Building a workplace culture that prioritises safety and personal development has been a core part of AKD’s success. We spoke with Toni Kirkup and Clark Rodger about their work.

Outside the timber industry, a lot of clichés still exist. “There’s the joke of old buddy working in the sawmill with only three fingers per hand,” says Clark Rodgers, GM of HR at AKD Softwoods.

“In some ways, that joke has led us to where we are now. Because as an industry, decades ago, they were complacent with sub-par safety results. But then the industry realised the cost that had on our people and families and that it was not acceptable.”

The response across much of the industry has been a decade or more of significant cultural change, in which AKD has played an active leadership role. Some of that has come in the form of increased automation and other equipment-based solutions, creating better processes. However, the most transformative has been in taking safety from an abstract concept related to compliance checklists to a living active responsibility owned by each and every employee, every day.

“At AKD, Toni and her team have insisted that safety doesn’t start or finish at the gate,” Rodger says. “If we’re genuinely going to create an environment and business that is safe, then it needs to be a complete mind-shift about collective and individual responsibility.”

“A key focus for us has been making safety personal,” says Toni Kirkup, AKD’s national health, safety and wellbeing manager. “We don’t endeavour to protect our people just because some legislation says we have to, it’s because our people are the most important component of our business. Our focus is on our people, on the individual and on creating a culture of care and responsibility.”

The entirety of AKD’s training and safety messaging centres on the individual and what is important to them.

“We have linked those messages back to their lives and homes,” says Kirkup, “so we’ve got pictures of our employees’ children and their partners and what they like to do in their spare time, up as posters around all of our sites. This is about reinforcing that we are safe at work because we’ve got all of this at home waiting for us. With posters of actual employees and their families it makes it very real and focussed on the individual, not just an abstract concept or company set of rules”

Important stuff on the best of days, but over the past 18 months it’s become much more than just an internal company focus.

Image: AKD’s safety posters focus on staff lives.


Safety in a pandemic

“Looking back,” Kirkup says, “we went straight from the bushfires that hit our NSW operations at Tumut hard into dealing with Covid, at the same time as having to operate our business to meet soaring demand. The way the business came together through this period has been nothing short of amazing, really.”

AKD was already part of an industry safety group that was sharing experiences before the pandemic hit. The group grew out of a softwood manufacturing chamber within AFPA, where the CEOs of many of the biggest sawmilling businesses in Australia, including Hyne, Timberlink, OneFortyOne, Wespine and Wesbeam (all competitors), agreed that safety was one area where collaboration was much more important than competition.

“We share very similar risk profiles,” says Kirkup. “So from an industry perspective and as part of that group, we’d come up with a three-year strategy based on that risk profiling. We all have our input around what is better practice and from there we share learnings, we share information and it’s a very open and honest group.

“And then when Covid hit, we were having weekly meetings to share our learnings and experiences and what someone had already done, we’d all leverage off that.”

Like every other business at the start of the outbreak, AKD found itself having to deal with a lot of uncertainty in little time. “We had no option but to move quickly in those early stages,” says Kirkup, “we could share what worked well and what didn’t. That sharing of information and learnings was key.”

The quick implementation and refinement of Covid policies also had a huge impact within the communities around AKD’s major sites, particularly Colac. “We actually branched out and did a whole campaign within our local area around Keeping Colac Safe,” Kirkup says.

Rodger says that helping workers to recognise that they had a personal role in fighting the pandemic was vital: “We were playing an advocate role for not only AKD, but all our teams, their families, the communities we live in and we tried to convey that in every message we put across: this wasn’t just about us, this was about us doing our part for the wider community. From this we got a lot more buy-in and better outcomes.”

One of the frustrations in early March/April 2020 was that AKD’s focus on preparing for and preventing Covid wasn’t being mirrored enough in the whole wider community.

“We were doing all of these things in the workplace but then you’d go to the supermarket or drive downtown and you’d see some places not doing any of it. So that was our drive to start the community engagement,” says Kirkup.

Rodger adds, “Off the back of Toni raising those concerns, Shane Vicary [AKD’s CEO], got together the 30 largest employers in Colac and that team met every week, sometimes multiple times a week, to make sure everyone was informed and heading in the same direction and resources were being shared. The local hospital and Shire CEOs and school principals were also included in the group.”

Then in July and August Colac was hit with two clusters of Covid, getting to 130 cases in just a two-week period at one stage. “Colac is a regional town with only 12,000 people, so you can imagine the anxiety this created,” says Rodger.

The resulting Keep Colac Safe campaign, which was run over local and social media, used local people to spread the word and helped slash the cases in the region. It was an effective campaign and received world-wide recognition. “It even hit the Daily Mail in the UK!” Rodger marvels.

“Honestly, the way our teams adapted so quickly in that situation was nothing short of impressive,” says Kirkup. “I couldn’t have been any more proud of our business and the AKD Team in the past 18 months.

“I think people became stronger and more resilient and we looked out for each other more than we ever have, really understanding and appreciating that everyone is dealing with this differently and suffering with partners losing jobs or being made redundant, kids at home… everything.

“At the same time, in the last 12 months, we have exceeded our target of a 40% reduction in our LTIFR [lost time injury frequency rates] off the back of a 20% reduction in the year prior. That result demonstrates how the team came together and really focused and got on with what we needed to do and kept the focus on where it needed to be, on our people and their safety.”

The industry group has continued to work productively together, achieving much more together than would be possible for any of the companies on their own.

“The important part of that was around not only sharing but also the benchmarking,” Rodger says. “It allowed us to compare ourselves and see where we sat within the industry, which gives you motivation to improve further.”

Kirkup agrees: “I think the opportunity is there to really take our safety performance to another level. Covid took the focus for 2020, but I think the value add that the AFPA Safety Group can have to safety, from an industry perspective is incredible.”

Training talent

Within AKD, training and safety work along similar lines, which helps when it comes to broadening and maintaining the pool of potential staff. “One of the fundamental purposes of AKD is around providing development opportunities for our people,” says Rodger.

“Like the safety component, we’re not just training for the compliance aspect to tick the box. What do the individuals genuinely need to know to safely do their role and do it well and continue to improve and develop personally?”

He emphasises that safety and production aren’t really two separate things. “You can’t succeed at one and fail in the other, you really only succeed at either if you’re succeeding at both. They are equal and the motivation to improve in one area doesn’t have a negative impact on the other.”

Harking back to the clichéd fingerless sawmiller and thoughts of lumberjacks, Rodger says that the industry still has work to do when it comes to changing external perceptions about the type of work done in sawmills and the people who do it. These days, some of AKD’s operations centres look more like NASA than anything else, and employees are more likely to need mathematical skills, strong communication and problem-solving capabilities than brute strength.

Kirkup agrees. “I took a visitor around the other day who could not believe the automation and technology that’s involved in sawmilling. They said, ‘I was expecting to see people moving logs and timber around by hand.’ We still hear this regularly,” she says.

“So shifting that perception is critical. But also, from a safety perspective, there’s been a huge level of capital investment put in over the years around automation. Our people aren’t having to manhandle materials or get close to equipment or any of that sort of thing. It’s a high-tech, sophisticated industry.”

This change has helped Rodger and his team attract a more diverse range of talent and keep more of the staff they’ve invested in. “This year alone we’ve put on an additional 20 apprentices, which means we have over 50 apprentices across the country at the moment,” he says. “The uptake nationally has been really exciting. Over 30% of those apprentices appointed this year are female as well, which is a positive news story for the industry and is curbing another of the industry’s misconceptions.”

Rodger and his team are just as focused when it comes to staff retention. “We have got a really solid team. We have over 30% that have been with AKD for more than 10 years and on one site a third of the workforce there has done over 20 years, which is amazing,” he says.

“I don’t think the nature of our industry limits based on age, or any attribute for that matter. I certainly do not have a trend that indicates they get to a certain age and find themselves unable to keep up with the demands of the job. I think that’s the beauty of the continued investment in projects, capital and innovation – that’s even more true now.”

An important part of that retention is developing AKD’s people and giving them the right skills, knowledge and engagement to safely do their job and encouraging continuous development.

“We’ve always had the approach that we’re not going to put an individual’s development on a silver platter in front of them, they need to have the motivation to drive their own future. But when they bring that forward, we will support them no end,” says Rodger. “We have recently introduced a new performance development program and process which supports this and encourages these conversations. We’ve also employed a dedicated Talent Development Manager whose role is to ensure that we are proactively supporting talent development and that it aligns with the individual’s goals and ambitions.

“Our approach is based on providing options and recognising that everyone’s development needs and paths are different and should be treated as such. For some this will mean formal training or qualifications such as the apprenticeship or tertiary support. But for others this may mean being provided project or leadership opportunities or becoming an expert in the role they perform and giving them the skills to safely and effectively do their role really well.

Making it easy

Safety, too, has a personal focus at AKD. “We’ve launched a safety interaction program and the benefit and value we’ve seen out of that has been incredible,” says Kirkup.

“Every industry I’ve worked in has a similar program, but the difference for us is that it’s not driven by a checklist or criteria or process: it’s a conversation. The first part of getting our leaders trained up in that space is to say ‘this is very informal. This is about having regular, open and honest conversations with our teams and individuals around what works for them, what can be improved and what can we learn.’

“Nothing is more disengaging than a leader turning up with a sheet and ticking yes/no,” she adds.

Engaging the workforce isn’t just ‘empowering’, it’s highly practical. “They are the ones out there every day, so they’re the ones that know the answers,” Kirkup says. “We just need to give them the forum and the opportunity to voice them.”

The discussions are encouraged to be wholly open and can be between any members of staff, from trainees to the CEO, even to visitors.

“A safety interaction, or SI in our jargon, can happen at any time,” says Kirkup.

“There would be hundreds of them on a weekly basis across the group. At the start, we set our leaders a minimum number. I don’t like putting a number on it, but it helped as part of the first implementation and to get that discipline right and make the conversations normal through repetition. It’s enabled people to feel more comfortable to go and have those conversations, and that’s interdepartmental as well. They can leverage off that and say ‘I’m not from this area, talk to me about this…’ so it’s a conversation opener.”

There are no ‘wrong’ SI topics or people to bring them to, which helps to create a workforce in which everyone’s voice is valued and heard. “I think that goes back to the change that happened about 10 years ago when we moved to everyone wearing the same uniform and that was for this exact reason,” says Rodger.

“It shouldn’t matter whether you’re an employee on day one or the CEO, you should be able to expect the same treatment.”

There is a corrective action process attached to each SI. “Anything identified as something that needs to be fixed straight away is fixed straight away,” Kirkup says.

“If it’s something longer term or an improvement opportunity, then we’ll put that through as a corrective action and that would get worked through that process. We report on those numbers on a weekly and monthly basis and that’s really helping us improve.”

The SI process has helped AKD move as a company to where safety is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of the safety person or manager.

“People own their safety and I think that’s becoming more and more evident and powerful every day,” says Kirkup.

“They take ownership. We have got it to a point where people actually self report if they believe they’ve done the wrong thing, which is pretty cool! And people aren’t afraid to pull up their colleagues in a supportive way if they think they’re doing something wrong or they’re in harm’s way.”

From school to retirement

All these actions are designed to keep AKD workers safe, happy and engaged with the company. But, like many companies in regional areas, one big challenge is finding those workers in the first place.

“The movement of people to regional areas in recent times is helping,” says Rodger, “But it’s still a challenge to find the quality and quantity of people that we want. It’s the same everywhere. However, in the last few months we’ve had a few instances where individuals have moved from metro areas to take on opportunities within our team. Growing regional areas and the transformation of flexible work has made the regional moves more attractive to families.”

Growing to multiple locations across three states has also helped. ”One good thing about being a bigger operation now spread across three states is that opportunity for internal transfers and development,” Rodger says. “We’ve got a number of examples, where existing employees have transferred to alternate sites and we are keen to see this occur more and more: sharing ideas, processes, and culture. It also presents opportunities for collaborative projects and sharing of information, similar to the benefits received from the industry committees. This develops individuals, but also improves AKD.”

Both Rodger and Kirkup identify AKD’s apprenticeship program as a great example of a sustainable development program that benefits individuals, AKD and the industry.

“We’ve a lot of people joining our business in hopes of getting into our apprenticeship program,” Rodger says.

“Of the 20 apprentices we put on this year, over 60% were internal appointments into those opportunities. They were people who have been in production or in other roles throughout our business and put  their hands up to be considered.”

Kirkup adds, “We have had external people join our business at a lower level than their previous role, knowing there are those sort of opportunities available at AKD.”

One thing that sets AKD apart as an employer in regional areas is that the company offers opportunities all the way through to the end of a person’s career. “We’ve had apprentices start their apprenticeships in their 40s and 50s, even recently,” Rodger says. “That was part of a video we put out to all of our employees, saying don’t consider yourself too old or that you’ve been in the industry too long to consider these sorts of opportunities.”

Kirkup says, “I think it also goes to demonstrate that, again, touching on that care for our people, they do not get to a point or an age where we say ‘cut off time, off you go.’”

At the other end of the spectrum, AKD runs multiple programs for students and recent school leavers, as well as offering scholarships and other supports for tertiary students and graduates.

“We’re involved with our local schools in some way or form from Year 9 through to year 12,” says Rodger. “Including in Year 10 in Colac where we have work experience and host a MindShop Program, which is a small group that’s given a real business problem within AKD. They spend the week liaising with different people across the business and develop a solution to the problem and present it senior managers on the last day. This program is being expanded out to our NSW and Queensland sites this year”

For recent school leavers, the company runs its Gap Year Program. “It’s really got traction over these last few years,” Rodger says. “It’s targeted at high achievers and it’s about giving people an opportunity in that 12 months before they head to university to either firm up what they want to do with their career or just to give them real-life experience in their desired business area and save some money.

“This year we’ve put on eight, working in areas across forestry, operations, HR and safety. Maybe one of them post-university might come back to us. Or maybe it will be their parent or their sibling. This is about building relationships with a wide range of people in our communities and making the opportunities of our business and industry better known, whilst also providing a growth opportunity for the specific individuals involved. The gap year employees are usually motivated and intelligent and help keep the company feeling energetic.”

The increased number of tertiary-qualified employees coming into the company also reflects the shift in the industry. “It’s a real change, with us moving to a more advanced and technical workforce,” says Rodger.

“So that’s more trades, more tertiary qualifications, science, engineering, commerce and, with AKD’s willingness and desire to invest in those fields, both internally but also bringing in new talent, the company is taking a long-term view of building capability.”

Why do it?

These sorts of policies definitely contribute to the sense of wellbeing among the workforce, but the traditional arguments against them are that they take time away from production and cost money. Not so.

“On a WorkCover basis, historically, we were performing poorly,” Rodger says.

“There was even a time many years ago when we found ourselves at double the industry average. We now sit at about half the industry average, which has had a significant financial benefit. But the majority of our employees wouldn’t know that, because it’s not the reason we’ve done this. It’s not based on a financial calculation, it’s based on a moral belief and our values.”

The company’s focus on culture has helped it to build strong relationships with its customers, too.

“Generally speaking, we try to align to customers who have a similar approach and philosophy,” says Rodger.

With regional timber operations competing with both mining and the lure of the city, AKD’s culture has worked to its advantage in recruitment.

Rodger says, “One of our core pillars is that we take a long-term view. There are things we do now with the view to that employee’s future in the longer term being better off for them – as well as better off for the business, and we’ve shown for some years now that we’re willing to invest in that. We don’t need to see an immediate payback if we see the potential for long term value.

“We are focused on culture and value, the relationships we have within our teams, within our industry and within our communities. It’s this culture that has driven our success to date and will continue to be so as we look to the future.”

Add to this some of the very specific benefits of the timber industry itself, says Rodger: “We’re competing with mining and more when we’re trying to recruit more technical roles. What we can offer is opportunities and lifestyle at your back door, with you going safely home to your family every day.”

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Main Image: (Left) Toni Kirkup, national health, safety and wellbeing manager for AKD. (Right) Clark Rodger, GM of HR at AKD Softwoods. Both are championing a more inclusive workplace culture.