Hiding behind a small front office, you could be forgiven for not realising that Williams Metal Fabrications has built a team of nearly 50 staff and is working on some of South Australia’s largest and most important projects from their Elizabeth South workshop.
As the business turns 25, we sat down with Director and General Manager Stuart Rogers to learn more about what they do, how locals can get involved, and what’s coming next.
Tell us a little about Williams Metal Fabrication.
We specialise in bespoke metal fabrication for one-off projects – particularly in the areas of infrastructure, marine and defence. We were founded by Ross Williams out of the back of a trailer in 1998, and I’ve been with the company for around 18 years now – much of that as a director alongside Craig and Peter Williams.
We have worked on a lot of really important South Australian infrastructure projects, including the Southern Expressway duplication, the Northern Connector, Darlington Interchange, and the River Murray ferry upgrades (including the flaps and landings), and we do a lot of work with Flinders Ports, who are SA’s leading port operator.
What challenges have you faced along the journey?
We were originally located in Elizabeth South because of its proximity to Holden and the large amount of work that this created. Working with Holden became so competitive though. Project managers and engineers at Holden would have five or six companies competing for projects worth as little as $3,000. It got to the point where it wasn’t feasible - we had to diversify and improve our capabilities so that we could sustainably grow our business.
This involved a lot of networking. The Industry Capability Network (ICN) was important for us, as was the Civil Construction Federation. A great example of this was when I met Simon Cooke from Cooke Precast at an event at South Adelaide Football Club. I met him down in South Adelaide, but his workshop was just around the corner from ours, and he ended up putting a lot of work through our business.
A lot of our work comes through reputation and the relationships we build. A project manager sees the value of us on one project and then brings us onboard for the next.
What’s your biggest and most exciting challenge right now?
We no longer have any space remaining at our Elizabeth South workshop, so we have leased another facility on Peachey Road just for plant and equipment storage. Conversations are now happening to look at developing a purpose-built facility locally. This may involve getting another company to develop the land and lease it back to us with the option to buy later. The plan is to keep growing, not too quickly but at a manageable steady rate. You hear a few horror stories of companies growing too quickly, so we are very aware of the need to grow sustainably and be able to scale easily depending on our project work.
Another of our biggest challenges is predicting the forward pipeline of work. Because it’s so project based, it’s a fine balancing act to make sure that we’re doing enough estimating work to keep the team busy, but not overwhelming them with too much. It can be so dependent on the work we end up winning. We’re putting in some software to help manage the pipeline more accurately and efficiently.
How do you hire staff? And what advice would you give to locals who would like to work at Williams Metal Fabrications?
We have an apprenticeship scheme in place and aim to always have a minimum of six apprenticeships on the go, including at least one first year, second year, third year and fourth year. We are out there talking in schools to make sure that these opportunities are front of mind. There are a lot of trades out there, but not a lot of people think about boiler making or welding.
We had been struggling to fill apprenticeships through schools recently, so we have also advertised for mature age apprentices through Seek, for which we have had lots of interest. As they are a bit older, they know what they want, have families, and they’ve been really awesome.
We recently also took on a trade assistant for a few months, who was great, and she has actually now become our first ever female apprentice.
My best piece of advice for people looking at these positions is that you don’t need any experience, you just need the right attitude, because it can be hard work - especially on hot and cold days.
You’re involved in the Edinburgh Industry Alliance. What is the Alliance, and what benefit does it deliver?
The Edinburgh Industry Alliance is made up of nine City of Playford based businesses and the idea behind it is that if someone like the head contractor from BAE or Lockheed Martin comes along, they can come to the alliance and we can use our combined capability to deliver their needs. These are projects that none of us would have the capability to deliver on alone, but with combined capability and knowhow, we become a really viable option. Even federal and state ministers are excited by it and have been talking about it at defence conferences.
We hear you’re having a special opportunity to head across to Oxford University in the UK soon?
Yeah, I’m heading over to Oxford University in the UK for the Advanced Leadership Management Programme in October. It is through a scholarship I was awarded through the Industry Leaders Fund. This is going to be really valuable to our business. I’m hoping to bring back a lot of skills that enable me to grow Williams Metal Fabrications and become a better leader. It’s a pretty interesting course and it will be a great opportunity to build lifelong networks and come out of it with solutions.
I also want to use it as an opportunity to meet with UK companies who may be looking to gain a foothold in the South Australian market as a part of the AUKUS agreement.
You’ve attended the City of Playford’s Defence Industry Day in both 2021 and 2022. What value did this bring to your business?
Defence Industry Day is an event that I really look forward to. We generally know about the projects that are going on, but it helps us to put a face to a name and get airtime in front of the right people. Both Williams Metal Fabrications and the Edinburgh Industry Alliance will be attending in 2023.