By John Son
It was Andrew Durrans' first staff meeting after purchasing Auckland Plumbers Group Limited with his business partner, John Hurcombe. Gathering the employees together, the new company director proceeded to tell them that they were no longer working for a plumbing business.
Before the shock had time to settle in, Andrew continued: "You now work for a customer service business".
It was certainly a bold statement to make, but one that reflects the philosophy that Andrew and John are embedding in the company. Auckland Plumbers Group continues to stand as a proud, well-known name in New Zealand's plumbing scene, thanks in no small part to its culture centred on people and relationships.
It's a large factor behind why both directors place such focus and importance on their apprentices.
"Apprenticeships are just part of who we are – without apprentices, we wouldn't have a business," Andrew says.
"We make sure we keep an ear out and listen to our apprentices, giving them the experiences and learnings they need to have."
John agrees: "It's a win-win situation. Our apprentices get the training and support they need to start their career, and of course we get to grow our workforce."
Different journeys, same passion
The strong partnership between Andrew and John is a key contributor to Auckland Plumbers Group's success. But what makes their story interesting is the vastly different paths they took to get to where they are.
John's career will be familiar to many in the industry. He's been in plumbing since the age of 16, doing his apprenticeship in the UK before working his way up to management level.
Andrew's is a bit different. Having gained university degrees in Accounting and Marketing, he led a number of successful businesses – mostly in the printing industry – before seeking a new challenge in the plumbing sector.
Andrew says that while his background brings a "different perspective" to the business, he is still fully aware of the important role that apprentices play.
"Apprentices are the core of me – I had a large number of apprentices when I worked in the printing industry as well," he explains.
"I know the importance of bringing younger people into the business and developing them. Apprentices certainly keep us young, and we want them to stay in the business."
With his passion for quality customer service, Andrew makes sure that all staff – including apprentices – live the company values of ‘honest’ and ‘reliable’ in their everyday work. He says that companies striving to be reputable and professionally run can only be a good thing for the industry.
"We're really looking for apprentices with a genuine desire to succeed in the trades and take their career forward," adds John.
"We provide the support they need to do this, and invest a lot into ongoing training – encouraging them to reach certifying level, for example."
It's no surprise that apprenticeships are a large part of the culture at Auckland Plumbers Group. However, both Andrew and John know there's so much more that they bring.
Apprenticeships crucial for the wider industry
"Apprentices are absolutely necessary, not just to maintain current levels of skilled workers, but also to grow them," says John.
"Given the skills shortages nowadays, investing in apprentices is simply something our industry needs to do."
According to Andrew, the average registered plumber in New Zealand is in their mid-50s, which is another reason the pipeline of talent needs to grow.
"With the shortage of plumbers in New Zealand, we do need new people coming through," he says.
"It would also be great to get some more diversity in the workforce, and it would be really awesome to see more women entering the trade. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see companies employing female plumbing apprentices…"
Keys to success
So what are Andrew and John doing at Auckland Plumbers Group to nurture the next generation of plumbers? Both agree that it’s essential to get the relationship right and make sure there is mutual understanding.
“The employer and the apprentice need to treat each other with respect,” Andrew says.
“Respect definitely goes both ways. This means there needs to be good communication between the two, and apprentices should be able to see a clear pathway ahead of them.”
John agrees about the need for mutual understanding.
“The employer should encourage and mentor their apprentices, and want to develop their career,” he adds.
“For example, we do this by holding regular one-on-one meetings, talking about what’s working and what gaps need to be filled.”
And of course, working closely with Skills, the industry training organisation (ITO), ensures Andrew and John have the support they need to grow their apprentices.
“Antony Russell [Account Manager] is a really good operator – he’s quick to answer questions and is very responsive,” says Andrew.
“As the ITO, Skills plays an essential role in providing ongoing monitoring of and support for our apprentices’ progress,” John adds.
As Auckland Plumbers Group continues to train the next generation, these strong relationships are sure to play a part in their success.