing steel with timber was also a goal for van der Plaat. Working in the high country around Cooma made transport too hard to move cassettes, “So we transported the multistruts up and constructed in light framing,” he said.
While all were able to secure lucrative new business, difficulties required clever management. McAdam said, “As the projects get bigger, so do the logistics. One cassette floor can take 11 semi-trailers and be $1.4 million. It’s a drain on resources.”
There was agreement from van der Plaat: “It restricts cashflow. We put them on 15-day terms and it’s always been paid so far.”
For Conlan, the issue was more prosaic, “My biggest thing was getting it done, I had to work long hours and weekends. But my suppliers were great about letting me stretch out my account, especially Meyer.”
Two practical information sessions followed, the first on promoting timber framing from Marita Pierce-Indugula and Christine Briggs where they outlined the work of FWPA’s Marketing Development Subcommittee (MKDS) and set out a future strategy – one in which fabricators and merchants will work together to promote our brilliant product.
Chris Hay from Manufacturing Logistics then outlined his WoodSolutions research on why builders are turning to steel. He found data much harder to gather than opinion, but overall the biggest issue seems to be with the supply chain, as steel has a simpler process. It also has a more cooperative set of suppliers who are driving the growth of steel. Both timber logistics and promotion will need to step up to stop the drift of builders into steel framing, Hay said, as homeowners currently only care about time and cost.
After a short chat from Eileen Newbury about FWPA’s work, in which she strongly recommended the technical guides (see www.fwpa.com.au) and FWPA’s suppliers’ page, a short break preceded the day’s keynote speaker, sponsored by MiTek.
Curtis McGrath was on Day 4 of a complex operation in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED that took both his legs. A combat engineer, with the Australian Army, New Zealand-born McGrath was his team’s first aid officer, and he described looking down, seeing his legs were gone and tearing off the tourniquet on the front of his uniform, then being unable to balance enough to apply it.
A colleagues ran to help – against protocol – and McGrath talked his team through giving him IV fluids. “They were asking ‘What do you want us to do?’” he recalled, “so I said ‘Some morphine would be good, eh?’”
McGrath could see that his team were traumatised and “I really felt I was going to be OK,” so he told them they’d see him in the Paralympics. “But it won’t be in the green and gold, it’ll be in black and white,” which elicited the expected groans.
Jokes aside, McGrath owes his life to the swift arrival of an evacuation helicopter, which whisked him away to months of surgeries and physiotherapy. He mourned the loss of his able body, but threw himself into physio, up to 8-9 hours a day by the time he was able to leave medical facilities. He described his healing as “really fast” and was fitted with prosthetics and up and walking within three months.
He had a goal: “The Paralympics is what I said and the Paralympics is what I focused on now.” After a false start or two – he was pants at wheelchair basketball – he took up kayaking, where he was mentored by Austria’s renowned Markus Swoboda.
McGrath made it to the Rio Games, competing for Australia as a show of gratitude for the support he had received from the Australian Army and sporting system. “It’s a decision I do not regret one bit,” he said. In the Kayak single KL2 200m event he won gold, beating Swoboda.
Questions from the audience included his prosthetics – made by Ottobock – and height: “I’m exactly the same height,” McGrath said, explaining that being tall was one factor in minimising his injuries, as the blast didn’t reach his torso.
McGrath was a very hard act to follow, but TTIA’s Brian Beecroft gave it a shot, talking with the fabricator panel about industrial relations issues. While bad behaviour was behind some concerns, others considered managing older workforces. Issues of physical decline were acknowledged, but expertise was valued. A balance of workplace aids and realistic expectations that may involve changes in positions or hours were recommended.
Last for the day was a panel on optimising business and automation. Aaron Hillman from TrussCorp, Doug Maxwell from MB Prefab, Arthur Potter from Universal Trusses and Glynn Champion from Champion Prenail (NZ) discussed their experiences.
Champion described how they had been growing their business, but were unable to get more staff hours, so automation was the only rational option. While the panel was broadly pro-automation, they didn’t sugar-coat the complexities, including maintenance costs, software needs and even the physical difficulty of setting up plant in factories built for other machines. “We had a fire last year,” Champion said. “So we’ve moved out to a big temporary space where we just brought what we use. The set-up is perfect!”
Hillman recommended paying attention to the lifespan of both products and technology, which Maxwell agreed with strongly. “You need to look at how quickly technology will go forward,” he said, admitting that some machines have only five years to make back their investment before they are redundant, even if they are still performing well.
Potter, who had begun the panel by declaring he vastly preferred machines to people, gave the lie to his gruffness with a detailed description of how automation can benefit staff. “It shows people you’re investing in them,” he said, describing how it can extend workers’ lives in the factory and make conditions safer and more pleasant.
Hillman agreed. “As long as employees are involved in the decision-making process, there’s a lot of buy-in, and people get very invested in the machinery,” he said.
And on that positive note, the business part of the conference concluded, giving attendees just enough time to put on our white glad rags for the National Conference Dinner. A warm and casual affair, the good food and great conversation was lifted by three splendid interruptions.
The first was the introduction of Jodi Harris, who is riding 1400km from Sydney to Geelong in this year’s Tour de Cure, raising money to fund cancer research. This is Harris’s eighth TdC and she has raised about $115,000 so far. A silent auction and raffles lifted her total by some $6380 on the night. (You can still donate via this link.)
“A hard day in the saddle is better than any day in the oncology ward,” Harris assured us.
Next up was the 2019 Clive Martella Service Industry Award ceremony (see story here). A spontaneous standing ovation accompanied the announcement of Jim Cheney as the winner.
Finally, Kersten Gentle was recognised by FTMA Australia for her 10 years at the helm of the ship, and the rest of the Gentle family thanked for the enormous effort they put into every conference. There was affectionate teasing, but none of this would be possible without them, especially Kersten.
As one conference-goer confided, “Usually these things have a lot of chaff for a few good bits, but this one is just right”
Image: The family transition panel, from left, Jaden Fry, Philip Males, Tyson Epiha and Jennifer Dorman, with Kersten Gentle moderating.