Everyone says theirs is a people business, but the services we sell are the skills, knowledge and experience of our people and they need support during challenging times, says TSA Management’s Andrew Wilson.
Wilson is steering a company on a steep growth trajectory, with three acquisitions over the past 12 months – project management firms Xact in Canberra, EVC in Sydney and New Zealand-based Xigo – and more on the horizon.
“Two years ago, we were a business of 150 people, with an owner operator and a board full of engineers,” Wilson reflects.
Since then, TSA has taken on a private equity partner, Livingbridge, created a new model of share ownership for staff and appointed former Stockland chief Matthew Quinn as chairman, as well as a professional CFO and director of people and culture.
“We are building a more sophisticated and a better business. It’s been a wonderful journey for us – it’s made our business more interesting, more challenging and more rewarding. And I’ve learnt more about business in the last two years than in the 25 years before that.”
The firm now boasts 350 staff in five Australian offices, three over the Tasman and work throughout the Pacific. Expansion into South East Asia is “inevitable” but “I try to avoid talking about the ultimate goal”.
“In business, it feels like a series of false summits when you’re climbing a mountain – there’s always another summit 500 metres ahead,” Wilson says.
“I view success in business as an evolution. I don’t think bigger is better. But if we continue to challenge ourselves and look for ways to grow our business, we’ll find opportunities for people and ensure TSA remains a great place to work.”
Traversing a tricky terrain
Wilson has been with project management firm since 2006, the last three years in the top job. His career started with a building degree, which “set me on a course towards construction”. Stints with Concrete Constructions and Multiplex, contributing to iconic buildings like Chifley Tower, followed.
Then the “bottom fell out of the economy”. Landing in Hong Kong in the mid-90s, Wilson worked for French multinational Bouygues on infrastructure projects throughout Asia. Returning to Sydney and a job with Bovis Lend Lease “just in time for the Olympics,” Wilson found himself in the civil infrastructure world “which I liked and have been in ever since”.
With three decades hindsight, what makes property special?
“We aren’t working through a continuous improvement process – like the manufacturing sector – to shave off a per cent here, a per cent there. Most days start with a blank page. How are we going to build a building from a sketchy brief? Solve a problem with diverse stakeholder requirements? Crack into a new market? Every day is complex and different.”
Wilson says he is in a “constant state of minor anxiety” about the future pipeline of work, but suspects that feeling is one replicated across the industry. In fact, he is “slightly suspicious” when a business leader says nothing worries them.
“What keeps me awake at night is managing the expectations of lots of people in a big business.”
Helping people reach their peak
Current business conditions are “as good as I’ve ever seen them in my career” and yet the industry is under enormous strain, Wilson says, listing off the challenges.
“You can’t get a good tradesman or designer, contractors are going bankrupt, projects are delayed and budgets blown, you can’t get insurance, clients are under stress. When a project is under stress project managers take on that stress.”
Business leaders must maintain a watching brief on their people. Wilson acknowledges companies across the industry are doing a great job rolling out resilience training and supporting mental health and wellness, “but it’s not foolproof”.
“It’s important that we acknowledge the work our people do is important, and that they are respected. We also tell our people that they can’t solve all problems – budgets will get blown and delays will occur beyond anyone’s control. Their job is to do the best they can.”
What’s Wilson’s biggest advice to property professionals rising up the ranks?
“Collect experiences,” he says emphatically.
“Be open to all the opportunities out there. The industry is constantly evolving and changing. Around every corner is an opportunity to expand your knowledge and experience. Be open to it.”