In just 23 years, Rokon has grown to become one of the largest civil contractors in Melbourne, with an extensive fleet and a team of over 200 people. Directors Jim Thomas and Steve Traicevski talk to Roads & Infrastructure about the strategies behind the company’s growth.
What does it take to build a reputed brand in civil construction and to back it up with repeat success? For Jim Thomas, who started his career as a 17-year-old surveyor and is now the Owner and Managing Director of one of Melbourne’s largest civil construction companies, it starts and ends with ‘people.’
“I’ve always been good at understanding people, managing people and getting the best out of them,” he tells Roads & Infrastructure.
Today, Thomas says he’s proud to see that the business he helped build is supporting so many families. “Many of our team members who started out as labourers have become successful supervisors and project managers. Seeing their growth is the best feeling.”
After joining the civil construction industry as a surveyor at a young age, Thomas says he knew he wanted to build his own company one day. But first, he needed the experience.
“From that point on, I shifted roles across a gamut of experiences, from foreman to construction manager. But I was never worried about how much money I earned. What I cared about most was to learn, to understand what a civil construction business needed.”
Thomas and his business partner, Ali Sekman, founded Rokon in 1999.
“We developed the business from scratch. Rokon started out by doing small amounts of civil works and has grown to become the juggernaut that it is today,” says Thomas.
This “juggernaut” now comprises a team of approximately 230 direct employees, in addition to working with multiple sub-contractors. The company is involved in residential and industrial subdivisional, civil and infrastructure works across the Melbourne metropolitan area. The business also owns a varied fleet of over 100 heavy-duty construction plant and machinery.
Thomas says the company’s success owes in large part to its culture. “We believe in finding rock stars for every part of the business, and to keep our employees happy with dynamic and challenging work as well as employee benefits. With million-dollar projects at stake, we need the best people, and we ensure we look after them to retain them in the business,” he adds.
In 2014, Steve Traicevski, a senior civil engineer with many years of experience as a Group General Manager, joined Rokon as General Manager. While Sekman left the partnership in 2017, Thomas and Traicevski – now the company’s Executive Director – have continued to grow the business, tripling it in size over eight years.
Thomas says Traicevski’s reputation and relationships in the industry have been key drivers for growth, as have the organisational reforms and the structuring initiatives he has helped introduce in the business.
“Steve has a lot of respect in the industry and good relationships with all our consultants, developers, suppliers and subcontractors. He is a chartered professional engineer – Fellow Member of Engineers Australia, and Ex-President and current board member of the Civil Contractors Federation Victoria. The two of us have worked very well together in building Rokon’s reputation within Melbourne,” says Thomas.
Rokon works with many of Victoria’s developers, both private and government entities, across both greenfield and brownfield projects. The company specialises in residential and industrial subdivisional works, earthworks, and wetland projects, working with land developers such as Lendlease, Stockland, Avid, Frasers Property, Dexus and Risland.
In a typical year, Thomas says Rokon can deliver more than 3,000 service-ready residential lots, in addition to its industrial and commercial projects.
Some of the projects Rokon has been involved with include the Burwood Brickworks retail and commercial precinct in Melbourne’s eastern suburb of Burwood; the Windermere Estate residential projects in Mambourin, west of Melbourne; Aurora Estate in Melbourne’s north; and Melbourne Business Park Wetland – a 260-hectare industrial estate in Truganina, 25 kilometres away from the Melbourne CBD. The latter is part of Stockland’s Mt Atkinson community development project where Rokon is also working on the Grandview Estate.
Staying the course
According to Traicevski, what has helped Rokon achieve its growth is investing time and money on developing the right business structure and engaging and employing the best people.
“We’ve appointed the best people to run each section of the business, from construction to finance, human resources and safety, IT, plant, and tendering. We have invested heavily on software to provide our teams remote real-time access to our IT infrastructure and be able to upload documents and send their project reports from any site they work on, provided there is access to internet,” he says. “Jim and I spend time to work out the priorities for the financial year and we then deliver on those planned pathways. This ensures the business does not deviate from its core objectives and stays on the path we have charted,” he adds.
In line with its investments in technology, Thomas says Rokon was also one of the first civil contractors to adopt the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) on its plant and machinery.
“When the Topcon GPS technology first came to market years ago, we embraced it and implemented it for our fleet. Using this system, our operators have been able to deliver their work more accurately, with minimal wastages,” he says. “It ticks the boxes both from a safety and a productivity perspective.”
Traicevski says Rokon has also invested heavily in rock crushing equipment to minimise transport of dirt from projects to processing facilities.
“From an environmental perspective, transporting extracted rocks from our projects to a processing facility across the city would unnecessarily impact the environment. Instead, we have invested heavily to acquire rock crushing equipment, which allows us to process the raw material, store it on the project site and dispose of it in the same project,” explains Traicevski.
Putting people first
Thomas says safety is a big consideration for Rokon. As such, the company has implemented a number of safety initiatives which encompass both direct employees and the subcontractors working across its projects.
“Given the scale of our business, we invest heavily to ensure that all our workers, including subcontractors, are safe on site,” he says. “Our business has been independently certified for safety for over a decade. Last year, we also received workplace health and safety accreditation from the Office of Federal Safety Commission (OFSC). This accreditation allows Rokon to work on any Federal Government projects if we ever decide to make a passage to bigger infrastructure works. This is in line with one of our key values, which states: We believe in safety first.”
Another initiative Rokon has undertaken to protect its people, Thomas says, is offering income protection and total and permanent disability (TPD) insurance to all its employees.
“All Rokon employees are automatically entitled to income protection if they have worked with us for 12 months, and for TPD insurance after three months,” he explains. “This reinforces our value of ‘Many teams and one family’. We believe these benefits provide our employees and their families peace of mind.”
Such initiatives, according to Traicevski, have helped the company maintain and grow its team.
“As a business, our people are our most valued asset. We invest a significantly on training, professional development, and career pathways for our people. Ensuring we are a business that people enjoy working with and know they can grow with is important to us,” he says. “This also reinforces our value of ‘Always looking to the future,’ as our people are our future.”
The result, as Thomas observes, shows in the company’s organic growth.
“The term ‘organic growth’ is important. We have not injected anything into the business that wasn’t earned within the business itself. Since day one, we have taken everything we’ve earned and invested it back into building our machinery fleet, building our team, and acquiring technology that helped with our productivity. You cannot deliver 3,000 lots per year without having best practices in place,” he says. “Investing in our fleet and ensuring we have the expertise to deliver for all our clients is paramount to our success.”
And what lies ahead for the company as it enters its second quarter of a century?
“We are focused on building and maintaining good relationships with all our stakeholders, understanding, and meeting our clients’ needs and exceeding their expectations, continuing to develop a strong Rokon culture through our people and adapting to the everchanging business challenges. These are the factors that we differentiate ourselves with,” says Thomas.
This article was originally published in the May edition of our magazine. To read the magazine, click here.