Former brickies Garry Brown-Neaves and Dale Alcock have developed their company into the state’s second biggest home builder.
About 30 years ago, Garry Brown-Neaves’ secretary was working from a makeshift desk using an old door and some bricks.
Around her was a small office crafted out of leftover windows from old building jobs.
Valerie Hull is still secretary to Mr Brown-Neaves, but the typewriter, the old door and windows are long gone.
She now sits in an office in a state-of-the art building in Osborne Park, while her boss still goes about the business of building homes, albeit on a much grander scale than three decades ago.
When Webb & Brown-Neaves was established in 1978, then bricklayer Mr Brown-Neaves and former new homes salesman John Webb set about building fairly basic homes after pooling their savings of $30,000 each.
The first home they built was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Shelley, which Mr Brown-Neaves remembers selling for about $26,000.
Mr Brown-Neaves said that, at the time, he harboured some pretty big ambitions.
“Our goal was to build 60 homes a year and not go bankrupt,” Mr Brown-Neaves told WA Business News. “If that was all I had achieved in life I think I would have been quite happy.”
Now, 29 years later, Webb & Brown-Neaves is a long way from going bust.
It builds about 200 premium homes a year, posted a $3.6 million profit in 2005-06, and is one of more than a dozen companies Mr Brown-Neaves established with another former brickie, Dale Alcock.
The Alcock Brown-Neaves Group has become Western Australia’s second biggest homebuilder, with an annual turnover of about $650 million.
It builds about 3,500 homes a year and has a 13.5 per cent slice of WA’s home building market, putting it behind Len Buckeridge’s BGC, which has a 17.8 per cent share, according to the Housing Industry Association’s top 100 WA builders list.
Now aged 61, Mr Brown-Neaves is contemplating life away from the daily grind.
“I’m still working about eight to 10 hours a day, but only six days a week [rather than seven],” he told WA Business News.
“But I am trying to let go of the ropes and bring on other people so I can step back a bit. But mind you, I do have a lot of holidays, so I’m certainly not complaining.”
Mr Brown-Neaves is not about to retire, and even when he does he is unlikely to be too far from the company’s management.
He plans to sit on an external board that has been conceived as part of a 20-year plan he and Mr Alcock recently created to address the succession planning issue.
The succession planning highlights the importance both men hold for their company’s reputation.
Mr Alcock remembers that, when he accepted an opportunity to join Messrs Webb and Brown-Neaves 20 years ago, there was little choice in the name for the company he had been selected to run; the partners had chosen it for him – Dale Alcock Homes.
“If I stuffed it up it was my name out there, so there was an innate sense of responsibility and delivery,” Mr Alcock remembers.
But getting Mr Alcock to come on board took some persuasion, according to Mr Brown-Neaves.
“He said ‘no’ two or three times, probably because he didn’t believe what we were offering…it was pretty low,” Mr Brown-Neaves said.
He said he offered Mr Alcock about 5 per cent ownership of the company, with the option to increase the stake to about 30 per cent over time.
Mr Alcock now owns 50 per cent of the company, after buying Mr Webb’s stake in the business when the latter left the company about 10 years after it was founded to take a step back and enjoy semi-retirement, according Mr Brown-Neaves.
Mr Webb remains involved in the sector, with a share of sink group Webb & Waltman Pty Ltd.
Mr Alcock’s entry into the Webb & Brown-Neaves company was the result of Messrs Webb and Brown-Neaves’ plans to set up a new first homebuyer business.
This was principally because, after nine years, the company had drifted upmarket as one-time first homebuyers returned to build bigger and better homes.
Mr Brown-Neaves said he was working hard to keep up with the demands of the business and had wanted a “young buck” to come in and recapture the first homebuyer market.
He was keen to bring in Mr Alcock, 15 years his junior and a former bricklayer, who had done some scheduling work for Mr Brown-Neaves several years prior.
“He’s always had a spark about him,” Mr Brown-Neaves said. “He’s such a bright, energetic person and he was very ambitious.”
Mr Brown-Neaves learned early on just how ambitious Mr Alcock was.
Mr Alcock started as a two-way operator and became a scheduler, but harboured ambitions to go further in his career.
“I was very short-sighted in those days,” Mr Brown-Neaves said. “He wanted to do something different but I told him he was too good at what he was doing so I needed him to keep doing it. So then he left. I made a very silly move.”
Mr Brown-Neaves said losing good people was a mistake he’s learned to try and overcome.
“I’ve learned more as we progressed that you have to create opportunity for the people who work for you,” he said.
“We always look to our own group of companies when we look to bring staff along. That’s happening every day.
“When I started as a bricklayer the opportunity wasn’t there. You became a tradesman, stayed a tradesman and maybe went building. These days you can go scheduling, estimating, supervising and so on. There are heaps of opportunities. It’s a good career path that we never had years and years ago.”
Mr Brown-Neaves said making the leap from bricklayer to businessman was “pretty tough”, and the earlier days in the business were the most difficult. The business was capital poor and securing finance was more difficult than it is today.
“We were very lucky,” Mr Brown-Neaves said.
“We probably had the best bank manager in the world. He was at ANZ [where the company still banks] and I had never been in a building above the bottom floor. I ended up in the lofty heights of this building in front of this guy that we promised we wouldn’t let down, and he took a chance on us. Each month we had to give him cash flow statements.”
For someone who established what has become the state’s second biggest home building company, Mr Brown-Neaves is remarkably media shy, with very little press commentary attributed to him.
His business partner, Mr Alcock, has become the face of the company, something the laid-back Mr Brown-Neaves prefers.
“It’s so nice to walk down the street and no-one knows you,” Mr Brown-Neaves told WA Business News.
“Dale is so passionate about this industry and it’s hard to hold him back. He is out there because he believes in it, not because he is showing-off.”
Mr Alcock is aware that his often very public profile can irritate other builders, but he is frustrated when many in the industry stay quiet on what he thinks are the issues of the day.
“I stick my head up and I’m sure people say ‘here he goes again’,” Mr Alcock said.
“But I am annoyed by it because most people are content to run the business and go home. I think it is about making a difference and making a difference for the community.”
Sitting back in his newly constructed Dale Alcock Central offices in Osborne Park, Mr Alcock is enthusiastic about the challenges facing the industry.
While housing affordability is an issue, he believes the market will remain robust for some time.
Mr Brown-Neaves agrees that the WA economy will continue to power the market and the property industry will be buoyant for the next 10 years.
“And I’m not an optimistic person,” he quips.
“I’m a very pessimistic person, but I believe there is so much happening in Western Australia that it just not going to stop.
“Affordability is an issue but I think we can manage around that and make sure the first homebuyers can still get a home.”