Leading by example
Multi-award-winning builder Rob Spadaccini has spent three years as president of the Master Builders Association and a lifetime in residential construction. Here he reflects on what’s required to succeed and thrive in a tough business. By Kerry Faulkner
Rob Spadaccini’s building company had a phenomenal year in 2017, winning Australian Home of the Year in both the Master Builders Association and Housing Industry Association awards, a first for any builder in Australia. In fact, the company, which has luxury home builder Spadaccini Homes, mid-range brand AMG and First Bome Owner’s New Choice under its corporate umbrella, won more than 36 awards last year. They included MBA’s best contract home $1.4 to $2 million, $2 to $3 million, and over $3 million, making a clean sweep in that category. The best tiler, bricklaying, plastering and ceilings awards were simply icing on the cake. But Spadaccini says not every year is as good; he recalls walking away from an awards dinner a previous year empty-handed, shaking his head in disbelief and asking himself ‘what just happened’? His career is filled with these pivotal moments—he calls them ‘Hallmark moments’—episodes that are emblazoned in acute detail in his mind. He can often recall the exact date and day, the time, who else was there, who said what to whom and if money was involved—exactly how much down to the cent—despite many of the ‘moments’ being decades ago. Perhaps it’s why a client once described his mind as ‘like a steel trap’. For example, he says he worked for home builders Westville when he moved from Northam to Perth before going into business on his own. In 1997 he won his first big contract by exactly $126 against stiff competition from bigname builders (yes, he can name them) for a $626,137 home in South Perth.
At aged just 24, Spadaccini was Western Australia’s youngest registered builder, not surprising since he comes from a family of builders based in Northam about 100kms north-east of Perth. His father, a humble Italian migrant, was a tiler and one of four brothers, all partners in the company. From age 17, Spadaccini workedon site alongside his father and a host of carpenters, plasterers and granite workers who all helped him hone his impressive construction skills. He says this hands-on experience was invaluable as he rose steadily to head of his very own, very successful building empire. “I’m very different to a lot of builders in Perth; if someone says to me, ‘do you know how to pitch that roof or lay those bricks or set out that site,’ I can do all that because I did it for the first six years or so of my career. I’m very fortunate in that I have those practical skills,” he says. And it’s perhaps why he treats his staff and regular contractors, some of whom have been with him 20 years,as extended family. This Christmas he’ll treat Leading by example Multi-award-winning builder Rob Spadaccini has spent three years as president of the Master Builders Association and a lifetime in residential construction. Here he reflects on what’s required to succeed and thrive in a tough business. By Kerry Faulkner them all to a four-day beachfront break in the glamorous holiday mecca of Dunsborough. To earn his own holidays—he has one every four months or so—he works six days a week, most ofthem 10-hour days with the support of his ‘amazing’ fiancé Maria with whom he has two young children. He does the estimating, scheduling of trades and pricing across all high-end Spadaccini builds to ensure he’s in touch with everything going on in the business and personally runs four projects at a time. That way, he says, any mistake is his. And recognising it’s a little oldfashioned, he painstakingly does his account reconciliations manually, just in case the system goes down.
Boom and bust
Spadaccini’s three years as president of the Master Builders Association ends in December. It’s the maximum he can serve but says if he could continue in the role he would. As he prepares to vacate the chair, he says the market is on the upturn but warns builders that now, more than ever, they need to ‘watch their bottom line’. “We’ve gone through a long downturn and it’s when the market turns back up we’ll see a lot of casualties,” he says. “At the moment builders are pricing down here and at real fine margins. “When the market starts to move, the first to raise prices is subcontractors and suppliers and in a lot of these contracts there’s no room for erosion, so the builders have to fork out. “So, all of a sudden, they’re going to get four, five, six, seven per cent erosion because of increased labour and supply costs and builders don’t have that margin. “Unless builders start looking at the market very closely, there’s going to be a lot of casualties. “And I think we are on the uptake — Spadaccini Homes, which is at the top end of the market, has been getting a lot ofinquires over last six months and that’s a good sign the market is starting to turn. That brand attracts a lot of smart players, with a lot of money and they are now coming out thinking the market is at the bottom, so thinking let’s invest or build now because they can still get builders at good rates. “In the mid range, AMG is also getting a lot of inquires but New Choice for first home buyers is still doing it tough because it hasn’t trickled down, but in another six months that should start to pick up too.” He says it’s his passion for the industry—talking to builders finding out the issues, sharing his knowledge and helping people grow their businesses— that’s been most fulfilling in his time as Master Builders Association president. “When I was younger I always asked a lot of questions,” he says. “I’ll never forget this time I was about 26 and I was at this house in City Beach and the owner, he did this amazing reflective ceiling in his bar area, and I said to him ‘how did you do that; it looks really cool, I love it’, and he said ‘you’ll learn one day’. “I thought to myself ‘you idiot’ because he didn’t want to share his knowledge.”