MORE than a decade ago, (then) 23-year-old Marcus Fulker was working as a subcontractor for his uncle’s patio building company in Perth’s southern suburbs.
After deciding he wanted to be his own boss, Mr Fulker started Great Aussie Patios from the back shed at his Beckenham home in 2003.
Fast forward eight years and the business has experienced an average yearly growth of 20 per cent, installs more than 10 patios per week and has more than 20 staff working at its two Maddington factories.
Mr Fulker said getting the business to this point didn’t come without its ‘growing pains’, citing staffing issues, red tape from councils and an oversaturation of patio companies in Perth among his greatest challenges.
Having never run his own business, Mr Fulker said he didn’t know how to recruit the right staff to help it grow.
“I was doing everything on my own to start with, from the books to the installation, and as we began to grow, I put on a mate to weld, a mate to do the building and my mum to do the admin,” he said.
With only five employees by 2005, Mr Fulker said he continued to recruit ‘friends of friends’ to manage the increasing workflow.
“By 2007, the business was really firing along with around 10 to 12 staff that mainly consisted of friends and family,” Mr Fulker told WA Business News.
“That time became really challenging for us, because I had no strategies of how to employ people ... and when it started getting really busy, we had no quality controls and staff discipline became a real issue.”
As a result of this, Mr Fulker sacked some of his original recruits and decided to hire and train ‘rookies’ from scratch as patio installers.
“Through the boom you just couldn’t find good patio installers; we tried many different installers and spent a lot of time fixing the problems they caused,” he said.
“By employing young people, they didn’t have the bad attributes that came with working for other patio companies and we could train them up our way.”
With more and more work flowing in, Mr Fulker said he found it difficult to say ‘no’ to potential customers.
“If we had that boom again, I would put a stop to the amount of work we took onboard, rather than just take it all on and be ridiculously busy,” he said. “The quality was slipping, it was hard to find good staff and we just bit off more than we could chew; I knew I didn’t want to do that again.”
The business experienced a 20 per cent decline in turnover during the GFC, but bounced back towards the end of 2009.
It was at this point of the business’s development that Mr Fulker knew he had to put the right management systems in place to avoid the growing pains the company had experienced during the good times.
“I only just gave the books away a year and a half ago, I don’t know why it took me that long; now I have a sales manager and operations manager I can rely on,” he said.
Another challenge that came with the increasing workflow was the growing number of requests from customers for ‘add-ons’ such as decking, patio blinds and fencing.
Mr Fulker said he resisted the temptation to branch out, fearing he could jeopardise quality and efficiency within the business.
“Going back to the start I was the jack of all trades and I was my own worst enemy trying to be everything, to everyone,” he said.
“So my lesson there was, do one thing and do that really well, and now steel-framed patios are all we want to do.”
However, dealing with the red tape surrounding council approvals is an ongoing challenge.
“If I started another business, it would be one that didn’t involve shire approvals,” Mr Fulker said.
“Every shire has its own interpretations of the R-codes. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and it’s still the same as it was back then; it’s a constant frustration.”
On the other hand, Mr Fulker said the number of players in the sector was an area that required greater regulation.
“I actually think it would be good to have a little bit of red tape as a barrier to entry ... you don’t need anything more than an ABN and a ute to go and start up your own patio company,” he said.
To keep a step ahead of his competitors, Mr Fulker has invested heavily in the company’s web presence.
“I think we were one of the first patio companies to have a good website back in 2003 and that worked really well for us,” he said.
“Along with word of mouth, which has been very important, the web now accounts for 90 per cent of our marketing.”