Building and rebuilding: Managing through change in Australia

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Dan Perkins, Managing Director - Perkins, Construction, Australia

Dan Perkins runs a successful construction business set up in 1965 by his father and uncle. He trained in carpentry and gained a building qualification after he left school, and since then has worked for the family firm, though that included some time abroad getting experience in the UK.

“Basically the learning curve was as steep as I wanted it to be – I got experience running projects on smaller commercial work, and did some time on procurement as well. The opportunity was always there.”

By the ‘80s the business seemed set on a steady path to growth, then suddenly everything changed. “My uncle died in 1991 – he was only in his fifties and it was totally unexpected. That was a game changer, both for the family and the business. My father was really affected by it, and even though I was only 23 I took over most of the operational responsibilities in the business, and obviously there were structural issues about the change of ownership as well, which we hadn’t formalised at that stage. And on top of all that we found ourselves in the midst of a recession. For the next ten years I worked 100 hours a week, doing three or four jobs - day and night.  I had to teach myself a whole set of new skills - financial, accounting, reporting, and the legal issues around contracts and employment. It was a tough grounding, but that’s the best sort to have. And we did it.  We rebuilt, and we survived. Yes, we made mistakes, you learn by those mistakes. The more they cost you, the better you learn.”

Dan Perkins, Managing Director - Perkins

Dan Perkins, Managing Director - Perkins

Since the turn of the century, Perkins has prospered. Dan is now the sole shareholder, but having had his family in his forties, the business faces a big gap before the next generation will be old enough to join – assuming they want to. Dan is determined that his children won’t be burdened by expectation: “When I look at other family businesses, you almost always find that their success has been driven by one person, either by growing it in the first place, or doing something significant to change it. It’s very dangerous to assume that someone else coming along can just pick up where that person left off, when they haven’t been part of it. In the case of my own kids, I think it’s unreasonable to expect someone relatively young, even someone with a good education, to replace a CEO who’s been in the job for 30 years. It’s taken me that long to work out how to do it properly.”

PwC Global Family Business Survey 2016

Interview with Dan Perkins, Perkins, Australia


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There are various options open to bridge the gap – from bringing in an external successor, to selling the business. “I don’t want to be here til I’m 70, waiting until my children are old enough, and in any case it’s not realistic to assume they’ll definitely want to take it over. But we may be able to create something alongside this business that would appeal to them. I’d be keen to look at a start-up opportunity, which would give them the chance to develop something of their own. As a parent and business owner, you can do that – you can give them that support, both the capital and capability. And we’ve always been a self-motivated and self-driven family, and we’ve always thrived on change. Looking back, we’ve been through all sorts of change in the last 50 years – some we wanted, others we were forced to take on by regulation, or economic issues, or the demands of our lenders or customers. But each time we learned, and we got better. And now we’re ready for the next challenge, whatever that proves to be.”

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