Steve Marais and the importance of community

Business & Invest
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When Tracy Marais was held up at gunpoint in the driveway of their own home in South Africa, Steve Marais knew it was time for he and the family to leave the country.

What felt like a forced choice at the time has, in Steve’s words, turned out fantastically well for his family.

Soon after arriving in Australia, Steve and Tracy founded what is now one of the most respected building companies in Brisbane and the Gold Coast: Condev Constructions.

Steve, a keen student of leadership, has developed a culture of excellence at the company, which has won numerous awards for excellence in building.

“I have always been fascinated by human nature, team building and leadership and the impacts they have on achieving excellent businesses,” he says.

Marais’ says growing up on a farm in South Africa shaped his view on the importance of community and working as a team to achieve goals.

How were you influenced by your childhood?

I grew up as the youngest of four children on a farm in the Eastern Transvaal in South Africa.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time on the farm, particularly with Dad, and I did all the usual farm chores including milking cows, picking fruit and cutting grass. I learned through that process. Right from when I was shooting guinea fowl with a shotgun on my own, it sculpted a very independent and self-reliant personality, while being appreciative of the impact on the environment and also the community.

We ran schools from the farm educating the less privileged and this kind of upbringing instilled upon me a community-based appreciation, but also one of self-reliance.

I always really enjoyed being part of a team that was collectively working to do something special. I never wanted to contribute to anything where you can’t get contributions from everyone.

Both of my parents were professionals, but growing up on the farm I definitely had a greater affinity with the labourers, trades and blue-collar workers than management. I eventually studied quantity surveying but preferred to be closer to the workforce.

Why did you leave South Africa?

Tracy, my wife, and I had been running our construction company for 10 years when in late 1996 the interest rates spiked. Quite frankly, I was not happy with the way the community and the government was working in South Africa at that time and the impact that ultimately had on our business and our family.

In addition, safety, or the lack of it, had become a concern for our family. Tracy went to the IGA one Sunday night to get lunchbox treats for the kids only to come home and get shot at in our driveway in an attempted hijacking.

It was a combination of those factors that made us realise we didn’t want to live there anymore. So it was a forced choice when it happened, but it has turned out fantastically well for our family.

Who have been your biggest influences in business?

I have always been fascinated by human nature, team building and leadership and the impacts they have on achieving excellent businesses. I am really interested in Simon Sinek, who studies human behaviour and its relationship to biology and chemistry in the body.

One of his sayings is, “If you treat people in your business right, they will treat your customers right”. Our philosophy at Condev is a non-hierarchical system where staff relate to each other in a safe environment and where they are comfortable to contribute.

Another Simon Sinek quote is, “If you hire people just because they do a job, then they work for money. If you hire people because they believe in what you believe, they will work for you with blood sweat and tears”. Philosophically, that is what we want to achieve in our business.

We are ultimately in our business for the long haul, so if you are in tune with what your staff need to achieve, we will end up in a good place. We spend a lot of time finding the right people; if someone has the right character and nature then they can be trained in the technical side of things, but if they are technically qualified and don’t have the right behaviour then it is very difficult to teach them the management and behavioural skills.

So we job sculpt a lot. We will move people from department to department if they are the right person, then train them in the technical skills.

What is your favourite quote and how does it motivate you in the workplace?

I really like Richard Branson as he seems to be one of the few business leaders who enjoys what he is doing in a really unapologetic way. He says: “Happiness is the secret ingredient for the success of your business. If your company is happy, it is invincible”.

We try to have as much fun as we can and if we aren’t having fun, we ask why. We create an atmosphere in the business and it is not only the décor. It takes a lot of effort to ensure people are enjoying where they are working.

How do you balance fun with safety?

The responsibility of keeping people safe has connectivity with enjoying what you do. If you are doing safety for the sake of safety, it is a tick-and-flick process. If you care deeply about the people in your organisation there is an attitudinal shift in how well you document and regime.

As a business, we have federal accreditation for health and safety but that doesn’t by any means make us bulletproof.

When we have a “near miss” that doesn’t cause incident or injury, we as a business review that as if it were an incident and in our opinion that is the greatest source of learning about reviewing behaviour and systems.

What have you learned about leadership during your career and has your leadership style changed?

Well, I have had the benefit of a psychologist as a wife (laughs) and we have been married for 35 years. When I was younger, I would only be attracted to people like me, but what I have learned over the years is the contribution a diversity of people can make.

We also recognise the interrelationship between a successful business and an integrated functional family unit. As many as possible of our activities and functions include spouses and children to show that we appreciate not only our employees but also their family’s contribution towards making Condev great.

What makes the Gold Coast a great place to do business?

The city leaders of the Gold Coast, which includes council and business leaders, seem, especially over the past two years, to have achieved a real synergy and a sense that they respect each other. It has been stable and the council has a commitment from community leaders to make the Gold Coast a great place.

A lot of the business leaders on the Gold Coast now have lived here most of their lives and their children are now within the Gold Coast community as young adults; there is a great sense of trying to make a fantastic city for their children and consequently for the community.

There is a prodigious synergy and friendship between our Mayor and business leaders that is evident. There is sharing in respect to charities and helping the community in the broader sense. We have set up our own charity “Condev Cares” to support underprivileged and disadvantaged children. We support Mat Rogers 4ASD kids, the Kokoda Youth Foundation, Rotary through the GC 100 cycle event and numerous other charities which fall outside mainstream government funding.

What has been the biggest challenge, and highlight, in your career?

The biggest challenge in my career was giving up what we had in South Africa and moving to Australia in 2001. It felt like a forced choice at that stage of my life.

For me, the creation of Condev and what it represents and embraces is certainly the highlight of my career. I confidently believe that the best is yet to come for Condev and its staff.

Condev has won numerous awards for excellence in building, chiefly from Master Builders. How do you achieve and maintain such standards over a long period of time?

There is a lovely quote from an old footy coach Vince Lombardi (who coached the Green Bay Packers to five NFL Championships in seven years), which is, “Perfection is not attainable, but if you chase perfection, you can catch excellence”.

In the framework of a team, leaders don’t lead, they follow – they set the direction, but they follow. I like the idea of being in the background when success is achieved by our teams. We are blessed with the calibre of people we have in our business. I am fortunate to have the support, guidance and expertise of my wife Tracy, and also Aaron Hook our CEO and Glenn Cream our COO who will ultimately lead Condev into the next decade.

I am fortunate in so many ways. There are a group of guys in the Condev business aged in their 20s and 30s who are going to change the construction industry.

How are they going to do that?

There is a lot of talk about Gen Y, or whatever the ‘gens’ are, but these are eight or so young men who collaborate naturally and work and play incredibly hard. What they are working on is something that is really hard to do in the context of Condev and that is a complete one-stop shop for our clients – dealing with all the design, the approvals and all the way through to construction.

We have been a little bit cautious about this in the past. There are inherent risks related to the design component, but the appetite within the industry for the design and construction model and the opportunities to get such projects through the door are increasing.

That is for a lot of reasons, but generally what is happening is that with the increasing legislative requirements and pressure on professionals the level of competency and co-ordination within the professionals is lacking and therefore the builders are being asked to take up the responsibility of getting the documentation, constructability and budget right.

What are your thoughts on the Gold Coast construction market?

The Gold Coast is positioned really well. There is definitely a residential boom on currently. There are three projects under construction in Surfers Paradise right now that are worth more than $1 billion each.

The residential market hasn’t softened to the same extent as it has in Brisbane and Melbourne. We are still experiencing international interest, particularly from China. The lifestyle projects where people are purchasing as an owner and occupier are still incredibly buoyant.

The banks have had lending criteria which restricted the number of presales to international purchasers on developments to 15 per cent and that was because there were perceived risks of foreigners failing to settle, but that has not happened. The foreigners have settled and that perceived risk hasn’t materialised. There is still faith in international buyers in developments and ultimately the banks might think about that and reconsider their policy by upping or waiving the requirement to limit the percentage of internationals in presales.

Condev has secured a number of Commonwealth Games projects. Are you positive in your expectation of what the games will do for the Gold Coast?

I think the Gold Coast is as good for the Commonwealth Games as the Commonwealth Games is good for the Gold Coast. We have secured six projects and have been thoroughly impressed with the calibre of work and the effort that is being made to present facilities of an international standard. We have done stuff that is spectacular. The old TAFE refurbishment and the Broadbeach Bowls Club upgrade are two of our prestige projects. They’re looking very good.

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