Based in Pakenham, Master Plumbers Members Keralton Plumbing provide hydraulic design and installation services for medium to large commercial and industrial projects in Melbourne and the surrounding areas. They are a multigenerational family business, headed by Tony McFarlane and his three sons Luke, Shane and Danial, son in-law Clint and daughter Chantelle, all bringing the business together.
Kate Stephenson caught up with Tony, Clint and Chantelle in their Pakenham Head Office to talk.
Keralton Plumbing and Drainage founder Tony McFarlane has a wealth of industry experience in the business and an interesting story of hard graft and self-reinvention that spans four decades.
‘I finished my apprenticeship at the age of 19. I’d won the Alfred Atherton Award presented by Sir Rohan Delacombe back in the early days and been offered a three year apprenticeship to study airconditioning and refrigeration and mechanical services design, which I completed. In the end I decided I didn’t want to go down that path so I started work.’
‘I was nearly 20 working for a company out at Knox doing AV Jennings homes, but a disruption occurred which shut the whole thing down.’
Young and full of ambition, Tony struck out on his own at the age of 20. ‘I put an ad in the paper and started doing freelance sewer connections around Knox and Wantirna digging sewers by hand 30-40m long, doing one a week laying earthenware pipes. It was my bread and butter for a while. I hired my first worker during this time, a third year apprentice who was a pretty good footballer at my football club. I think by the time he finished with me in that last year his wages were higher than mine.'
‘In 1980, I moved out to the country, but continued with the plumbing. The opportunity came to move back near my wife’s family farm and there wasn’t much work around. I did a few bits and pieces and sometimes used to work for a bag of spuds or a calf.’
‘When the sewer came to Koo Wee Rup, I was an expert at that, but nobody else knew how to do it. So I got together with a couple of plumbers in the local area, shared my knowledge to train them and we began to work collaboratively. It all began with a big Ministry of Housing sewer connection project in the early 1980s. Jobs gradually started getting bigger. I saw an invitation to quote Berwick High School and thought, “I’ll have a crack at that,” and next thing I knew I had won the job. This was about 1984. I did all the work, just
myself and one other guy.’
‘The late 1980s saw us take on the new laundry service at West Gippsland Hospital. The builder was Salzer Constructions, who during construction of the project was taken over by Abigroup. This started a long relationship with Abigroup. Then we picked up the sports and recreation centre in Warragul, which saw us start working with John Holland.’
‘In late 1989, we had the recession we apparently needed to have. It hit us pretty hard. At that time most developers went bust and the whole industry virtually went broke. We had to refinance everything. In 1990, we shut down the business. It seemed terrible at the time,
but eventually it brought on our second wind. My son Shane left school and wanted to be a plumber. It spurred me on to have another go.’
The beginning of Keralton
‘In 1991, I won a job at the Western General Hospital, a new science wing. Shane and I started that by ourselves. Then the wheels began to turn again. We did a few jobs with John Holland, including St Kilda Town Hall refurbishment. Our revival also coincided with the start of the apartment boom. Getting straight back into it, this was how Keralton Plumbing and Drainage Contractors was born. When it all began we were all travelling in the same car, a Toyota Landcruiser – it was a case of how many plumbers can you fit in a car! How times have changed!’
Even from the vantage point of his current successes, the ’89 recession made Tony gun shy about business. ‘I’d worked since I was 19 – then at the age of 35 I lost it all and had to start again. I’ve never been a risk taker since. I’ve always worked with my small, tight knit team with builders I trust and want to work with. In 2011, the work started disappearing again. I contemplated giving the business away. We had a big meeting and had to decide what we were going to do from there on. It was do or die. And if we were going for it, everyone had to put their all into making it work.’ Around 2012, Keralton reassessed their values and pushed all their energy into expansion.
All hands on deck
As every endeavour was made to get to the top of every builder’s contact list, it was all hands on deck. This was true for all family members, whatever the age. Tony’s daughter Chantelle is now Keralton Plumbing’s Office Manager at the office and storage space they opened in 2014.
‘I’ve been doing the books for the company for years while working full time as a Financial Planner. Since becoming a mother, I chose to become more involved in the family business, which gradually evolved into a role I could work around my other commitments. I brought my second daughter into work with me when she was six weeks old. We’d put her cot down the back. You could say she was the youngest apprentice we’ve ever had.’
Keralton Plumbing have recently hired a full time estimator, part time designer and draftsman to cope with the increasing workload. For Tony, the secret to success isn’t necessarily about competitive pricing, it’s about delivering quality.
‘We’re not the lowest priced plumber on the block, which excludes us from some jobs. But often we win jobs just because we aren’t the cheapest. It’s our well established reputation that takes us over the line. I’m proud to say that you could ring any builder that we have worked for and nobody would have a bad word to say about working with Keralton Plumbing.’
Tony’s son in-law Clint echoes this sentiment. ‘We don’t even have a dedicated maintenance division. Most companies have a van and people whose sole role is fixing issues. We install quality products correctly first time round so we don’t need one.’
Clint joined Keralton Plumbing as an apprentice in the early day and has an obvious vested interest in the family business. ‘There are so many advantages to having us boys being a part of the company, as there are more sets of eyes with a vested interest which results in a
higher standard of workmanship from our employees. The discussion is always open in terms of labour divisions and roles. We don’t
hide guys in the back corner like a lot of companies do. We aren’t the kind of employers who hire and fire. We pride ourselves on looking after our staff and reallocating work and playing to strengths. Some companies come in with an iPad and report on productivity. If the numbers don’t add up, there will be five less guys on the payroll next week. We don’t operate like that. We find ways to help our existing team work. I think that’s why everyone wants to work with us!’
Never compromising on quality, or backing down to save an easy buck, it’s little wonder Tony has a strong opinion on the issue of the pre- fabricated bathroom pods that are rife in cheap apartment developments.
‘We’ve tendered for some big projects that are for student accommodation but lost them or bowed out because of the contentious pods. I’ve heard all sorts of theories about how to connect these pods to the drains and I don’t believe they would stand the test of time or
meet the standard. I don’t know how they are getting through. I would never compromise on quality.’
Making sure that the pods are connected as per As3500 is not always that easy. The VBA has recently had some concerns regarding how the pods are connected to the buildings’ drainage systems and had to send out a bulletin reminding plumbers of the correct connection
methods and certification requirements.
'In my opinion all of the plumbing that’s within a building should be done by the licensed and registered plumber contracted for the project. Including the sourcing of all waterMarked equipment and materials. But as Clint says, it is the same with the apartment building. It is all developer profit driven, so builders and developers will always be looking for faster and cheaper ways to build. Tony feels the same about cheap fixtures and tapware. ‘After my quote was deemed to be too expensive, we had a builder who supplied the fixtures and tapware, and in my opinion some of it inferior, in particular the sink mixer. I’ve been a plumber for a long time and specifically said, do not use that sink mixer; it will leak, but the builder proceeded against my advice. Nearly every mixer had to be replaced in the end. It’s all about saving money, but in the end, it costs you more in time and labour to put right the mistakes.’
‘The profit margins within the industry I operate are very tight. But for us it is not even considered to cut corners or supply inferior products. Some say I should not worry about my concerns, it is the price that matters. Every day I risk my reputation and livelihood, so
that is why we have an unwavering commitment to quality and pride in our workmanship. That is what makes Keralton Plumbing a true
Master Plumbers business.’
What being a Master Plumbers Member means to Tony
I am very much self-made in terms of business and never had a mentor in the industry. My mentors are the other plumbing businesses.
Being a Member is an opportunity to interact with the wider plumbing community and learn collaboratively. For a long while, it wasn’t really the done thing to talk to your competition. But as Members we freely talk amongst ourselves and share ideas – it’s healthy competition. I have built a whole host of relationships that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t a Master Plumber. We may go hard against each other in business but really are all friends in love and war.
To find out more about becoming a Master Plumbers Member call 9329 9622