Middlemen

It's hot, it's isolated, but it's spectacularly beautiful. Builder Andrew Kerr shares the joys and challenges of creating a successful construction business in Australia's Red Centre. By Lynne Testoni

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It’s the red dirt everywhere in the heart of Australia that visitors notice straight away. Scientists say the rusty colouring results from high levels of iron-oxidizing (i.e rust) in the soil, said to be millions of years old.

Based in Alice Springs, Andrew Kerr, director of AusCon NT, and his business partner David Walsh, love everything about that red soil, and couldn’t be happier having created a successful commercial construction business right in the middle of it.
Kerr and Walsh are both locals—“born and bred here,” says Kerr, and have a deep connection to the area. “I did do a stint down in Adelaide for four years. But home is Central Australia and so I had to come back here.”
On his return in 2019, Kerr established AusCon NT and he says that Walsh was the obvious choice as his business partner. “David and I actually did our apprenticeship together and we’ve been friends since grade three,” he explains. “We decided that two minds are better than one and that we were better off working together than against each other. We took the leap, and it’s gone from there.”


While the company started off doing residential jobs, AusCon NT now mostly focuses on commercial building projects, including some high-profile jobs for the Federal Government. The work is varied, but constant, says Kerr.
AusCon NT has a team of 12, plus subcontractors for electricals and plumbing.
“We do a lot for the Department of Defence,” he adds. “We were very lucky that we did a couple of good projects, and they were happy with us, so we’ve continually been successful in our tenders on those projects.
We’re currently building a new church for the Church of Latter-day Saints in Alice Springs, which has been our largest project to date. We do work for Australian Defence Housing and a lot for the Northern Territory Government when they come up. We’ve done hospital work, art centers and we’ve also just designed an Aboriginal Cultural Centre for an organisation out at Kings Canyon.”
Their success has extended to Kerr winning the prestigious Toyota National Young Builder of the Year Award at the Master Builders National Excellence in Building and Construction Awards 2022 for “his managerial skills in delivering quality projects on time and within budget”.
He says there are lots of opportunities to be found in the Red Centre.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re local or a new guy,” he says. “The opportunities are endless if you’re willing to take a risk and do the hard work. It is good being a local, because you know contractors such as plumbing companies and electrical companies and, of course, you are used
to the weather.”


As with many other builders throughout the country, AusCon NT struggles to find enough qualified tradies to manage all the work available, so they have been concentrating on training up their own workforce—“growing their own people” as Kerr describes it—to solve the issue.
“About eight years ago, you could get lots of tradies here, because of the money,” he says. “We used to pay a lot higher here than most of Australia because there’s so much work and such a demand for workers. However, people are getting paid that much the whole way around the country now. We pretty much have job applications out 24/7 all year round, and we don’t get much interest.
“The only way we’ve found to deal with the problem is that we put them through an apprenticeship, then we look after them by giving them good projects and hope that they stay and don’t get money thrown at them from other businesses.”
The other challenges are around logistics and getting the right materials onsite and on time. “The logistic parts of construction in Alice is the hardest part,” Kerr adds. “How we process material lists and schedules is probably quite different than the way cities do it.
Almost the first thing we do as soon as we sign a contract is to talk to suppliers because sometimes you can be waiting 17 weeks just for a basketball hoop to come.
“The timber work that we have to order is handmade and it has to get cured. We have such a crazy climate here in Alice—it’s so cold in winter and so hot in summer—we have to kiln-dry our timber before we can touch it.”
And, of course, it’s especially rewarding working in your hometown.
“It’s pretty satisfying,” says Kerr. “We’re doing some projects that have been great for the community. There’s a large college in Alice Springs, and we’ve built some amazing classrooms, and rehabilitation classrooms for disabled kids. The satisfaction of giving back to the community and building those structures for them is rewarding. We’re both born and bred here. My business partner has kids, and they’re probably going to grow up here. So, I think that building a better community for our future is pretty cool.”