Part 1: How Thomas McClung Went From Tiling Roofs To Building A Business
When Thomas got word of his redundancy from Mirvac, it was a hard pill to swallow. Sitting in a Sydney bar with Peter, who had also been hit by the latest round of cutbacks, the two decided to explore using their combined experience in the industry to start something completely new, which led to Thomas meeting Tim, and to do it on their own terms; as Thomas puts it, to “make it or fall on our own swords.”
So how does a man born and raised in Scotland find his way to Australia, ready to build a business in an area completely new to him?
When did you first enter the property industry?
“My introduction to property was through my dad because he’s a roof tiler, so I started when I was 14. I worked weekends and school holidays and got a pound an hour, which seems like a lot when you’re 14… He taught me work ethic, it would always be about getting the job done quickly but getting it done well so we would never have to go back and fix anything, he was very big on that.
I didn’t feel like I wanted to do that forever, especially because of the winters in Scotland, shovelling snow off a roof is a particularly tough memory, so when someone walked in with a clipboard, I would ask ‘what do they do’ because there were always other professions you could see around, and I was particularly interested in the developers.”
So how did you go from working on roofs to working as a developer?
“I do remember having a bet with someone who worked with us that I’d be in an office by Christmas because it was August and the cold winds were coming and the rain was hurling, and I was thinking ‘I am not sure I am tough enough to do another winter’… I actually went for a job in a foundry. I never got it, but I probably would have taken it just to get warm.
I was really lucky because by November that year I was introduced to a job through the school career’s office. This company, CALA Homes, had just opened an office in my hometown Falkirk by amalgamating their Glasgow and Edinburgh offices. They were looking for a youth training scheme (35 pounds a week) quantity surveyor…they wanted me to go to college and I thought I was done with education! For about 6-7 years at CALA I was studying and working at the same time, so I’d go college/Uni for 1 ½ days per week and that was brilliant, I’d encourage anyone to do that if they get the chance. You get practical experience along with the theory, so you’re learning both sides in conjunction with each other. Sometimes you’ll be struggling at college in a unit, like how does a retaining wall work, you go to work and you’ve got architects around to help you. Someone bet I couldn’t get a first-class honours in my final year. I was middle of the class prior to that and then 3 of us out of 50 got a first.
It seems like bets are to thank for pushing you through a lot of moments.
“Yeah, trying to prove people wrong seemed to motivate me for some reason!”
“I actually went for a job in a foundry. I never got it, but I probably would have taken it just to get warm.”
And that’s how you managed to go from middle of the class to first class honours too, isn’t it?
“If they could add the word ‘scraped’ to first class honours you’d add it to mine because I got it by adjusting one coursework mark, which I had to challenge.
When I was doing my honours degree all the CALA staff went on a conference course for a couple of days in Glasgow, and this guy Jack Black (not the actor) talked about mind mapping, being positive and using positive language. In Scotland, when you ask how someone’s going, they say, ‘yeah alright’ and that’s not a good way to start a conversation. It was the first time I’d come across meditation and positive visualisation, where you’d imagine things how you wanted them to turn out, and I deployed it for my honours and it made me realise that it really worked. I realised that that idea of positive self-talk gives you an edge, pushes you along.
That and the mind mapping I’ve used ever since. I don’t think positive visualisation is magic but it gives you confidence, it makes you feel less apprehensive.”
What was it about CALA that made you stay for 12 years?
“CALA shaped the rest of my career because it was a fantastic culture with personable leaders. They were really good at training; if you wanted to strive, they just let you go… It was just a great team with really high calibre people all around, we really felt we were the best in the country. You just knew what you were doing was quality and that went into everything, so I got to see how you can improve things and get involved.”
“That was my introduction to managing people… no one teaches you how to do that.”
You didn’t work as a traditional developer, did you?
“I started off a quantity surveyor of sorts, more focused on feasibilities and getting involved with the other teams and disciplines. When I was 26, they gave me a commercial team of 10 to run across projects in the East of Scotland, mainly Edinburgh and Aberdeen. So that was my introduction to managing people… no one teaches you how to do that. You make mistakes, even emailing someone in the wrong tone could really set someone off, so you do learn from getting things wrong, no doubt about it.”
How did you learn to manage your team?
“Just before I took on that role, I watched a documentary on TV about management. About how Britain’s management comes from the military, that autocratic way of doing things – one person would tell 100 what to do with no input from those 100 people. That doesn’t make sense to me.
That documentary showed a case study where they were building a helicopter and it took 50 weeks to build when one person’s ideas were being used. And then they workshopped it with the people who actually assembled it brought it down to 25, 30 weeks. And that just sparked something in me.”
So how did you use that?
“In that team I trialled these strategy days, like the planning days we have now [at Dorado]… I realised the things that we needed to get better at, so when we went to fix an issue in a strategy day, I ran an agenda just on that one issue and off the back of that we got everyone’s input and got an outcome that was far better than my ideas only. Everyone bought into it, everyone felt they had input, so they were all willing to do it. I always used to think, how do you motivate people other than money? You realise that’s one way to do it, you get them involved.”
“I also saw a lot of energy being spent not productively, for self-preservation and politics, and that really frustrated me so I have always tried to eradicate that in a team and where possible in the companies I have worked in.”
What did managing a team teach you?
“I did find it difficult to go from player to coach and get that distance, and I just can’t do that distance thing. We were in a separate annex from the rest of the office so we had our own culture. I had the managing director comment that people came into our office and there was always carry on and joking, almost too much. I first asked how the team was going and he said, ‘great I’m not questioning that at all’, and I said for me that’s part of the reason. People come in and enjoy it, it’s fun, you can have a break and tell a few stories, have a laugh, and then you get back to your work. This taught me you have to approach it in your own way and be yourself.”
“I always used to think, how do you motivate people other than money? You realise that’s one way to do it, you get them involved.”
And that culture carried on through to Dorado, too.
“We have definitely tried to encourage that at Dorado. At CALA we had a young team, only a few were older than me. I sat down with them and went ‘right, we’re gonna be the best team in the entire group’ and I knew it would spark some individuals, the younger people who played sport at a high level I knew would respond and some of the older people probably thought I was crazy and a couple promptly left.
I’ve seen this over the years, you shape a deliberate culture within a team or organisation and some people just won’t sync with it and move on, but you attract the people that will.”
Why then leave that culture and move to Australia?
“I had been here when I was 14 for a family holiday and had a dream and desire to live here, literally dreamt every night for years that I lived in Australia. I visited again when I was 26 and realised it wasn’t a pipe dream, and [the State was] at a point when the economy was about to boom, so I came back about a year later and started getting some interviews.
“I told CALA a year before I emigrated of my plan because I felt a lot of loyalty to them and they transformed my life, really. I’m so glad I did, because the land director at the time contacted our lawyer, and his sister had a high-level role in recruitment in Australia. I sent her my resume, and she emailed me back saying if you want to live and work in Perth, you should speak to Adrian Fini at Mirvac Fini as they were the most similar to the CALA group and she was right.”
How did you manage to get a hold of Adrian Fini?
“I went to Australia and tried to get through to him. His PA was like… who are you? Just a guy from Scotland who has jumped off the plane and thinks he can just meet Adrian. I didn’t know his profile then! I just sent my resume in after that and got an email from a guy in the development team called Paul Lakey, telling me I had been unsuccessful for a specific role but I had a name then, he passed my resume onto Bill Fiddian who was the construction director and had just emigrated from Nottingham so was familiar with CALA… I came out again in April 2004 and Bill offered me a job verbally on the spot ahead of me emigrating in October 2004 which was amazing and made moving much easier.
“That experience taught me something about politics. It could be quite fickle.”
You started pretty much from the bottom when you moved from CALA to Mirvac.
“Seniority wise I went back years and years in terms of what I was doing in Scotland, but I wanted to live here, and I had never built large towers before, so it was a huge learning curve at the time. I also think there are no glass ceilings for me in Australia because of where I came from, as no one would know!
I’d always let it be known that if there was ever a development job that came up that I’d want it. Whilst I was doing cost planning for The Point in Mandurah for them, two jobs in development came up so I was interviewed for both. One was for building houses on a site, which made perfect sense because I had done that in Scotland, and it wasn’t a normal thing in Australia at the time. The other one was to lead a strategic partnership Mirvac had with BHPB to support them in building housing for mining sites in Port Hedland and Newman, which was described to me by the director Darren Cooper like Mandurah housing on steroids – I took that which was challenging but really interesting exposure. I’m really glad I did it, but it was so tough.
How did that turn out?
“We realised it had been signed at very high levels between the companies, but the lower levels weren’t aligned, and we ended up not going ahead with it.
That experience taught me something about politics. It could be quite fickle; when BHP wasn’t coming to fruition, I went to go for the other job in housing but was only offered an assistant position and that would be like going back 10 years, so I was close to looking elsewhere. Then I was given a land subdivision in Jane Brook by Darren Cooper and managed to prove myself there. So, in a short period of time I went from being almost out to becoming a senior development manager looking after Mirvac’s Port Hedland Hotel project, and then about a year after that I was made redundant post GFC.”
So why decide to start your own company instead of just going to join an existing one?
“I did join Peet between times, which gave me fantastic exposure to land subdivision on a large scale. The driving thing for the business though was to be in charge of your own destiny. I had put a lot of effort into Mirvac, as had many other people who were let go and being made redundant was hard to take. We [Thomas, Peter, and later Tim] wanted to do this on our own terms.”
“I really had a belief that we would make it from the start. I got married the same week, so I was married on Sunday and started full time on Wednesday, so it was a lot of belief that my wife Kate had to have, too.
“The driving thing here was to be in charge of your own destiny.”
But we were determined to create something that we wanted to turn up to everyday and enjoy, and not just live with someone else’s policies. It’s hard living with someone else’s culture if you don’t agree with it, so a big part of this was to create our own culture that we are comfortable with. We wanted to make this last, so I had a lot of confidence, especially watching Tim do his thing.”
Having never started a business of your own before now, how did you make that happen?
“The harder I try, the luckier I get is a famous saying… You have to see luck, recognise it, and then pounce on it. You had to be out there to discover it, and when you stumble upon it you have to grab it and go ‘this is the luck I need to capitalise on.’
We got lucky stumbling on the idea of financing for development and for recruitment initially – Nathan was with us for 9 years and went from a town planner to a brilliant Excel building machine. It takes time to know what you’re after in terms of cultural fit, but now we have a great process in place and HR consultant, and I haven’t regretted any recruitment we’ve done as everyone has played their part
The other fundamental reason it worked is that having someone of Tim’s acumen and experience felt like cheating for a start up!
Looking back on all of the experiences you’ve gained over the years, what is it that’s shaped you the most?
CALA. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t get that job. They gave me this incredible opportunity and took me through uni right up to honours. The people I got to witness and the culture, how important that was, it gave me a lot of confidence. It is also where I was introduced to Brian Chandler who then shaped my managerial outlook.
They sent me on that conference and that really changed how I thought about a lot of things, mind mapping and positive thinking. A lot of people are cynical about those ideas, but I’ve always seen it as giving you an edge and making it all more enjoyable, different ideas will work for different people to get that edge. I have also realised that you have to keep learning and reading, and I never thought that’s who I would be. It’s just that idea that if you read a wide enough range of things, they all start connecting and reinforcing certain points. I’ve always said about property development, you will never stop learning, it’s impossible!
What is your proudest moment in your career so far?
“The times that jump out in terms of feelings of pride have been when I have been caught by surprise with compliments either from people I really respect in the industry, where they have suggested I had the potential to go far, or some team members complimenting my leadership style and there have been a few occasions where ex-colleagues have told me they have used my story as an example to inspire younger members of their team. I find those moments humbling, but also very encouraging and inspiring and make me realise that I can make a positive difference.”
This is part one of our chat with Thomas. Follow us on LinkedIn to be the first to know when the Part 2: The Link Between Wellness and Success in Business is published.