How Ben Cottle runs his $500 million construction business with no HR department

Ben Cottle is the founder and managing director of FDC Construction, one of the larger construction businesses in Victoria. Founded in the early 1990s, the company is earning half a billion dollars and employs 300 workers.

But FDC isn’t a typical, large construction company. Apart from the fact it has no HR department, all 14 of its shareholders are also employees – something Cottle is insistent upon.

Cottle spoke to SmartCompany about the company’s history, and how he’s been able to maintain the culture without sacrificing growth.

I used to work for another construction company in 1989-90. That went into receivership, and so I established my business after that. The fundamental reason was that I just didn’t have a job.

After a year or two I bought out my business partner. I ran the place for a period of about 10 years, until my brother joined me about 12 years ago as well.

Since that time we’ve accumulated 14 shareholders in total. They are all employees – we only have employee shareholders.

I think it’s important to give people ownership. They contribute so much, and I think we can provide them with a career here without needing to look elsewhere. We just thought: why not give it to them?

There have been no revolutions here, just evolutions. Things happen slowly and we’ve been able to sustain growth that way.

We try and look after our people as much as we can. But not just our people, our clients as well. We try and do as much with individual clients as we can, rather than trying to source new clients all the time.

Repeat work is in excess of about 60% of our business.

I’ve never really experienced a period when work has dried up. There are always opportunities available. I think we’ve just made extremely robust systems, from both an internal point of view and a client management point of view.

We have to stay close to our clients. If there’s a problem, we fix it, and price isn’t an issue.

The culture within the company is fantastic. The people here are youthful and fantastic. I’m not far off from 50, and most people are a lot younger than I am. Most of the shareholders would have come in when they were 25 or 26, and they’re in their early 30s now.

They’re always challenging us. They want to do different things and we provide them with an environment to be challenged.

We have a charity committee. We also have a work-life balance committee, and there’s no HR department here. My brother and I have an enclosure where the walls don’t go to the ceiling – if staff have a problem, they can always come and see us.

Staff turnover is extremely low. Typically the turnover rate of us requesting people to leave is higher than people leaving voluntarily – so the total number is very small. 

We just have a flat model. There are managers, but there aren’t a lot of people sitting between myself and my brother’s position.

Our growth comes from two areas. Existing business has grown, but we’ve pushed out geographically. We’re in Melbourne and Brisbane, and undertaking work in Perth and Adelaide.

We’re really running four or five different businesses.

Our business grew about 20% in the past year. In younger businesses, you may grow but systems will creep as well. We’ve got a good handle on things; which means we can grow the business but we’re not exposing our finances to that higher level of risk.


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