Some people manage to weather recessions. Others, like Wayne Hartner, seize the opportunities
presented by the downturns.
Hartner flourished in two recessions — the ’87 stockmarket crash and the 1991 contraction of the economy in the wake of Finance Minister Ruth Richardson’s fiscal measures.
Now his name is common on major building sites around Auckland city, especially in the popular Viaduct Basin area where the company is building the ‘Hilton on the Wharf’.
Hartner Construction is the fourth biggest construction company in New Zealand with an annual turnover of more than $130 million and staff of 200. It is part of the Hartner Group of companies, private, family run concern which has become an international corporation, with six subsidiaries and partnerships throughout Australasia and the Pacific.
Like many other success stories this one began humbly after Hartner left Auckland’s Sacred Heart College at the age of 15.
“I liked the challenge of working with my hands,” he says and it’s an apt metaphor for the managerial style he later followed.
He finished his building apprenticeship and made up his mind
he wanted to run his own company. He first went solo in the mid-1960s, and in 1970 founded his building contractor business with his wife Gaile.
In the following decade they slowly grew the business and formed an enduring business relationship with Progressive Enterprises. By 1987, Hartner had about 30-40 staff but was considered relatively small fry in the multimillion dollar industry.
“I was doing refurbishments and renovations at shopping centres. These were the areas that the bigger builders had ignored. I guess they should never forget where they come from,” he says.
Forward in backward times
“After the sharemarket crash, most of the people were going backwards and we were going forwards, increasing our market share.”
Four years later the company had diversified into new and profitable areas, but Hartner was still hands-on owner and manager. Long term he couldn’t be all things to all people.
To build sustainable company he needed to liberate himself from day to day management, to concentrate on development.
“I looked at finding an opportunity in which I could perhaps step back from the management of the construction side of it and more into an integrated development and construction position. That’s when I started to look for general manager,” he recalls.
But before he did that he wanted to grow the business further to justify the appointment.
“… not just in small manner but in significant manner where we could become one of the major players in the industry. It was clear by this stage that we could do this.
“I believed that the opportunity existed because the focus of the major players didn’t appear to me to be on giving value for money.
“There were rumblings in the marketplace about the workmanship, the standard of what they got. And there was also litigation… the quality just wasn’t there.”
Hartner and his wife grew the business significantly between 1991-1993.
“In 1991 we were doing quite nicely. We had very good client base and we were producing quality product,” he recalls.
Hartner built his own headquarters in Onehunga.
When the company moved in his wife doubted that they would fill its generous area.
In just two years it was full to overflowing, with administrative staff out front and construction and joinery workers at the rear.
By 1993 Hartner was comfortable about employing the general manager.
However, the man who left school relishing the prospect of working with his hands, ignored consultants and used his own DIY headhunting methods.
He wanted the appointee to share his vision and have good understanding of the industry. He looked for honesty, integrity and commitment — the criteria he used in hiring other managerial staff. After 18 months of searching and talking with figures in the industry, he finally headhunted Nigel Ainley, senior project manager at rival Mainzeal.
Hiring him freed up Hartner, allowing him to focus more on the development side of the business.
Hartner relishes challenges and regularly sets himself goals, though he ensures they are realistic and achievable.
His constant has been an insistence on quality product and service, and he believes that helped propel his company from minor to major player.
“I realised that our drive and commitment to quality would get us through,” he says.
As the business grows, size continues to pose both managerial and quality issues for him.
“I guess you just need better systems and better procedures to ensure that at the end of the day we are giving quality service and product,” he says.
Safety as competitive edge
Hartner is as relentless on safety issues as he is on in-house procedures.
He has received commendations from OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) for the company’s record and its proactive attitude on safety.
In addition the company runs regular health and safety meetings. Hartner has also been keen advocate for the introduction of Registered Construction Managers to the New Zealand construction industry, providing recognition for senior personnel and quality assurance for clients.
“The quality of work that’s being produced is not as good as it should be,” he says, citing lack of training skills and well trained people.
“It’s inherent in the building industry that when times are busy, everybody is carpenter and you get people coming out of the woodwork who are not even half-pie good labourers but who are already carpenters.”
Hartner is also strong about the need for effective client-focused in-house procedures.
Management interviewed him the day after Auckland Anniversary weekend when many Aucklanders were on holiday or out on their harbours. Hartner’s weekend was interrupted by what he discovered was an unusual breakdown in internal company procedures when three key staff were unobtainable.
A client phoned each of them and then in desperation, finally rang Hartner.
“It was Countdown in Papakura and they had door which wouldn’t close. They had to close it by 10pm on Saturday night because it was on the alarm system. So I went out and fixed it myself. It annoyed me to think that if they could not have got hold of me, who would they have got hold of?”
As result the company’s procedures have been changed and Hartner says the problem won’t arise again.
Hartner prides himself on running company with an open management style with ideals of fairness.
“It’s the way I would have liked to be treated. At the end of the day virtually everybody who works in the organisation knows that if they need to they can come and see me. I find that when you do make yourself available like that you get less of problem because people will only come and see you if they have real, genuine problem,” he says.
He also makes training priority, sending staff on courses and running induction days for newcomers to introduce them to both company standards and procedures.
Thirty years after its beginnings, Hartner’s is in the big league and its founder sees the company’s momentum gathering.
“You must always be going forward. We have yet to penetrate in any significant way into the South Island. We are only two years old in Wellington and we have Pacific Islands branch in Fiji,” he says.
Hartner also has 50 percent share in Excell Corporation which has recently expanded its successful operation into Australia. He says its turnover has jumped from $65 million to $180 million in 14 months.
“We’ll look at all opportunities on their merits,” he says.