PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
Robert Rowe, CEO and founder of Unita

Behind the Build: Interview with Robert Rowe, CEO and Founder of Unita

The construction industry is booming worldwide. In Australia, it’s never looked stronger, contributing to 9% of the country’s GDP. Nonetheless, the country still faces similar challenges as other regions throughout the world, including labour shortages, rising material costs, and difficulty implementing technology.

This week’s, we take a look “Behind the Build” in Australia with Robert Rowe, CEO and Founder of Unita, a nation-wide design and construction firm based in Sydney. With more than 20 years of experience in the sector, Robert is obsessed with providing clients a world class experience through technology. Below, he discusses how he started his own construction business as well as the unique hurdles of operating a company in Australia.

How did you get started in the business of construction?

Basically, I was born into and grew up in the industry. I worked for my father’s general contracting business in Australia starting at the age of 16.

What inspired you to start Unita?

My father’s company was very good at doing business the way it was traditionally done. By working for him, I saw an opportunity to expand the footprint–to become a nation-wide or international business and also to provide more services than just building. I saw that customers wanted to work with an organisation that had the experience as a one-stop shop, not just one solution.  

Furla project unita

Customers also wanted to do business with one company across all of Australia. Years ago, technology wasn’t available like it is today. Getting access to your project sites and finding people could be difficult. So, I saw an opportunity to be a business led with innovation and technology to connect teams remotely. It’s one of the primary foundations of our company’s success and it has helped up create visibility nationally.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Our clients. The idea that our company is helping to design and build the future of a business puts a great deal of importance on the work that we do. It’s encouraging to know that we’re adding value and creating an opportunity for others to thrive. In turn, this has helped us build a really nice, client-driven, company in Australia.

What do you love most about the industry?

Construction is an industry where I think the intelligence within it is only getting better. In the past, it was an industry where if you didn’t do well in school, you became a builder. Today, it’s an industry that requires a lot of intelligence. Now, you not only need to know how to build with manpower, but how to build with different resources, different materials, and different applications. It’s an interesting sector because it’s going through a great deal of change. While you’re still building a physical outcome, people are looking at different ways that you can build today that you couldn’t yesterday.

What are some of the specific challenges the industry faces in Australia?

Australia is a big country with not a lot of people. We’re very much spread apart. The distance between each state or region increases costs and creates a lack of competition, and as a result, the expense is high for those building in this country. The distance we are from China and the cost differences between transporting materials creates many challenges. Cost of employment is also very expensive here compared to overseas. Companies building in Australia are finding that it can cost them 15-40% greater than anywhere else in Asia-Pacific. At Unita, this is why technology gives us an edge in other ways.

What are some of the most frustrating aspects of working in construction?

One of the biggest challenges is getting everybody on the same platform and working from the same information. Unfortunately, in many cases, people choose not to share information because they find information is power. In tough situations, it can help them to use things against others. Sharing information in one central location is one of the most significant challenges that our business and industry, on the whole, faces. Hence, the reason why we work with technology like PlanGrid is to help us improve how we collaborate with all parties.

What’s the biggest benefit you’ve found working with construction software?

Construction software helps us build a discipline that you can measure and it helps keep everyone connected. It also fosters accountability into the business, especially where it isn’t used. You know as an owner of a company or as a manager of a team that you’ve actually given your team the tools to be successful. PlanGrid, or no product for that matter, solves the human issue of people using something. However, it certainly gives you an ability to create awareness and put the controls in place. That way, there’s no excuses as to why workers can’t do their jobs collaboratively and better.

Unita Image Suite

What advice do you have for the next generation of builders?

From the very beginning, you’ve got to really know your business as intimately as possible. Otherwise, you’re destined to fail or not achieve as much as you could. I’m a big believer that before you even begin a building business, you have to make sure you have found a great opportunity that’s in the marketplace that you can grow into. If not, there’s no point. People say, “I’m not ready for that yet because I’m not big enough,” but what are you gonna do? Are you going to get big and then work out the mistake you have made? Or do you start early adopting good practices and systems, make those investments early, and reaping the rewards later?

I would say that the success of my company, which is $100 million of business in Australia, is predominantly due to the fact that we’ve always looked ahead, invested a lot into technology, and ensured that we’re ready for that growth and capable of meeting the expectations of our business at that moment.

Further Reading:  Behind the Build: Interview with Cliff Cole, VDC Manager, The PENTA Building Group

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