Can he build it? Yes he can! 6 Jun 2005
Nigel Smith is doing his bit to ensure the good reputation Kiwi builders have in the UK continues. He talks to MARK HOTTON on the site of his latest project, a million-pound central London apartment refurbishment.
It becomes apparent Nigel Smith isn’t one to boast – when he’s asked directly if he is doing well, his reply is succinct: "We’re doing okay."
"Okay" seems like a bit of an understatement for the 31-year-old builder whose company is putting the finishing touches on a million-pound renovation of an impressive state-of-the-art £4.75 million Mayfair penthouse.
It’s not a job many builders would get the chance to undertake, but it’s just one of several significant high-end refurbishment jobs that’s enabling Smith to leave his mark on the London building scene.
Smith arrived in the UK about seven years ago to work as a builder. The quality of his work soon led to him picking up extra jobs and he was forced to take on staff to help him out, which in turn led to the birth of Winter Management UK Ltd.
Originally from South Canterbury’s Pleasant Point, Smith "fell into" the building industry as a 16-year-old when he was offered an apprenticeship.
"I’d had enough of school and I think school was pretty keen to see me go as well so it seemed like a good decision," Smith explained.
He worked hard on a range of top-end architectural homes, which enabled him to develop his own flair and also specialised skills such as understanding plans and details. At 23 he was sent to Wanaka to oversee construction of a $1 million house.
That turned out to be a great career move because it was a situation where he was thrown in at the deep end and had to sink or swim. It helped lay the foundations for his career and with an appetite whetted for more experience, he headed to the UK.
"I bounced around a few different jobs and then ended up working for a company that employed about 40 Kiwis and Aussies doing a lot of price work – getting paid for each per metre and per door – so it was quite competitive. You had to be good or you would be eating rice."
While working at Heathrow he met a contractor who he later became the main supplier of labour to, and also managing their larger projects.
With good staff working for him, the demand for his company’s skills grew rapidly, although it meant he was doing less tool work and more time organising things – "I sit in traffic and talk on the phone."
Smith now oversees several projects at one time but deals directly with site foremen, although he describes himself as a "laid-back" boss. "I expect the sites to run pretty much unsupervised, so it’s a pretty good working environment for the boys."
He’s also the one who deals with the business’ financial side which means his role is demanding, but enjoyable.
"I like being really busy, I don’t mind a bit of pressure."
Through hard work and an unwillingness to compromise on quality, Smith has developed a strong client base and continually gets work through recommendations, but has had to become more selective about the jobs he takes on.
It was a recommendation from an Australian labourer that led to his current working relationship. He had the chance to upgrade one of two Sloane Square flats a developer was refurbishing – an English company did the other property.
"But our finish and the whole construction site environment was far superior, and our construction techniques were better", which impressed the client – he’s now chosen Smith for several significant construction jobs.
It’s a relationship both are happy with – the client gets a quality job done at a good price, while Smith has regular work and deals with someone he enjoys working with.
The latest property hadn’t been upgraded in about 15 years and was a "good space that lent itself being made into a contemporary flat", he said.
Smith and the client had to work closely together on the project after the architects were fired a short time into the build, and both are delighted with the result.
It’s an impressive space: there are four and a-half bedrooms – two masters and one with a panic room – on the bottom floor, while upstairs boasts a stunning kitchen and dining area, and a living room with a state-of-the-art home cinema centre.
The climate is controlled throughout with lighting, blinds and heating all programmable – from another country if necessary.
"The project ran smoothly but the hardest part was creating a product that was state of the art but suited a wide range of tastes. When you’re designing something as you’re building it, with the knowledge it’s got to go to the market, you’ve got to be very careful not to get too personal and keep a check on costs the whole way through.
"That’s the hardest thing – trying to develop a top-end London penthouse without getting too crazy on expenditure."
He describes building in London as a "tough environment" and believes the hardest thing about the industry is finding quality New Zealand builders. Although he has had about 20 staff on his books, he’s seen the standard of builders drop in the past three years, something he attributes to the new apprenticeship system.
"I’ve got to go through a lot of guys to get good builders. The new apprentice system will eventually downgrade the quality of tradesmen from New Zealand in the long term unless it’s put it back to similar to what it was.
"Now you can finish an apprenticeship in two years but I think you’re still pretty green after that. It’s the year after your fourth year I think you learn the most."
With business going so well, one could be mistaken for assuming Smith plans to stay in the UK. However, New Zealand’s lure is growing and he has already begun preparing for a return, although hasn’t set a timetable yet.
He’s unsure of what exactly what he’ll do when he returns but believes he’ll remain in the industry because it’s something he loves.
"I’m looking forward to going home and just developing, building on land and working for a few select clients. But who knows what will happen?"
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