From humble beginnings as an independent building firm in Queensland, franchise builder G.J. Gardner Homes is now rated Australia’s No. 1 and Most Trusted National Home Building brand, focused on providing exceptional and trustworthy service to its customers.
Darren Wallis’ career with G.J. Gardner Homes began in 1994, as an accountant involved in the day-to-day running of the business, as well as assisting in the programming of the current franchise software program. In 1996 he became a director and partner of the franchising company, and was appointed MD of franchising in 2000. The franchising network now has more than 120 franchisees, and operates across Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Talking to The Australian Business Executive, Mr Wallis discusses the firm’s decision to establish a franchise network, its commitment to gaining customer trust, and the exciting possibilities offered by its international footprint.
Pioneering franchise model
“G.J. Gardner Homes was founded by Greg Gardner back in 1983,” Mr Wallis says, “and it grew to six regional offices in southeast Queensland. Then in 1994, shortly after I joined the company, we made the decision to franchise the business.”
The opportunity to create a franchise business came about as a response to a local builder who was looking for a franchise to work with. The builder had recently approached the Housing Industry of Australia (HIA) in Brisbane for advice on how to grow his business.
“G.J. Gardner Homes was the largest builder in Queensland [at the time], and someone down there [at the HIA], we still don’t know who, said you need to buy a franchise off one of the large builders. I don’t even think franchising was in building at that point.”
This was a significant turning point for G.J. Gardner Homes. Considering a franchising approach to be potentially lucrative, the firm decided to turn its existing offices into franchise locations, with all bar one being sold to the Area Manager in charge of the office at the time.
Since then, the firm has been nationally recognised as Australia’s No. 1 and Most Trusted National Home Building Brand, in both 2016 and 2017, by consumer opinion website ProductReview.com.au, an award directly influenced by customer satisfaction levels.
“Part of [our success] is just the quality of the people we having working with us, our franchisees. We look for quality builders and people who fit our culture, and we can help them with the skills, resources and systems to grow their business.”
The franchise approach allows local builders to advertise under the trusted branding of G.J. Gardner Homes, but also to retain the same level of personalised customer service they are able to offer as a local builder.
“We made the choice several years ago to really focus on the customer. Back in the 2000s we were doing focus groups on customers, to find out what customers wanted, focusing on how we build the customer’s trust and how we build a better experience for the customer.”
Over the years the firm has steadily built up the kind of customer trust that has seen it build homes across generations of families – from grandparents, to parents, to children and grandchildren – indicating just how high customer satisfaction has become.
Maintaining excellent service
“It’s easy to get to number one,” Mr Wallis explains, “it’s a bit harder to stay there. As part of our culture with our franchisees, and part of our culture with our staff, we’re always talking about how we can better service the customer.”
The firm’s ability to stay true to its core values as other builders come and go has been a key part of retaining customer trust and continuing to be the best. Customers always know they will receive exceptional service.
“Maybe another builder can offer a cheaper product, but can they deliver and can they give the customer that experience that they want, and can they know that if they come back time and time again, they’re going to get looked after?”
Building customer trust through a franchise system is one thing, but G.J. Gardner Homes has had to take into consideration other factors such as design and style concepts in its quest to give customers a great product at affordable prices.
“We spend a lot of time and energy and money on developing the right sort of design and style,” Mr Wallis says. “We’ve got architects that continually stay at the front of the market, but you’ve got to be able to mould that into an affordable product as well.”
This means the firm must focus on implementing exceptional operations procedures, setting up an efficient buying structure with its suppliers, and working with trades to make sure that it can deliver the latest styles and concepts at affordable prices.
In order to further boost its profile, the firm has recently teamed up with Darren Palmer from award winning reality TV show The Block, working to put together cutting edge designs and interior designs for a number of its customers.
“We got someone within the industry who wanted to work with us, and we could work together to actually bring value. For not much extra cost, we’re bringing that extra design and look to the build for the customer.”
While it is common for commercial builders to have an international footprint, it is not standard practice for residential builders to work across multiple countries. This gives G.J. Gardner Homes an added advantage over competitors.
“We’ve got offices throughout all the states of Australia, we’ve got about 26 offices in New Zealand, and a similar number in the USA. Our biggest growth market overseas at the moment is the USA, because we can obviously have a lot more offices over there.”
The company already operates in a number of states across the U.S., including Colorado, Texas, Indiana, California and Florida. It is also looking to shortly open another office in Oklahoma. The firm has also been present in New Zealand since 1996.
“We looked at the New Zealand market and we thought it was a little bit inefficient. So we thought we could help a couple of builders get established, but it really took off. We’ve got a great team over there, and have been the largest residential builder for several years.”
As an international house builder, the firm must be aware of the different expectations on builders not just in different areas in the country, but across the world, making sure it is able to adapt its style and processes to suit different projects.
“Someone building a house in Darwin is going to be totally different to someone building a house in Melbourne, or a house in Tasmania, or in our case, a house in Queenstown New Zealand or a house in Colorado, USA.”
This means architects and designers are required to be flexible, and it can be particularly difficult to remain cutting edge across a number of different housing styles. In reality, there is enough of a crossover of styles to make international building work.
“Recently, I remember, we took a lot of our more modern, inner city look housing, to Denver, Colorado, and they loved it. It’s quite unique for them over there, but by taking some stuff that we’re doing, inner city Australia became cutting edge for inner city Denver.”
Mr Wallis admits that the firm is in the fortunate position of having international influence, meaning it can take cutting edge designs from certain areas and introduce them to other parts of the world to further their appeal.
Negotiating the market
Since the final economic quarter of 2018, there have been numerous media reports of a downturn in the Australian housing market, with many homeowners heavily mortgaged. The effect this could have on G.J. Gardner’s business is not yet certain
“It could depend a little bit on what happens in the election coming up,” Mr Wallis says. “Depending on what the policies are. It could have an impact on driving up investment properties for a short period of time.”
In reality, a 10% drop in the market or similar is not likely to have a huge effect on a firm like G.J. Gardner Homes. It continues to be an industry leader, giving customers a great product, with customers continuing to search the firm out.
“There’s still thousands of people buying new homes, and they’re looking for a company they can trust. Often in those downturns, people turn back to companies that they trust. They’re not out there trying to get the cheapest price quickly.”
The reality is that during previous building downturns, the firm has actually increased its market share. This is due to customers being a little more careful about choosing which firm to work with, and looking primarily for trustworthiness.
G.J. Gardner homes has found its method of franchising to be both highly successful and effective, and the result has been a real positive for both building franchising and the construction industry as a whole.
“The fact that we do franchising in the construction industry is fairly unique,” Mr Wallis concludes. “We’re pretty much the founders of it. We just see it as a great model where we can give upcoming builders skills, resources and systems to help them grow their business.”
Find out more about G.J. Gardner Homes by visiting www.gjgardner.com.au.