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Higgins Coatings: Seventy years young

Higgins-Coating-Chairman-John-Higgins-and-Managing-Director-Gerard-Higgins-The-Australian-Business-Executive
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Australia’s premier painting solution provider, family-run company Higgins Coatings has been servicing a broad range of industries for 70 years, working on the founding principle that the quality of the service is as important as the quality of the finish.

Chairman John Higgins and Managing Director Gerard Higgins are veterans of the painting industry, having grown up in and eventually taken charge of the family business. With 70 years’ experience in the industry between them, they’ve seen Higgins Coatings grow from humble beginnings to become one of Australia’s largest commercial painting contractors. Whilst both have enjoyed success in other business and philanthropic ventures, they’ve each held various roles in the company throughout the years, and Higgins remains their first passion. The Australian Business Executive spoke to the brothers Higgins about the humble beginnings of the company, its varied business model, and the people-first approach that has helped Higgins Coatings serve its customers for 70 years.

Family-run business

“We [are] Australia’s largest commercial painting contractor,” says Gerard Higgins. “We have 20 branches across the country, in all states of Australia. We work on about 4,000 projects a year, that’s about 350 projects a month, ranging from painting a door to painting a hundred-storey building. We put on about a million litres of paint a year.”

Higgins Coatings is celebrating its 70th year in business, formed in 1949 by John and Gerard’s parents, Gerry and Peggy Higgins. It was Gerry’s humble beginnings in life that led to the foundation of the company. After migrating to Australia, he found work in Mount Beauty, Victoria as a painter, and his lifelong career began.

“He was quite driven,” John Higgins says of his father, “knew what he wanted, and he always said that he knew how to treat people to get the best out of them. He came back to Melbourne after a period of a time [in Mount Beauty] and really started painting on his own.”

Gerry met Peggy and the two were married a few years later. Soon after, the couple began both a business and family. As a team, they divided the work within the company, with Gerry running the projects and the sales side, and Peggy running the office.

“They were a great team,” John says. “I don’t think either Gerard or myself actually have all the skills of my parents, because they were seriously good at what they did. So the business really grew from that foundation.”

The family element of the business remains even to this day, not just in the succession of the Higgins children, but with generations of different families working together within the business for a number of years.

“Currently we have one supervisor in particular who may have been with us 30 years,” John says. “He has one son who’s been with us 15 years, another son about 7 years, and that’s common. We’ve got a lot of people who’ve been with us 30, 40, 45 years. So there’s a great foundation of longevity, and I think family’s been an important part of it.”

The other major part of the business’ foundation was Gerry Higgins’ promise to deliver quality service along with a quality product. The company has continued to honour that promise throughout the years, and it has helped the business grow even further.

“With a lot more branches, a lot more people,” John says, “we’ve had to put a lot more time into developing and training people, which is a critical part of what we do today. Many of our senior people and foremen started as apprentices, so a lot of them have been with us 40 years. Their whole life in business has been with us.”

This longevity is one of the defining characteristics of the company, setting it apart from its competitors. The decline of apprenticeships has contributed to fewer skilled hands in the painting business. Higgins employs a large amount of younger staff, all of whom are skilled and dedicated at all levels, from painters all the way through to management.

“The foundation for our business in the future is enormous,” John says. “We want to grow to give these young people an opportunity to grow with us, and really expand and develop the business. It’s a great place to be in.”

Higgins-Coating-The-Australian-Business-Executive
Australia’s premier painting solution provider, family-run company Higgins Coatings has been servicing a broad range of industries for 70 years

Varied business model

There are a few different parts to Higgins Coatings’ business, with the company divided into four distinct divisions: repaint and maintenance, new construction, building services, and national accounts.

“[In] repaint and maintenance,” Gerard says, “generally our customers would be anyone from a body corporate, education – we do a lot of schools and universities – hospitals, retail, aged care, and retirement living.”

The new construction division offers painting to new high-rise buildings that are going up, and the building services division takes care of clients who want a major painting job undertaken, but also require smaller works such as carpeting or plumbing.

“The last area of our business is what we call national accounts,” says Gerard “where we work for clients that have multiple sites. It could be anywhere from a petrol station through to a large retailer, with hundreds of sites around the country.

Many of the company’s customers undertake this kind of work sporadically, only having buildings painted when they feel it is required. This should really be an annual job to keep buildings in the best possible condition.

“Generally people are quite ad-hoc about how they go about their painting needs,” says Gerard, “and don’t really think about it until it’s too late. So we’ve got a real education process in place there, trying to educate our customers about how often we should be there doing work for them.”

The work involved in commercial painting is vast and varied, with some of the methods of completing jobs being quite different from what people might expect, or what might be considered routine in other industries.

“A lot of the external work we do,” Gerard says, “we would have 300-400 people working off access equipment, cherry pickers, ropes, swing stages – you’ve got to really love doing that sort of work. You’re hanging off buildings in all sorts of weather conditions, and there’s a lot around safety with how we go about doing things.”

With such a wide range of buildings serviced by the company – from prisons to hospitals and schools – the level of flexibility needed is high, with every job presenting unique challenges that must be overcome and safety standards that need to be met.

“One of the critical things today is obviously safety,” John Higgins adds. “We’ve always been totally focused on safety. I think in the past our attitude was that we wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything that they wouldn’t ask somebody else to do. Now it’s so documented and structured – we have safety officers all over the country.”

This has added an extra level of importance for the company to add safety costs into customer quotes, and to make sure that customers are well educated on the need to cover these costs adequately.

“It’s important for us to nominate in our quotations what we believe the safety value is in a project that we might be tendering, “ Gerard says. “That starts to get the customer to think a bit differently about who we’re quoting against, and have they allowed for what we’ve allowed for. That’s very important these days.” 

The Higgins Coatings’ brand is advertised as ‘Higgins Better Painting Management’, signalling to customers that the company takes care of every aspect of the job, beyond just painting, managing a project to the highest standard.

“As part of that we say that we’ll do whatever it takes,” John says. “Within the safe environment, that’s really to look after the customer. In the end, that’s what we want as a relationship. If we can complete a quality project at minimum fuss, we know that you’ll stay with us. We want long-term relationships.”

With the ever-changing landscape of modern business, all companies need to consider their future differently from how they might have done in the past. It is more important than ever to anticipate and react to any potential industry changes.

“We’ve got to be ready to change quickly,” John says. “Obviously a lot of industries are really changing, and we won’t be in business another 70 years unless we really start to think about how industries can change, and in today’s environment how they could change quickly.”

“The foundation for our business in the future is enormous,” - John Higgins

Treating people the right way

Over the years, John and Gerard Higgins have learned many valuable lessons about how to go about successfully running a business. The first and foremost in John Higgins’ mind is the importance of treating people the right way, as Gerry before them had done.

“People are everything,” John says. “Dad was tough but fair. As a tradesman, he was good at what he did, but he really did respect people. I think that’s a critical component we’ve tried to bring right through our history of the business.”

Key to this philosophy is understanding how other people are feeling, both in and out of work, and allowing for those factors. John recognises that the younger people in the business may not be as patient for success as previous generations have been.

“The development of people [is just as important],” John adds. “We’ve really been big believers in developing the skillsets of all people within the organisation, so we can add something that helps them in their life as well as in our business. That’s really worthwhile.”

The longevity of the business can be directly linked to this prioritisation of developing staff and treating people the right way. It’s a philosophy that promises to ensure this longevity continues well into the future.

“Our business will just continue to grow,” Gerard says. “We have plans in place for the next three years. Watching these younger people come through the business, we have to make sure that we’ve created the environment for them to continue to grow in the business.” 

Running a company for seventy years is a huge achievement, and one that very few businesses in the world are able to achieve. Running the business with family has certainly helped make this happen.

“We’ve been lucky to work in a family environment,” Gerard concludes. “Whilst we always have our moments, at the end of the day you continue to work together for the better outcome of everybody. The old man said to us many years ago – one of the great things about working for him is you can stuff something up and still have a job.”

With its long-term focus on treating people the right way, Higgins Coatings looks all set to continue serving its customers for many more years. Find out more about Higgins Coatings by visiting www.higgins.com.au.

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