Are you getting what you need from your internship?

It’s important that our interns have experiences that will be useful when they’re looking for, or engaged in, future work. Gareth Baker, a law and commerce student at Auckland University, talks about his first few weeks at Height:

“Probably the best part has been the variety of projects and challenges, and the new stuff to learn constantly - and it’s only been a few weeks. It makes balancing deadlines and getting your head around stuff a bit trickier but it’s good to get used to those challenges because that’s an introduction to the fundamentals of the working world.

“I attended and then presented at a contractor/local government collaborative meeting, which was nerve-racking but a very cool experience.

“I’ve sat in on meetings where bids for major urban developments are being discussed - something I think is atypical for a regular internship.

“Observing the interest our team’s work on social procurement is receiving, and the announcement that business cases which the team had helped Kiwirail with, has led to investment in regional railways is awesome - we may be small but it is really clear how impactful the work is.

“The kind of ‘thrown-in-the-deep-end-ness’ is the coolest part about working for a small innovative place like Height - but with 100% wraparound support. It’s the best way to learn.”

Our personal induction plan

We give our interns real work, but we make sure there are clear structures in place to support them too. Our personal induction plan is a part of this: it is put together by the intern with their line manager. It means that when they start we have an understanding of their goals, and we can align work, and training to fit, and people are assigned to support them with different parts of their job.

Our internship programme is a really important way of giving opportunities to young people and injecting fresh thinking and ideas into our business.

Here is Gareth’s personal induction plan - thanks for letting us share this Gareth.

Gareth induction plan


How the military taught me to be an entrepreneur

From my experience, business ideas are one thing, but execution is everything. 

Business and entrepreneurial success is fundamentally about mobilising an idea into a commercial reality.  

You can brainstorm a business idea ad infinitum - the real challenge is putting it into action. The hard part is not the generation of the IP, but how you execute and deliver.  

In military operations, the stakes are high. There are generally no second chances to push pause, bring in additional resources, or go back to the boardroom to develop a new strategy. At the heart of it, a military unit must be able to execute well, be flexible and act precisely in a sometimes precarious and constantly-changing environment.

I was reflecting on my time as an Air Force Officer, and now entrepreneur/business owner, to see what lessons I learnt from my time in the service and some of the practical things I have tried to introduce into my business:   

  • Defined values and associated behaviours - when I first left the service I was naively surprised that people didn’t do what they said they would. Courage, Comradeship and Commitment are the core values that are drilled into you from induction in the military, and these are reinforced by the actions of your colleagues. It is a given that a fellow serviceperson will act and behave in a particular way in the best interests of the service and their comrades.  

  • Constant levels of personal and unit critique - When I was below par, I was told I was shit. And if I did something exceptional, I was told I was average. From the day you start at boot camp or Officer training, and throughout your career on your operational unit, all aspects of your performance are under constant ongoing assessment, scrutiny and constructive critique. You develop an acute awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. As service personnel, it is business as usual to get immediate, ongoing and constructive feedback about your personal and unit’s performance.

  • Competency - investing in personal training and mentoring – the service by its nature is a learning organisation. It must generally grow its competency from the ground up, as there is no ready source of fighter pilots, soldiers or artillerymen in the civilian world. It spends a considerable amount of time and money in initial trade and the ongoing professional and personal development to build levels of competency. Training is also supplemented on operational units with strong mentoring and support for personnel from more experienced members.     

  • Clear accountabilities -  depending on your rank and trade, there are generally very clear lines of responsibility and accountability for your duties and the jobs you perform. You understand from day one what is expected of you, what the standards and levels of competency to do your job are, and what you need to progress to the next level.

  • Leadership through leveraging and delegating to your team – successful military units are slick teams, and good leaders leverage the skills and experiences within the team to make decisions and plan operations. As a leader, there is also a strong emphasis on delegation of tasks to maintain focus on the key goals, and so you have the capacity to deal with issues and pieces of information as they arrive.  

  • Plan and train for the worst case scenario –  With Air Force operations there is a meticulous level of planning and detail. Training is also used to practise 'what-if' scenarios and to deal with contingencies that could happen in a real-life situation. 

  • A structured approach to communication – From the way we briefed and debriefed operations, through to the form we used to purchase components for aircraft or take leave, the military has a very clear, structured and sensible way of communicating. It ensures that the right pieces of information are shared, and at the right level. This approach also supports all staff in the development of public speaking and verbal communication skills. 

  • Making an actual decision -  the worst thing to do in the military is to be indecisive. The training and culture supports you in making a decision on the basis of the best information you have and experiences of your team at that time. If the decision you make proves to be wrong, gather your thoughts, process the new information, make another decision, move on!! 

  • The ability to compartmentalise mistakes– we all screw up or have things go wrong, but in situations which require your 100% focus you need to put that aside quickly and continue to devote all your energy to the task at hand. 

I know that some of my service colleagues will be smiling at this list and suggest that I have rose-tinted glasses, but these core elements of service life are not common practice within civilian business circles. 

At Height we have adopted these core principles, and I believe they will always underpin the success of the business (albeit in a slightly more diplomatic and less shouty way!) 

Warner Cowin
CEO Height


A new infrastructure body for NZ: our submission

The New Zealand Government, led by Minister Shane Jones, has asked for input into a new independent infrastructure body. Submissions on this close today. 

Height has worked with most of the major – and many of the smaller – companies in the construction and infrastructure sector in New Zealand, and we feel we have a pretty clear picture of the challenges facing the industry.

On the basis of this experience, we thought we’d share with you some of the key points we made in the Height submission. 

The issues the infrastructure body needs to focus on: 

  1. Sustainable contracting – moving away from contract models and practices that place undue risk on the supply chain. Currently the models and practices are inconsistent across Government agencies/Councils/departments – so looking to standardise all contracts and practices to align to the current best practice examples would be the goal.

  2. Centralised planning of infrastructure projects and maintenance – the big challenge for the market at the present time is being able to respond and resource the projected workload. The delivery of major construction projects – and just as importantly, asset maintenance – will be a challenge for Government if there is no centralised plan and clear way of communicating this to the market. (This approach must be aligned with an assessment of the market’s capability to respond. Major projects across all agencies may need to be prioritised within the programme where there are inadequate market resources to meet demand.)

  3. Sustainable procurement – there is a need to recognise non-cost elements within the supply chain. Infrastructure by its nature is a significant economic, social, cultural and environmental development opportunity. From engagement and upskilling of local suppliers, to engagement with Iwi and community groups, through to training opportunities and incorporating environmental considerations, there needs to be a more focused effort to recognise and value wider sustainable outcome benefits.      

  4. Industry resource capability and competency  – we know one of the biggest challenges is a lack of available talent and capability from the site trades through to professional engineers. We need a strategic policy on resourcing that will link measuring the current workforce and trainee capability and maturity (it is an ageing workforce) to meet future demand. 

  5.  Independent supply chain feedback – the body will provide an excellent forum to get independent feedback from businesses on sector health, including the market’s ability to deliver the programme, to resource demands, invest in training, and to report on the performance of buying agencies.

On that last point – the market needs to be part of this agency, both in a leadership capacity and also seconding staff into supporting it. It needs people that are connected to the issues and can provide practical ideas and solutions to both central and local Government. From a market credibility perspective it will relyheavily on a good mix of physical works contractors, designers, consultantsand client agencies

This body is a timely development, and it needs to inject more certainty and stability in the market, as well as begin to address the shortcomings in infrastructure for New Zealanders. 

Warner Cowin, CEO, Height
Kel McBeath, Principal - Procurement, Height

Ten ways Government buying agencies can create more sustainable construction contracts

Ten ways Government buying agencies can create more sustainable construction contracts

There’s been a lot of discussion on the amount of risk that construction companies are taking on in order to secure large contracts. 

To achieve sustainable outcomes, the buyer (the procuring agency), and the seller (the contractor), need to share and manage the risk fairly and reasonably. 

The nature of the outsourced market in New Zealand means that the success of Government agencies and projects are now intrinsically linked to the long-term commercial success of suppliers. 

So what are some ways Government buying agencies (and other buyers) can deliver better contracts? 

1.     Appreciate the cost of bidding and doing business for your suppliers - be genuine and transparent in your engagement and don’t muck them around.

2.     Engage with the market very early on through pre-engagement, to inform potential solutions and the tender process – there are no monopolies on good ideas (albeit intellectual property needs to be respected).

3.     Be very clear on what you want to achieve and expected outcomes. If you don’t know, move to a more collaborative-based engagement process to help the market work with you to define outcomes and potential solutions. 

4.     Your customer's needs should define the outcomes. For example, construction of a new road should be aligned with the needs of the commuter, the local community and future users of that asset. If we define the needs of our customer we can define the criteria for the success of the project as a whole.

5.    Spend time to clearly understand your project risks and constraints. The complexity of your project and the associated risks will help define the plan and the subsequent procurement strategy, commercial engagement mechanism and contract model. 

6.    Don’t outsource risks that as a buying agency you are best to manage, for example, delays due to weather, customer complaints unrelated to the job, delays due to your internal processes etc. Ultimately the supplier will be forced to price the risk, and this will come at a premium for you as a buyer. Or if they don’t, it creates issues of market sustainability. 

7.     Be clear on what value is for you. For example, imagine you were buying medical services for someone you love. If you listed out what was important, I would imagine that cost may be at the bottom. So align your procurement process, contract model and evaluation criteria to focus on Total Cost of Ownership to achieve long-term value.  

8.     Accept healthy profits – it’s ok to make money, and a financially healthy supplier can invest back into their business via training, product and service development, and new jobs. It also creates a sustainable business that you can lean on for the long term.  

9.     Treat the suppliers as partners – they are part of your continuous improvement and innovation team. Communicate your problems so that you can work collaboratively to develop solutions – you’ll get better value out of their knowledge and experience this way. 

10.  If a price is too good to be true, it usually is. A lowest price-conforming approach to procurement does not allow the market to invest back into itself and it comes at the expense of long-term sustainability. 

These ten approaches reflect a new way of thinking, and a change of culture. It’s about creating a sustainable market sector that delivers for customers and citizens through good process and integrity between buyer and seller. 

Warner Cowin, CEO Height

Also see Warner's opinion piece in the NZ Herald: NZ Construction Industry like a 'House of Cards'

Engineers' Guide to Communication

“Helping engineers communicate”. Sometimes I feel this should be the slogan for my company Height. It’s so much of what we do in our business. 

Like any professionals, we engineers are emotionally and passionately connected to our work. We take great pride in understanding the detail, considering the constraints, and thoroughly working through the options before we make a decision. In fact, it’s our ethical obligation to do so.

But sometimes, as we delve deep into an engineering solution, we lose focus on the customer and what their needs are. 

Success in business is all about solving customers’ problems. But this means really listening to the customer to understand – not just what they think their problem is – but their underlying issues.

And it doesn’t stop after one conversation. We need to keep listening and keep learning – because your customers’ problems are changing all the time.

That’s probably why this proverb resonated with me:

Te timatanga o te mātauranga, ko te wahangū. Te wāhanga tuarua, ko te whakarongo

The first stage of learning is silence. The second stage is listening.

So many of the problems we see with pitching for, and delivering, large contracts both on the supplier and the procuring agency side come down to issues of communication, understanding, and empathy. 

When we communicate our pitch to the customer, we can’t assume that all the detail and process of decision-making of the solution (which is obviously important to us) will be front-of-mind and important to the customer. We want to be focusing on their issues in order to win.

In terms of delivery, there have been numerous high-profile Government projects that have blown budgets, not been fit-for-purpose, caused significant issues for end-users, and have had bucketloads of associated poor PR and political fallout.  

When you boil down the issues there are generally communication flaws at their core too: poor client scoping and procurement, the lack of a structured robust project and risk management approach, and finally, poor end-user engagement and deployment training of the solution. 

So let’s deliver engineering solutions that meet the needs of users and solve their problems, by really understanding what they are.

Here are some communication tips: 

  • Don’t assume you already know your client’s real issues

  • Actively listen – really hear what your client or prospective client is saying, and clarify what you’ve understood

  • Your client may be so deep in their issues, they can’t articulate their precise problem, so take an aerial/external view of their problems and provide a different perspective, and test out your assumptions

  • Always be open to new information and learning from different sources - you might uncover a new solution or approach you can feed into solving a customer problem

  • Finally, there’s a saying that the biggest problem in communication is that it has already happened. Keep people informed, let them know what’s going on, allow them to feed back. It can stop people spending time and money solving a problem that doesn’t exist, while not resolving the real one.

Warner Cowin
CEO Height

 

Strength through being vulnerable

The recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain left me saddened – about how such great and outwardly successful people chose the final path they did.

It led me to reflect on my own mental state and challenges that I face within my business and personal life. As a CEO there is a strong sense that we need to have all the answers and be on top of the issues. 

However as all successful businesspeople will attest, with success comes growth, added complexity and a changing dynamic. This means the tried and tested plans and approaches of yesterday no longer apply, and we are in a state of planned uncertainty.

One of my good friends described it as ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – the feeling we are just winging it.

At the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO), I rely on a lot for peer-to-peer support, we talk about ‘the 5%.’ It’s the point in which we feel the confidence to be when we can discuss issues with a trusted group of peers, no matter how deeply personal and troublesome. It is the old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved. 

I do not have this perfect, but these recent suicides have prompted me to think about the work environment I try and create at Height and reflect on some of the things that help our team.

Here are some ideas that have worked for us:

  •  Create a safe and inclusive place to work through clear articulation of values and associated behaviours
  • Make it a place people feel comfortable being honest about how they’re feeling, about work issues or personal issues they feel might affect their work 
  • As a leader, be the first to be vulnerable; take the initiative to share stories. Leaders that are prepared to admit mistakes send a clear message to staff that it’s ok.
  •  In our daily huddle we always ask everyone ‘what are you stuck on?’ after they’ve done their update. It could be a small issue in context, but a big issue for the staff member involved. If we know the issue we can help collectively deal with it.  
  • At our weekly meeting we always share a values story, good or bad, which allows us to reflect on our work, and discuss issues.
  • Staff also know no one is ever too busy to talk one-to-one if someone needs it.
  • I find a lot of value in mentoring and peer-to peer-learning opportunities. I have a mentor, and I have the EO forum as an outlet to share issues and concerns.
  •  Take time out – real time out, no kids, spouse/partner – take some personal time for you to have a long walk, get some exercise, hobbies or whatever.
  • Perfection is a myth. Always strive for perfection but sometimes excellent is good enough.
  • Recognise success – as a business (and as an individual) take time to reflect on your journey. More than often you’ll be surprised how much you have achieved.

 

Warner Cowin, CEO Height

Why are firms losing money in a building boom? It's all about scale

In this period of record demand, there are construction companies winning work, growing revenue – and yet still not making money. 

They’re growing, but they’re not scaling. Why are they not achieving sustainable margins from their sales? 

I believe the problem here is a doomed construction business model. It is ‘mandraulic’, built on high levels of manual labour input.

In Australia and New Zealand the construction business model relies on the competence and ability of project managers, supervisors and foremen to drive productivity, quality and margin. 

For many businesses, the approach to meeting growth is either working these staff harder or trying to find more of them – which, in a constrained labour market, is near impossible. 

And when one of these staff members goes, they leave a huge knowledge and capability gap.

Construction businesses in New Zealand have historically been built on hard work, grit and force of personality. When a job has been done well the approach is to use staff knowledge and experience to replicate it, rather than document or systemise it.

Systems and processes, along with effective training and communication, enable even the newest, or most junior member of staff, to understand how a job should be done. This provides a platform for quality and consistency that isn’t dependent on the capability or capacity of the person who’s managing them.  

When an ambitious business is winning work and growing its revenue base, it needs the systems to ensure that the experience its 100th client receives is consistent with, and as good as, the first. It needs the processes to understand and manage risk so it doesn’t take on work at a price it can’t profitably deliver. The investment in these systems and processes, including technology and data-led solutions, pays off when sales revenue grows at a greater rate than its costs. That is scaling. 

Our company has worked with dozens of businesses of all sizes. An inability to scale seems to be due to one or more of the following factors: 

  • A fundamental lack of good processes and systems in client (and supplier) organisations to manage quality, programme, compliance, financial and commercial outputs and risks. 
  • A misguided growth strategy that seeks to blindly dominate a market as opposed to pursuing the products/services that customers have the best results with – and where the business makes the best recurring profitable revenue
  • A lack of training and investment in project management capability and systems
  • A lack of governance around understanding the commercial commitment, risk and cash flow.  

I recently re-read the “E-Myth” by Michael Gerber about why most small businesses fail. It looks at industries where businesses have successfully grown and scaled their business models in a labour-constrained market – including airlines and complex manufacturing. 

These models are characterised by measures including: providing consistent values to your customers, employees, suppliers and lenders; providing a uniformly predictable level of service; able to be operated by people with the lowest possible levels of skill; and being impeccably ordered and documented. 

There is a big opportunity here for contractors to learn from other industries, and be sustainable for themselves, their clients and the public – through the good times and the rough. 

 

Warner Cowin, CEO Height

 

*So what are the firms that we’ve worked with who are scaling and making sustainable profits in New Zealand doing right?


  • Investing in systems and processes (for both suppliers and contractors)
  • Making growth part of a considered strategy – built on focusing on opportunities where you can make sustainable profits, not just on winning for the sake of winning
  • Setting and reinforcing clear expectations of values and associated behaviours for all staff and suppliers – organisational culture is key
  • Using live performance data and measurement
  • Putting a committed focus on contract transition from bid to delivery - ensuring that all systems, processes, resources and people are in place
  • The discipline of accurate and regular reporting of customer feedback, programme, financials and risk
  • Innovation: modularisation of construction processes and standardisation of solutions.

Make Asset Management Great Again

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The US has been underfunding its highway system for years, resulting in an $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge capital needs. The bulk of the backlog ($420 billion) is in repairing existing highways, while $123 billion is needed for bridge repair, $167 billion for system expansion, and $126 for system enhancement.
— The American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is one thing Trump and the Democrats agree on – that the US has underinvested in its roads.

The rare bipartisan consensus in Washington DC is steering a concerted effort towards better asset management planning for road maintenance and capital renewals. 

The impact on the world’s largest economy is in terms of safety, congestion and delays on the roading network, which still provides the US with its physical backbone of hard commerce. 

Is it the same in Australia and New Zealand? 

We have safety issues, delays and congestion in key cities. 

But meetings I had on my trip to the US last month left me feeling comparatively optimistic about the way forward for road asset management in Australia and New Zealand – and that we might actually be able to teach the US a thing or two. 

Sure, the economies and networks are on a completely different scale – the US has 6.58 million kilometres of roads – but the same principles of asset management apply. 

While not perfect, I think what the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) has introduced with its new Network Outcome Contracts (NOC) provides a good example of a long-term investment strategy for roading asset management. 

NOC are a single contract model for large contracts, which include physical works and maintenance and network, asset and safety management functions. Performance measures are based on a combination of outcomes and outputs. 

This integrated approach helps provide a clear long-term vision for the network.

With the availability of significant datasets, and access to real-time technologies, for example, for improving the detection of defects, we will start to see real safety and efficiency benefits.

What I think is really important – and what US agencies could learn from the NOC model – are the enablers to make good asset management happen, which are: 

  •  Clear ownership of, and accountability for, the asset with the contractor. This reduces interagency or supplier conflict 
  • A single integrated national strategy and approach for network asset management (clear decision-making and a single source of truth)
  •  Longer-term contracts – increasing contract tenure subject to supplier performance 
  • The power of asset data collected over time means the asset management model and associated investment strategies can continually be refined 
  • Joint national and regional road integration – working with local agencies to create a single delivery model for road maintenance and investment, eg Marlborough Roads and Northland Alliance. 

There are other good examples in Australia, like the Road and Maritime Services Roads Maintenance Contracts in Sydney. 

It's good to sense we're taking quite a leading position in this field internationally - and - it means the road asset management problem in the US might just be a business opportunity for Australasian roading businesses.

Warner Cowin, CEO Height

 

 

Taking Māori Entrepreneurship to the World

Warner Kokiri.jpg

In April I attended the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Global Leadership Conference in Toronto, Canada. This has provided a really important peer-to-peer network for me as I’ve overcome challenges and obstacles in growing my business, Height. 

Hearing different entrepreneurs’ stories really brought home the role mentors have had in all of their successes – listening, advising, and helping them focus on the goal. 

At the conference I thought about the next generation of Maori entrepreneurs, and who will mentor them. 

A real asset in this space is the Kōkiri programme, which acts as a business accelerator for Māori start-ups, providing opportunities for mentoring and support. 

I volunteer as a mentor on this programme, and one of the reasons I really back is that we are laying out a model for these entrepreneurs to mentor the next generation of start-up founders, in a way that aligns with Māori values. 

It’s an important legacy. It is not inconceivable that the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos is sitting in Ruatoria, Tauranga or Kaikohe, and these rangatahi need the role models and mentors to ensure they reach those heights. 

I have learned in business and life that you get back what you give. 

I volunteer as a mentor because of a genuine willingness to help develop successful and profitable Māori entrepreneurs – and because I welcome opportunities to learn. 

In my discussions as a mentor and coach, the questions and challenges raised and the solutions developed often result in a ‘note to self’ for me to action in my business. 

Being an entrepreneur has given me the flexibility to spend time with my whānau, to volunteer my time, to follow my passions, and work with people and clients globally that share my values. 

I am really excited about the journeys ahead for the Kōkiri entrepreneurs – and for those who come after, as they shape the world through entrepreneurship. 

Warner Cowin, CEO Height

Australian and New Zealand veterans: thank you for your service

 

"Having spent the last week in Washington DC and New York for work, what struck me is the outward and very open support and public gratitude shown by US citizens, businesses and agencies towards current and ex-military personnel."

It is estimated that both New Zealand and Australia collectively have over 100,000 contemporary veterans that have served in operational campaigns from places such as East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Croatia since the Vietnam War.

This number is significant when a recent Australian study showed that more than 20% of serving members would experience a mental health condition in a given year, while more than 50% of veterans will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. 

We ask a lot of these men and women, both while they are in service, and in terms of the impact their military experiences can have on their future lives, including their health, their careers, and their whanau/family. 

Height’s support of the military resettlement programme – advising veterans starting up their own businesses – is a very small extension to show our genuine support of our veterans and current service personnel. Providing support for veterans to transition and adjust to civilian life after the military is one way we can help. 

Thank you for your service, veterans. 

Warner Cowin, Height CEO

Our five-year celebration – having a blast

As we hit the five-year mark of being in business, I took a moment to reflect on the great vibe in the office, and take a quick snapshot of what the team was working on.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but as I added up the numbers, it kind of blew my mind:

  • At that very moment, the team was supporting more than $675M of major water, roading, maritime, manufacturing, intelligent traffic technology, and infrastructure contracts
  • In parallel, we were overseeing $405M of technical procurements and associated support in the water, FM, rail, aviation, defence, and solid waste sectors
  • The projects were with clients and partners in the US, Hong Kong, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Fiji, and all parts of New Zealand.

Our success has been driven by a number of things, but at the heart of it has been a dedicated, hard-working, fun-loving and values-driven team. It really is the adage “getting the right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats, and pointing in the right direction,” which has underpinned our success. This not only reflects the great diversity of work we are involved in, but also our loyal international customer base and world-class Net Promoter Score (we seek customer feedback after every project, and our NPS is currently tracking around 50).

The start of the new 2018/19 financial year brings with it great excitement and optimism for the team at Height and our customers.

Without giving too much away, here are some highlights:

  • New offices – we are excited to be moving into new premises in Mount Eden, Auckland. The space will be larger, and also have dedicated project areas for clients to work directly and confidentially with us.
  • Exploring opportunities within the United States and Canada – in conjunction with me attending the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Global Leadership Conference in April in Toronto, and with support from NZTE, I will be completing a fact-finding mission to the US and Canada to explore business opportunities and review the latest innovations in procurement and tendering.
  • Community support and volunteering – solidifying our ongoing support for KidsCan; helping to grow the next lot of New Zealand and Australian emerging entrepreneurs through the APAC EO Accelerator Programme; providing mentoring support for Maori entrepreneurs in Kokiri and also supporting New Zealand Defence Force Veterans transitioning out of the military through the NZDF Resettlement Training Programme; and investing in, and growing, the leaders and talent of tomorrow through our intern and graduate programme.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank our loyal customers and also my team and our families who allow us to do what we passionately love doing.

Be awesome, Warner 

Warner Cowin, Height CEO

Boots to Business – transitioning from the military to the commercial world

Height CEO Warner Cowin was invited to speak to serving defence personnel looking to transition into business. Warner is pictured on the right above, with Charlie O'Hara Smith (left) and Heather Dickson (centre). 

Height CEO Warner Cowin was invited to speak to serving defence personnel looking to transition into business. Warner is pictured on the right above, with Charlie O'Hara Smith (left) and Heather Dickson (centre). 

Height CEO Warner Cowin was privileged to speak to serving personnel of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), at a resettlement seminar in Ohakea this week.

NZDF offers resettlement seminars in recognition of the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life – and ensuring Navy, Army and Air Force personnel can put their best foot forward in the commercial and civilian worlds.

Warner – and another senior Height staff member Kel McBeath – are veterans of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (Kel served in Croatia and Warner in East Timor).

Height is honoured to support NZDF personnel, and we hope with Warner openly and honestly sharing his journey from RNZAF officer to corporate leader to CEO of his own business Height,  other serving personnel have been inspired to start their own entrepreneurial adventures!

Top tips from Warner:

  • Start with what you are passionate about
  • Know what problems you are really solving for your customer
  • Be led by values – it pays off
  • Surround yourself with experts
  • Be in a perpetual state of learning
  • Make use of all the efficient online technology platforms out there
  • Success is a balance of family, personal and business
  • Prioritise your goals (top five for the year, three for a quarter etc)
  • Take action on the key numbers (measure and act on customer feedback, productivity etc)
  • Constantly challenge the norm – be uncomfortable!

 “Success in building your own business is not just about what you know but how you approach, grow and apply your thinking. The idea of starting a business can bring huge anxieties and associated challenges. Setting the base for personal business success requires a clear evolving plan and a resilient, optimistic outlook. Being a business owner can come with risk but the rewards can be hugely empowering," Warner told the audience.

We are also excited to be supporting seminars in Auckland in May and Burnham in October.

What can we learn from the collapse of Carillion in the UK?

The collapse of Carillion has important lessons for Australia and New Zealand – it could happen here. Carillion, which went into liquidation in January, was the second largest construction company in the UK. It was contracted to deliver major public works, including new railways and hospitals, as well as other services in education, corrections and more. Carillion was locked into unprofitable contracts with the UK Government – the same situation our large contractors have found themselves in. 

The collapse of Carillion means the UK Government is now faced with 450 contracts it has to take in-house and billions of pounds of uncompleted work. Additionally, tens of thousands of staff and thousands of Carillion’s smaller subcontracting firms have been plunged into uncertain futures. 

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The fact is, contractors need to make sustainable profits, because the economic risk of them failing is too high. The success of our major contractors and the success of our economy are co-dependent. In an outsourced market, we need contractors to produce public works and infrastructure – to engage, make decisions and actually make work happen on the ground – so we have schools, hospitals, roads, transport, water, power and other vital services. 

In New Zealand you could argue we have even greater mutual dependence on our major contractors. There are only a handful of contractors with the geographical reach, subcontractor networks, and people, plant and processes, to deliver multiple major works.  The due diligence and long lead-in times required for complex projects means if a supplier fails the process of finding alternative suppliers is prolonged and cumulatively more expensive.

As the success of the economy is interconnected with the success of our suppliers, we should be pursuing long-term Government-supplier relationships with sustainable margins. Government should embrace suppliers as partners, valuing the relationships, valuing the investment they make in their people, plant and processes, and taking an active interest in their financial success.

We need to avoid ‘race to the bottom’ bidding wars that lock contractors into unrealistically low prices. 

Part of the issue is Government buying agencies – and contractors themselves – need more maturity in establishing sustainable price and margins. You can see how, when an agency has one bidder undercutting other bidders by say 20%, the temptation would be to throw caution out the window. 

But parties need to be really clear on the risks, the levels of service expected, and the desired outcomes. The buying agency needs to choose a procurement model that suits the level of risk. That means interrogating and analysing precisely what is being delivered at the price. And if there are too many gaps or uncertainties – including the possibility of the price being unsustainable – this may compromise the agency and its level of service for taxpayers, and the risk is too high. In procurement that old adage applies: if a price seems too good to be true, it usually is. 

Which isn’t to say that sometimes the lowest price genuinely offers the best deal, particularly in a low-risk scenario. But evaluate the risks first.

I am sure there are UK government agencies now managing failed contracts as a result of Carillion’s collapse wishing that they had.

Warner Cowin, Height CEO

A big thanks to our interns

At Height we genuinely value the perspectives and enthusiasm interns bring to our business. We've been very fortunate in who we've found. They've been from different academic disciplines, but are always hard-working, adaptable, and like a laugh - important for fitting in with the culture at Height.

We have just farewelled two interns so they can go back to their studies - but our interns are not just for summer! We stay in touch and try and bring them back throughout the year for part-time work.

University of Canterbury Finance and Accounting student Patrick Williams started with us over Summer 16/17, continued working for us during the holidays last year, and returned this summer. (He was also the recipient of a Prime Minister’s Scholarship in 2017, and spent three months at university in Singapore). 

Last year, Patrick and Jade Crawford wrote a post: 5 reasons to intern at a small business with some great insights for students considering internship options. 

JADE CRAWFORD AND PATRICK WILLIAMS

JADE CRAWFORD AND PATRICK WILLIAMS

 

This summer we also welcomed Samuel Hudson, a fourth-year Law and Political Science student from the University of Auckland. Samuel is about to start his honours in law and has a strong interest in international and environmental law.

Samuel offers up another perspective of interning at Height:

“As a law student I’ve become familiar with drafting contracts from a legal perspective. I wasn’t fully aware of the level of detail that is involved with buying agencies and contractors to get contracts off the ground. There is a high level of due diligence and analysis which goes into creating sustainable procurement contracts that we work with at Height.”

SAMUEL HUDSON

SAMUEL HUDSON

 

“My work has included market research for bid plans, and additionally looking at how we can shape a product on the basis of that information for further use. I’ve contributed to the writing and framing of programme plans, drafting bid documents and proofreading, as well as assisting in the preparation and running of workshops—all with oversight and support from the team here."

Samuel points out that while Height is a small company, it works on significant projects.

"I’ve been able to experience a range of areas in depth during my relatively short internship. Whenever I have needed guidance there’s always someone happy to help. I’m looking forward to continuing on part-time during the year!” 

365 days of giving

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Four years ago when Height was just a fledgling small business operating out of my garage, we made a really important decision. We made a commitment to provide an annual sponsorship to KidsCan

I have always admired KidsCan, a New Zealand-based charity. They have a very practical focus on what children need - and what some families find hard to provide: shoes and socks that fit, nutritious school lunches, raincoats, head lice treatment even.

It was an important decision for Height to support KidsCan because it helped set the tone for the kind of company we wanted to be. Even though we were establishing a new business – with all the costs and demands that entails – we wanted to make giving back a priority.

We see Height as part of our community. We help our clients with essential infrastructure and many other projects that deliver outstanding services for New Zealanders.

KidsCan makes a real difference to an important group of New Zealanders too: children from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t always receive what they need to thrive. Height’s sponsorship of KidsCan supports 25 children every day of every year. 

We don’t do Christmas gifts for our clients. We deeply respect and admire our clients and the work they do – and we work our socks off for them throughout the year. But we put our gift money into giving disadvantaged children in New Zealand a better start instead.

Our clients are the kind of people who back this.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Warner Cowin, Height CEO

Save 30% on your bid costs with these six tips

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Want to know how you can keep your bid costs down?

Here’s a tale of two bids. Height worked on two similar sized tenders for the same company – but each was led internally by a different manager. The company ultimately won both bids, but one cost 30% more to get to the tender box. Why?

The manager of the lower-cost bid had organised and prepared their internal team, and made sure they all understood key client issues.

The six key takeaways here are:

1.     All the key staff need to be involved – but you can be selective in their tasks

From the site foreman through to the senior project manager, each of your key team members has some insight that can provide a competitive advantage. The core team needs to be involved in the initial value proposition workshop.  But rather than taking them away from their 'day jobs' for unnecessary meetings,  be targeted in how you involve them – from methodology, value engineering, and risk workshops through to peer reviewing key parts of the proposal.

2.     Have a clear workshops and a meetings plan in place early

Sounds simple, but set out key dates for workshops and review (even diarise them out weeks or months in advance – before diaries fill up with other work).  With key dates in place for their input, staff can be involved at key points without needing to be present for everything.

3.     Co-location

There is huge value in having the key personnel of the operational team co-located. The ability to generate ideas and simple efficiencies in making document amendments by being in the same space saves time and money. Those staff still doing their day job should aim to spend several days a week in this bid space.

4.     The power of a good bid writer

How many technical people can write in as compelling and customer-focused a way as a professional? A good bid writer should not be seen as a cost but an enabler to quickly download from the subject matter expert and translate that into business-focused English without ongoing rewrites and frustration.

5.     The core bid team should all be involved in building your value proposition

A major risk in a bid is becoming distracted by solutions that add no value to your customer. If the core team jointly develops the value proposition - and commits to it - that becomes a natural filter for what is important to the customer. Set out your stall together and then move forward with the bid responsively and efficiently.

6.     For the best start to the contract, make sure your delivery team knows the bid

If a delivery team only sees the bid document at contract start – or worse, never sees the document – it’s going to be very difficult for them to deliver on the promises made. When delivery teams have had time to understand exactly what’s required, they hit the ground running, minimising confusion and additional costs. 

Warner Cowin, Height CEO

The rise of the 'Super Subbie'

So, where’s the really good money being made in construction these days? Those outside the industry might be surprised at how comparatively little the Prime contractors make when you balance return against their investment in capital, commercial risk and meeting health and safety obligations.

From our experience, it's been the so-called “Super Subbie” who is consistently managing cashflow and making good returns.

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What differentiates them is their clear ownership of a specific technical niche and their understanding of where they sit in the market.

The Super Subbie focuses all their attention on being good at just a selection of key things - which are important to their customer. This could be anything from foam bitumen stabilisation to traffic controller design and installation to deep stormwater excavation to urban streetscapes.

They are the go-to guys for that product or service, and a client will often specify using them. They also consistently execute and deliver on promises.   

So what can the stretched Primes – and anyone else in business – learn from the Super Subbie?

  • A clear understanding of the core customer – they have a very clear understanding of their core customer, the one that provides the maximum return and repeat revenue for their business down to a department and person level.
  • Tight and personal management of customer relationships – because they engage actively to understand their customer’s challenges - and design solutions around these problems - Super Subbies maintain tight customer relationships.  They are in regular contact with customers, and mutual trust is high.
  • Be world class at a few things - being narrow and deep as an organisation to own their corner of the market.
  • The whole business understands the value proposition – from management to crew, everyone knows and can articulate their value proposition and what they do as a business i.e. ‘we are world class at x, or we deliver services for z industry’.
  • A clear understanding of customer return on investment (ROI) – Super Subbies can articulate the return on investment for a customer which can often come with some form of guarantee and warranty – eg % reduction in customer complaints.
  • They deliver – Super Subbies fundamentally build a reputation for execution and delivering on promises.
  • Ability to change market offering – Super Subbies take feedback from customers and are quick to innovate, implement technology, and make changes within their business.
  • World Class + Value Proposition + ROI + Execution = Premium Price and Market Sector Ownership – Being all the above creates the opportunity to demand a premium, be specified in tender documents and negotiate work directly with customers.

We all know examples of great subbies that have built their business by being great at all or some of the above. And I know that some Primes would argue that their size means they just can’t be as flexible as the Super Subbies. But this is really about culture, not size. You only have to look at the likes of Apple. Their customer-centric and innovative culture has seen them sustain an 80% profit share of the premium smartphone market. 

Warner Cowin, Height CEO