The power behind the president

Civil Contractors’ leader DAVE CONNELL is not the only smart operator in his family. His wife Margo talks to GAVIN RILEY about her key role in their company and helping others.

MORE THAN A FEW delegates at last year’s civil contractors’ annual conference would have been surprised to find a seminar on the challenges facing small businesses being hosted not by the president, Dave Connell, but by his wife.

Margo Connell’s speaking spot (“I was as nervous as hell”) came about because of what she had experienced two years earlier after the couple’s civil-construction company moved into Christchurch to become involved in the post-earthquake rebuild.

Hamilton-based Connell Contractors went south in search of work because the effects of the global financial crisis had shrunk contracting opportunities in and around the Waikato.

“The earthquake appeared to be that pot of gold,” Margo recalls. But soon she felt as isolated as she had when helping found their company in 1985.

Margo Connell: “We’ve always wanted to be volunteers and give something back”.
Margo Connell: “We’ve always wanted to be volunteers and give something back”.

“It was setting up all those office systems basically from scratch. Dave was out doing construction business and I was in my office, trying to get that established in a new city, and I had no support.

“I thought I can’t be the only one who feels like this. I think in today’s climate the challenge that we face in SMEs [small-to-medium enterprises] is compliance. It’s absolutely massive. You can’t actually do it all yourself. I thought there must be lots of people out there feeling exactly like me – wives that are there in the business or guys operating on their own, thinking what the hell do I do?”

What she did was get together with a couple of fellow Civil Contractors NZ members in the Waikato to put on an advice-for-SMEs seminar, which CCNZ chief executive Jeremy Sole then asked her to head at the 2014 annual conference.

Margo says other challenges facing SMEs are attracting and retaining the right kind of staff, rapidly changing technology, and an ever-shifting market.
“You’ve just got to be adaptable in what you do. If you’re not adaptable you quickly get relegated.”

The Connells believe that while there are subcontracting opportunities for SMEs, a business cannot grow far in that role and eventually becomes one-dimensional. But to progress to being a lead contractor is difficult, not just because of restricted local-authority spending but because an SME often does not have a dedicated person to spend the time necessary to prepare tenders and attend to compliance issues.

[pull_quote_right author=””]“I thought I can’t be the only one who feels like this. I think in today’s climate the challenge that we face in SMEs [small-to-medium enterprises] is
compliance. It’s absolutely massive. You can’t actually do it all yourself. ”[/pull_quote_right]

“The life of the subcontractor sometimes isn’t a very happy life,” Margo says. “We’re just finishing a job in Tauranga where at long last we’re back in there as a head contractor with quite a sizeable contract, and we’ve performed exceedingly well.”

Margo’s early work experience gave her a solid grounding for her eventual role as Connell Contractors’ financial manager. The daughter of a bank manager, she spent eight years with the then Housing Corporation in Hamilton after leaving school, starting as a cashier and moving through the accounts ranks into the large tenancy department before becoming the manager’s personal assistant and human resources officer.

“It was really good training in terms of robust systems, which is something I suppose I’m really pedantic about. On the financial side I’ve just carried that through into the business.”

Margo believes men and women bring different strengths to running a business and modestly sees herself as “just an organiser who is systems-focused and tries to keep things on the straight and narrow”.

However, husband Dave disagrees. He claims, mock-complainingly, that over the past 10 years his wife has set up a network of “female dictators”. The company’s lawyer, accountant and bank manager are all women. “She’s quietly gone about doing this and she’s got a group of ‘friends in business’ that grows by the year and they all get together – and it’s marvellous! That kind of networking Margo does so well.”

The Connells, parents of three adult daughters and a son, are a formidable team. When Dave took on the Civil Contractors’ presidency in 2013 it was on the understanding that “Margo comes with me to all the functions … we work as a partnership … the deal is you get two for one”. It was that understanding that indirectly led to Margo’s speaking role at the 2014 conference.

Margo says: “I don’t have all the answers. You don’t know everything, but if you can be easy to talk to and approachable, share your experiences, and if you can help somebody to make a difference to themselves, then that’s the reward.

“The thing about us is that we’ve always been volunteers, right from helping with the kids’ schools. We’re both very passionate about the industry we’re involved in and we’ve always wanted to give something back. We’ve met so many wonderful people along the way.

“There’s no particularly good time to commit to what Dave’s doing [the presidency and steering the recent Contractors’ Federation-Roading New Zealand merger], but it’s very rewarding. It’s been very challenging and very time-consuming, but I try to take on more of the business matters to free him up from those sorts of issues if I can.”

Their cumulative responsibilities have been eased by appointing separate managers and office managers in Hamilton (17 staff) and Christchurch (28) to keep Connell Contractors operating efficiently. “But,” Margo says, “we’re still the face of the business and if you’re not visible, not out there, then it does create some problems. Strategically, you still need to keep your finger on what you’re doing. With having the name ‘Connell’ out there, if you’re not visible that has its risks.”

Two years ago the couple came very close to selling Connell Contractors. They now say it would have been a huge mistake to have done so as they have since made more money than they could have sold the business for.

For all that, they maintain Canterbury has not been “the land of opportunity” and they have probably taken 10 years off their lives by having to borrow hugely against their assets to turn survival into profit.

“And that’s what happened down there [companies going broke] – so many people have gone in undercapitalised,” Margo says.

“The continuity of work wasn’t quite there for a period of time, though the company is really hitting its straps now. It’s really starting to hum down there and we’ve got a really good relationship with the SCIRT [infrastructure rebuild] delivery teams.”

Christchurch’s infrastructure rebuild will last about another two years, after which Connell Contractors will remain in the area working on local-body and private developments.

The Connells are now back in Hamilton but still visit their Christchurch operation once a month. “We went down to Christchurch two weeks ago and the crew were really pleased to see us, which was really neat,” Margo says. “There’s nothing better than when we go to Christchurch and I sit down with the office staff and see how things are going. You get such valuable feedback in that relaxed environment.”

The Connells feel their company is well positioned to face the future. Their Hamilton and Christchurch managers are also shareholders, they have added two independent directors to their board, and they are avidly pursuing Dave’s long-held policy of recruiting bright and reliable youngsters, including four male civil-construction apprentices and two female office workers.

Margo comments: “One of my friends said to me, ‘You’ve got to groom your business as if it’s for sale, even though you might not want to sell it’. Which is probably where we are now.”

Does her obvious enthusiasm indicate she and Dave plan to remain in the industry for the foreseeable future?

“Definitely,” Margo responds. “I’m just as passionate as Dave about it. It’s been a huge part of our lives. To not have that involvement would be quite difficult.”

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