Toby & Elizabeth Searle

We were both born and raised in Camden, an hour west of Sydney, in Australia. Our families have both grown up in Camden and we ended up meeting when we were about 19 or 20 years old.

We’re not high school sweethearts, as we didn’t cross paths until a bit later, but we’ve both lived in Camden all our lives. We think we’re quite lucky to live there; we like the area and our kids are growing up in the area at the moment.

Camden’s a very good spot for building; there’s a lot of development going on around there, so we are quite blessed that we are so comfortable there, and we’ve got our business set up there at the moment.

Camden is one of the towns in an area called the Macarthur, along with Picton, Narellan and Harrington Grove. It’s one of the fastest growing belts in the country at the moment, with new land releases. We’re fortunate to be established there and be getting a lot of work. So, talk about growing up in the right place, or being in the right place at the right time!

I Fell Into Building

I never pictured myself being a builder, I just fell into it. It wasn’t even on the radar when I was 17 or 18. I had started at university, didn’t enjoy it, worked for a builder as a labourer, got paid and I thought, ‘How good is this? You get paid, you get money to spend on the weekend.’

One thing led to another, led to the apprenticeship, I finished the apprenticeship, became a carpenter, did my builder’s course and became a builder.

I worked for myself as a carpenter for four or five years and I saw how the builders worked and operated. Also, I started an apprenticeship with a builder, not a carpenter, so I saw what builders could do, what they could achieve and how they went about their work.

There was a lot of variety in building as opposed to carpentry, so I wanted to look further down the track at what I could do and building was that end goal I wanted to get to.

We Were Trying To Be A Jack-Of-All-Trades

Our business, Highwater Homes, does custom builds – new homes. When we first started, we found ourselves trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, doing some renovations, some small carports, pergolas and a few new homes. I came through my trade as a carpenter and I was working with builders on new homes, so that’s where I felt my strengths were, with new homes.

When we started out, we wanted to cover a lot of things but after starting with APB, we realised we had to carve out a niche or create something that we specifically were good at and wanted to do and that was new homes. And in the area we’re in, it was a perfect fit.

I wanted to create a little business within a niche market of custom builds, medium to high-end because I realised that in our area, being so highly developed, there were a lot of other builders there, too. They were all quantity builders and I didn’t want to become one of those guys relying on building 100 or 200 homes a year.

We wanted to stay small, very family focused, for us but also for our clients. We wanted to do a certain number of homes per year and specialise in custom builds, where the clients get value from building with us. We can guide them through the process and make it enjoyable; I think that’s very important.

That’s a big part of what we are trying to achieve with Highwater Homes, not just to build a home but to create that experience that is memorable and enjoyable. It takes the stress out of it as well.

A major component of that is thinking about clients and their expectations. It’s the little things that make a big difference and create what we proudly call Highwater Homes.

Elizabeth Had To Become A Marketing Expert

Elizabeth wasn’t part of Highwater from the beginning. She’s actually a trained teacher and taught for many years, but once the business reached a certain stage we felt it was time for her to step back from the teaching and come into the business.

We know that many of APB’s clients and members are actually teachers. Many builders that we’ve met through APB who are aspiring to become Certified Professional Builders are actually trying to get their wives to look at the option of quitting teaching or just teaching part-time, to help with the business.

If you’re running the business on your own, you go from being on the tools all the time to trying to create systems. You can’t create happy clients if you don’t have the right systems and practices, and we know that often, people are very unhappy with the build process.

So, a lot of builders ask their wives or their partners at some point, “How can you help?” Then these very wonderful ladies come in to the business and all of a sudden have to help with reading balance sheets and profit and loss statements. They have to become marketing experts and social media experts and have to learn all about websites, web development, Google and Facebook, just to name a few things.

Elizabeth took a long while to feel comfortable within the business. There are still times when she feels like she’s fumbling and finding her way through things, particularly in relation to the marketing strategies. One of her big roles these days is the marketing, particularly Facebook and writing blogs for the website.

The APB Material Is Easy To Follow

Elizabeth found the support material from APB very easy to follow. She watches things over and over and goes back and revisits it. It’s great that the material is available all the time to be able to do that.

I’m more the numbers man, but we do talk about the numbers together. Having access to the spread sheets and the KPI information makes it much easier. Perhaps two years ago, I wouldn’t have known my numbers. Like most builders, I would go by the calendar year. Perhaps in July, August or September I’d check to see how we went. And I’d tell you: good, bad ugly.

Whereas now, every week, every month we’re adding figures into the KPI spreadsheets and we just realise now how important it is to keep on top of that. Some months aren’t as good as others but at least we know what we can and can’t do the following month or the following quarter.

It helps us plan. Often, we get a bit nervous before we enter all the figures in at the end of the month and see how we went. But it’s exciting too, because we realise that we might have gone well one month, not so well the next month, then maybe we’ll do two or three good months in a row.

It’s rewarding; we are doing it to succeed and part of the way we want to succeed is through wealth creation. That’s a long-term goal, but we can see we’re heading in the right direction. It’s important to see how we’re travelling, not just on a yearly basis but every month and especially every quarter.

It’s Worth The Commitment

Some people might think KPI spreadsheets and Profit and Loss statements and balance sheets are too hard, that they’re not interested in that type of thing. We found that it was easy to learn all this from APB, but you’ve got to be committed with the time and the effort to enter the figures in. But it’s worth the commitment.

When we first saw the KPI spreadsheets that APB created, we thought, “Oh wow, all these things to fill in, that they’ve developed over the months or over the years.”

But if you do the work when it’s fresh in your mind, with the support that APB gives you, you utilise that support so that if you’ve got a question, ask the question and get the answer. It’s always there, the solutions are always there.

So, once you start filling in your KPIs and all your information it does become easier. I shouldn’t say I love the numbers side of things, but I do enjoy looking at those figures and it’s nice to know where you’re going.

Our ‘Ah-Ha’ Moment

My biggest learning moment came when I realised the importance of percentages over figures. Before that, often I’d quote a job and just put a monetary figure as my profit, it didn’t matter that it was a low percentage. But then APB taught me the importance of those percentages, making sure they’re on the increase and heading toward a certain goal.

By doing that, it takes the monetary figure out of the equation lets me just concentrate on the percentages, because those percentages have been proving that you’ll be able to run a successful building company. So that’s been important for me – concentrating on percentages. They protect your profit, so you’ve got good cash flow on a regular basis and you’re able to predict and grow.

At first, you might think, “Well, that’s easier said than done.” It sounds easy to put up your margins and make more money, but then you ask yourself, “How are we actually going to get those particular contracts agreed to and won if we do that? There’s so much competition out there and there’s so many price checkers – how do you get around that?”

Why We Needed APB Marketing Strategies

I think that comes back to what we’ve been taught by APB about all the marketing strategies that we utilise: Facebook adverts, autoresponders on the CRM (Keep In Touch) and email campaigns. If we educate the clients, we get the quality of clients we want. We’re getting clients coming to us who we want to build for as much as they want us to build for them.

It’s good to look at the figures when we’re signing contracts, or at the end of the job, but it all starts from the very beginning, with the marketing campaigns and strategies.

What we’ve learnt along the way is the importance of showing the clients value. We show them what we can actually offer them, so they’re not solely focused on the price. Yes, they do have a budget that they have to keep to, but often they like to see the value that we can provide. Price is still part of the conversation, but there are so many other elements that are important.

Why I Recommend APB

The support is always there with the Association of Professional Builders. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring builder, an established or successful business that knows how to build or win a lot of awards. You might be thinking about joining the Association of Professional Builders and breaking through that next glass ceiling or going to that particular next step in your business, or you might be just starting out, trying to work out whether you can set up a company the right way rather than spending the next 10-15 years trying to figure it all out for yourselves.

Whoever you are, we need the help, as builders. We know how to build; we swing a hammer, we stand frames up, we lay bricks: that’s the easy part of the job. Running a business is the hard part for most builders. A couple of years ago, we found that we needed that help. When we first joined APB, we needed help with that, we couldn’t do it on our own.

We could have tried but we may have been one of the failed businesses after three or four years. We didn’t want to be one of them. We’re quite ambitious, we have goals and we want to achieve certain things within a period of time. APB allows us clarity on how to achieve those goals.

It’s just great, the support network we have here. We also enjoy getting together with the other builders every three months in person, just to get details of what they’re going through, what they’re experiencing, the good times and the bad times – and I think that’s relevant to each and every business that is part of the Association.

-Toby and Elizabeth Searle
Directors, Highwater Homes