Northern Building & Carpentry

Constructing a future beyond lockdown

“I think the economic challenges force you to learn.” – Bill Arwas, builder and owner, Northern Building.

Bill Arwas of Northern Building & Carpentry was on the upswing before COVID-19 hit. 

He received his Unlimited Builder’s Registration in September 2019, and had some major renovation projects on the boil. It was going to be a good year. 

That is, until the stay-at-home restrictions started. People started worrying for their jobs, let alone renovations, and so the work dried up. 

“We pretty much had nothing on, going from thinking we had six to eight months work booked into nothing,” says Bill. 

But he hasn’t taken the opportunity to relax. Far from it: Bill is investing more time and energy into his business than ever before. 

In fact, Bill’s lucky. One of his mentors in the construction industry worked and survived the 1990s recession. His advice?  

“If you are a professional and really strive to do a good job, you will generally stay in work.”

Northern Building’s 3-step COVID response plan

But Bill isn’t worried. In fact, he’s focused on three key ways to get business moving.

1. Focus on the jobs you can get

It might be tempting to only focus on high margin jobs in critical times. But Bill says his business is looking at everything that’s available - you never know when a small project might lead to a big one.

“Treat every job like it's really important, which they are, because someone who wants something small done now, in better times, nine, 10, 24 months down the track will remember that you did a good job, even if it was only something small.”

2. Spend on marketing in a planned way

Bill says the business has doubled down on outreach: including advertising, presentation, and even uniforms to make the crew look more professional. He’s even getting his truck painted.

And he admits to having taken a bit of a risk, but at a time when every small job is important -- that risk may very well pay off.

3. Customer service is more important than ever

Bill has spent an enormous amount of time on customer service. Nothing gets forgotten: every single email, every single phone call gets a timely response.

“The solution for us has been just everything that's in our control, which is how we present ourselves, how we interact with clients, how quick we are to respond. That's the sort of stuff that I've just had to do because I can't really control how much work's out there.”

And, as any builder knows, it’s hard to construct something unless it rests on solid foundations. For a sturdy business, that means the right systems in place to capture relevant financial, customer and marketing data in a way that can scale with business growth. That’s why Bill has been using some of his time and resources investing in the right tech platforms to build his business on.

Northern Building & Carpentry work van

Using the right tech tools at the right time

Getting ahead sometimes means investing in the right tools. Bill has invested in an estimating software to make sure those smaller jobs can be action sooner rather than later.

After all, the sooner a prospective customer gets a quote - the sooner they can start work.

“Now I can pump out seven to eight really accurate, professional looking quotes a week after work. If only one out of eight of those comes through, it's still more work than I would have been able to do previously doing my quotes manually on paper.” 

It’s an important point: that sometimes in order to crawl out of a slow period, you need to make some strategic, targeted investments. 

“When margins are tight you need to know that you’ve remembered to quote everything,” says Bill. 

“Making sure you haven’t forgotten anything.”

New technology: A challenge and an opportunity

Although the building industry is definitely not one for working from home, Bill says he’s become much more efficient by using video chats when relevant. Again, it’s all about maximising the time available to spend on a higher number of jobs - while maintaining the customer service touch.

“Some of the technology things that people have had to take up out of necessity during COVID that the trade has picked up as well, we'll probably keep. I don't see all of it going away because it’s probably a pretty sensible way of doing things. 

“And it means we don't have to spend three hours in the car driving around to unnecessary meetings and stuff.”

Not only that, Bill says -- he’s been spending more time on technology that he’s been putting off for too long. Now isn’t the time to be complacent. Instead, he’s getting skilled up on the tools he needs to succeed.

Not only has he brought forward the launch of a new website and had his business listed in Google so it can start receiving reviews, Bill’s also been developing his bookkeeping skills.


“I've forced myself to get better and more efficient on it. I can do cash flow forecasts through MYOB, things like that.” 


Never take anything for granted

From Bill’s perspective, the COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way he will approach business forever. 

The customer service improvements? Bill’s never going to forget those.

“Something like this just reminds you that you can't take anything for granted in business," he says.

"I think the economic challenges force you to learn.” 

Northern Building & Carpentry collage

Bill Arwas is a Melbourne-based Builder, Carpenter and founder of Northern Building & Carpentry. You can follow him on Instagram @northernbuildingmelbourne.

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