Reaching New Heights

Geelong Roofing Interview

It was a breezy day on the rooftop of 1 Malop Street, but Geelong Roofing’s Matt Foss, Dale Tennant, Peter Geels and Paul Coles are used to braving the elements on the top of the new WorkSafe building, which is already the tallest on Geelong’s skyline. Kate Stephenson discusses the dizzy heights of pioneering OHS and retaining reputation with Geelong’s roofing royalty.

How it all began

Geelong Roofing Pty Ltd began with tiling and metal roofing for residential projects, but quickly grew to more commercial projects. ‘We started off small,’ says original co-Director Peter Geels, ‘That changed very quickly when we won some fairly major projects. We always looked at Geelong Roofing from a long term business point of view. We wanted to make sure we paid all our bills on time and gave the client quality service. We soon realised that employing the best personnel available, paying them well and having them directly on our payroll and not bringing in external subcontractors helped to achieve our goal.’

‘We’d seen the history of small subcontracting companies and roofing companies in Geelong that hadn’t been a success, and knew we wanted to foster a culture of a company that was in it for the long haul. The key to success is to make sure you pay your suppliers and your workers well and on time. If there was a bit left over from a job we’d make sure we kept it for a rainy day. Our mantra has always been to respect the people you are working with; respect workers, respect your suppliers and respect everyone in between. It stood us in good stead in days gone by, and is still relevant today.’

Longevity like this takes a level of determination and professionalism that only a handful of companies are capable of sustaining. Geelong Roofing was run by Peter Geels and Dale Anderson. Peter was a lynchpin of the business. ‘We’ve been going for over 35 years,’ he says proudly. Some companies who do that have to change their names or rebrand. We’ve been Geelong Roofing Pty Ltd from the very beginning and our reputation has carried us.’

The first jobs Geelong Roofing did were certainly from a time when greater Geelong looked very different to how it does now. Deakin University’s fledgling Waurn Ponds campus, The ‘Cracker’ for Shell, The Capital netball centre and Bay City Plaza were among the impressive portfolio to date. ‘We are still in contact with some companies who were around at the very beginning,’ says Paul. There are a number of builders we have worked with for over three decades. A lot of the companies we worked for in Geelong at the start aren’t there anymore, but many others have taken their place.

Geelong Roofing have played a pivotal role in the evolution of roofing plumbing over the years. They have worked on key Geelong buildings including the Victorian Producers Cooperation, Simonds Stadium, and even Little Creatures Brewery. Over the years, they have seen the practice of roofing plumbing evolve and change in more ways than one.

Taking a new direction

Matt Foss and Dale Tennant joined Peter Geels and Dale Anderson as Directors of the company several years ago. The new directors have been working together to incorporate new technologies and practices to take the business into the future, evolving and improving with the changing times.

‘I was supposed to be at university full time,’ laughs Matt, ‘But I was on the job working with these guys. It was only supposed to be part time work where I could gain some experience in the industry. I have always had a huge appetite for learning and Peter and Dale invested a lot of time in developing my knowledge and skills, encouraging and supporting me to take on more and more responsibility. Many of my peers went on to work for Tier 1 construction companies

(which is where I originally saw myself heading), however the opportunity they gave me here was just too good to pass up. I really like working for the company and enjoy the challenges we face on a daily basis. What we do is really interesting. As well as the new challenges every day, it’s the camaraderie and culture of the company that keeps me going.’

Dale echoes this sentiment. ‘Having employers that were willing to put back into training and are supportive of your ambition to do so is another reason we gel.’

Safety ambassadors

Geelong Roofing set the standard in safety, before some even knew what OHS was. ‘When I first started with Geelong Roofing, the industry had a fairly bad reputation for safety. We joined with Master Plumbers and the unions to slowly but surely advocate an evolution towards safety. Geelong Roofing were the first roofing company in Geelong to use safety mesh, perimeter handrails and stair scaffolds. We’ve been part of the journey from the very beginning, setting the pace as far as health and safety goes in Geelong and Geelong district.’

‘Along with about a dozen others, I attended a meeting at the Master Plumbers HQ in Melbourne in the early days when we were working out the first Code of Conduct for “safe work on roofs” for the roofing industry, we all had input into that and it grew from there.’

‘I clearly remember the days when these standards weren’t in place,’ says Paul ‘workers would walk across the purlins with no mesh, no handrail, no anything. ‘Even the riggers would walk across the purlins and slide down the columns.’ Fortunately, these times have changed.

‘Roofing plumbing used to be one of the riskiest disciplines in the industry,’ echoes Peter. ‘There were companies in Geelong who had lost people. After the provisions that have been put in place, it isn’t like that anymore. You’d be quite happy to put your son or daughter up there working for a reputable roofing company that followed the current codes of conduct for safe work on roofs.’

‘We pride ourselves on our OHS record, says Dale. ‘It costs money to do it properly, but we don’t take shortcuts. Every job has its own complexity. It’s never a one size fits all approach. We respect that every building is unique.’

As Paul explains, ‘We get a Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) prepared that is site specific and we add to it constantly. Every morning we have a pow wow, explain what the hazards are before we start work. It’s crucial to be aware how the hazards are changing daily. It’s our key aim to be on top of this. Our leading hands communicate that with all the staff. It’s crucial to be on top of things before they happen.’

‘You’re often the first point of contact on a job where some of the safety measures aren’t in place. You have to review and workshop it and come up with an idea of how to ensure it is suitable. You’re often reliant on the trades around you. Not everyone operates at the level we expect.’

‘Like any plumber, you have to have your wits about you,’ says Matt. ‘Every job is different, and they all have their own issues. You need to have workers who are trained and experienced, not just on the job, but in plumbing. And in terms of OHS, problem solving and working safely, it’s not about dollars and cents, it’s about sending our guys home at the end of the day.’

The industry is booming

It’s fitting that Geelong Roofing Pty Ltd have been drafted in to work on 1 Malop Street, the new WorkSafe building. Victoria’s unforgiving elements have added an extra layer of challenges to the task at hand. ‘The complexity of this job was mainly due to its height and exposure to the elements in winter,’ says Matt. ‘It was a real battle to complete the plant room because it’s 10 metres above the 13th floor and we had a lot of equipment in a small space.’

We were battling to get all the handrails, safety mesh and box gutter support installed, whilst working in and around all the other trades and equipment including the mechanical ducting, steel work, electrical and fire services. Plant rooms such as this one are notoriously difficult with a lot happening in such a small building footprint.’

For Peter Geels, it’s been an honour to work on the tallest building in Geelong. ‘We anticipated that a lot of our competition would shy away from the job, because they would be afraid of the red tape associated with working directly or indirectly for WorkSafe. We were the opposite. We jumped at the chance. It’s part of our ethos to show them how it should be done. That’s the way we always operate. Sometimes we miss out on jobs because of our meticulousness, but we won’t compromise on safety.’

Big things are happening across the industry at the moment. All you have to do is look to the skies to see the amount of new developments that are popping up. ‘The industry is going gangbusters,’ says Matt. ‘The growth corridor out in the western suburbs of Melbourne, down the coast and out to Torquay is booming. There are new housing developments all over the place and the infrastructure in terms of hospitals and schools is blossoming to match. Following a downturn in manufacturing in the region after the closures of Ford and Alcoa, this is great to see.’

Geelong Roofing are looking forward to getting their teeth into their next project, with the new Metro Tunnel in the pipeline. ‘It’s going to be an interesting project in terms of its complexity. It basically has to be built from the inside out due to the surrounding buildings. We are constructing an acoustic shed, to allow for the mining equipment to be dropped in to build the tunnels,’ says Matt.

Fingers on the pulse

Along with Master Plumbers and three other companies in the area, Geelong Roofing Pty Ltd were among the first companies to be a part of an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA). Peter was an integral part of the process.

‘The first time an EBA was written up, nobody even knew what it was. We cobbled together a single page document in a café in Moorabool Street.’ And being streets ahead of the rest doesn’t stop there.

‘We were among the first ones in the roofing industry to sign up to Cbus. When Cbus first came out, we joined within the first few months. Look how big they are now. We have certainly seen the industry change.’

How to win jobs

Peter breaks down the whole concept of roof plumbing work neatly into three sections; winning the job, doing the job and getting paid for the job. Each has its own challenges – but operate wisely and fairly and you will be able to overcome them.

Geelong Roofing Pty Ltd will never compromise on their high standards just to win a job. ‘Most tenders go to the lowest bid, so sometimes we miss out, because we are not always the cheapest,’ says Peter. ‘We trade on our established reputation of excellence and refuse to cut corners.

‘We aren’t being cocky, we are being realistic. That’s why we have lasted in the industry. You need a really good credit history, you need to perform to or exceed the clients’ expectations and have a really good safety standard.

You’ve got to earn your reputation. You can’t be complacent.’

Peter sums it up nicely; ‘the thing about Geelong is that it is still a provincial country town. If you don’t do the right thing in Geelong you are soon found out. In Melbourne and some of the bigger cities companies can hide their mistakes to a certain extent. But here, if you take short cuts or don’t do the right thing every time, you soon get found out. Geelong Roofing has existed in its own right for 35 years, some companies have had several name changes in that time because they needed to burn their bridges.

We take a lot of pride in our longevity. Here’s to the next 35 years!’

What being a Master Plumbers Member means to Geelong Roofing:

Earlier this year, Geelong Roofing were invited by Master Plumbers to commemorate their 35 year Member Milestone. ‘Master Plumbers are a professional organisation. It’s good to have that level of support and be Members of a community among other roofing plumbers. We can share knowledge, share ideas and work to improve the industry collaboratively.’ Dale Tennant, Geelong Roofing co-Director.