A Natural Affinity Sparks an Enduring Family Business

In Australia, family businesses account for around 70% of all businesses and employ 50% of the Australian workforce. I met with Richard Crosby and Alan Psaila - Co-founders of Multiworks Australia, and chatted about their experience running a successful f

When Richard reflects on his long association with Alan, he compares it to a marriage. And clearly a strong marriage, too. In almost twenty years, he can’t recall a single conflict. 

 “Alan did stuff up the first truck purchase,” Richard laughs. “But we haven’t had a disagreement. It’s weird, isn’t it?” 

But for Alan it’s not so weird. It’s simple.   

“Just fix the problem.” he says. “Come up with a solution.”

And that’s exactly how things evolved back in 2003. Richard, aged 45 at the time was a partner with McMahon Services and had been involved with rail maintenance and remediation works for V/Line and MTM. Meanwhile, he had purchased an industrial site at Cawley Road, Brooklyn and needed a project manager. 

Alan was a 25-year-old plant operator with McMahon and had met Richard on a V/Line project. Richard was impressed by Alan’s hard-working and proactive disposition. Having worked with his father since he was fourteen, Alan had gathered valuable experience in civil construction, demolition and excavation works.

“Alan had the emotional maturity of a 35-year-old,” Richard recalls. “He was steady, focussed and driven.” 

One afternoon in the Cawley Road yard, Richard and Alan got talking. 

“We liked each other,” Richard says. “... Felt the same way about things. There was a natural affinity.” 

With the McMahon work slowing down, Alan saw himself starting his own commercial building operation one day. In fact, he had already registered a business name.  

“That was the spark,” Richard said. “I realised I was looking for somebody, and Alan was looking for something.” 

Richard and Alan spoke of what they might do together. Soon, they would officially join forces, and in 2003 Multiworks Australia began.

“Our goal back then was to take on anything in the construction industry,” says Alan. “to never say No to an opportunity.” 

But did either of them envisage Multiworks providing - not only for Richard and Alan’s business,  but for future generations of Crosbys and Psailas, too? 

For Alan, having partnered with his dad since his early teens, working with family came naturally. He’d already performed across everything from asbestos removal, rock blasting, trenching, concreting, demolition works and foundations.

“I’d done a 55-house estate by the time I was 15,” Alan says. “You can achieve anything with the support of family.”

Similarly, Richard had always been inspired by what a family business could do, having observed several in action over the years. 

“I loved the idea of being able to direct the entire construction process,” Richard explains. “Builders used to have their own workshops, do their own fabrication, they might have owned a quarry…” 

Perhaps the strength of the Crosby-Psaila blended family business model stems from Richard and Alan’s clearly defined roles. From the outset, Richard took care of Multiworks’ commercial side while Alan focussed on operations - expanding their workforce and machinery and gradually bringing on other members of the Psaila family as crew. 

One of Multiworks’ early opportunities was the Melbourne Airport Runway Widening Project in preparation for the arrival of the new Airbus A380. In collaboration with ATS, McMahon Services and John Holland Multiworks provided project management services and delivered the civil construction works. Regardless of his status as Multiworks’ founder and managing director, Alan operated plant for the airport runway widening works. In fact, you will often find Alan still operating plant today. 

“Clients love seeing the boss on the excavator,’ Alan says. “They get the reassurance that our business can take on all their needs, that Multiworks can do it all.”

This has been particularly true with electrical sector clients, typically very protective of their critical assets and equipment.

“We started doing security fencing at a time when AusNet Services had some issues with a Tier 1 contractor,” Richard recalls. “We got to know the client and developed trust. Eventually, AusNet chose to nurture Multiworks into fitting their needs.”

Multiworks’ progression - from working along the perimeter of electrical substations to performing as a trusted partner with AusNet’s critical-risk assets, positioned the business to secure work with other power clients. Over the past 20 years Multiworks has completed more than $400M in electrical, civil infrastructure projects, including the award-winning Richmond Terminal Station for AusNet’s Edison Project - its largest electricity infrastructure project ever undertaken. 

“Our aim as a business is to impress our clients with our ability to deliver these high complexity projects without compromise and with the lowest possible total cost of ownership in mind,” Richard says. 

Today Multiworks Australia employs close to 100 people including three members of the Crosby family in commercial roles and six Psailas in operations. Richard’s sons Alex and Nick have both chosen careers with Multiworks, having been ‘on the shovel’ by age 15, enjoying part-time jobs at Multiworks while completing their secondary and tertiary studies. Multiworks has evolved into one of Australia’s leading civil construction and building contractors, with the expertise to undertake some of Australia’s most complex and critical infrastructure projects. While the business is primarily focussed in Victoria and New South Wales it has successfully delivered major civil engineering and building projects across Australia. 

But what about some of the challenges in running a blended family business? I can’t help thinking what dinners might be like at the Crosby’s or the Psaila’s. 

“It’s a fine line,’ says Richard. ‘We try not to talk too much about work at home,” 

Alan laughs.  “Work is all we talk about at home!” 

“We need to be sensitive to our employees,” Richard continues. “… if they feel that opportunities are only for family members.”

It seems Richard’s sensitivity to nepotism is a valid concern. A Family Business Australia survey concluded that more than 85% of business’ Next Generation felt family members should compete fairly with non-family employees for promotions and career opportunities.  

“I want employees to feel we’re working as a team,” Alan adds. “Whether family or not, it’s inconsequential,” he says. 

Richard agrees. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have some very talented employees join our business over the journey. They’ve helped us develop the business to handle risk and ensure that we’re in control of large and complex projects.” 

It’s clear Richard and Alan share the same sentiments - a visceral appreciation for their employees. Multiworks feels like a business that deeply values its people, and not just for the bottom line. There is a real sense of civility and family care. 

“The biggest thing we need to keep going is that everyone has a good attitude,” Alan says. “We want people to come to work and be happy … We try to treat the business as family ... If you’re struggling, put your hand up and we’re here to help, whether it’s personal or career.” 

Richard and Alan also align on their vision for Multiworks’ future. Australian Family Business Sector statistics state the average age of a family business firm is 32 years. With almost 20 years under their belts Richard and Alan look forward to seeing Multiworks’ continued expansion, including a larger workforce and more complex projects across multiple industry sectors. And with the benefit of hindsight they have refined their earlier ‘never say no’ approach, a little too! 

“Now, we’re more discerning about the work we go after,” Richard says. “We’re looking for the best clients and where the job is the right fit.”

Alan agrees. “We want the business to work, without being workaholics,” he says. “We used to overload ourselves, the business used to drive us, now we want it the other way round.”

“It’s more of an idea of working on, rather than in the business,” Richard adds.

While Richard flinches at any mention of retirement, he admits to enjoying a little more work-life balance these days. He describes himself as more of a mentor - available to the business for support and advice, but with the flexibility to come and go. And with Alan’s brother, Mark managing operations these days, Alan is under less pressure too. 

One thing’s for certain - both Richard and Alan would like to see the family-nature of the business continue. And with Alan’s three sons aged between 10 and 15, there just might be a few more Psaila’s at Multiworks yet.

‘If they do come in’ says Alan, ‘You want them to like what they do…we all have our ups and downs, but we want people to be happy. People have to feel like the company is open and that they are free to speak their mind … We want a business that gives that kind of flexibility.”

The Australian construction industry generates over $360 billion in revenue, producing around 9% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. Australian Construction Industry Forecasts project an annual growth rate of 2.4% over the next five years. 

In the context of the current pandemic uncertainty, the Australian Construction Industry Forum describes the industry as, “an engine powering Australia’s recovery.”  In fact, industry sectors such as electricity supply, water, and railways are expected to benefit from enlarged infrastructure delivery programs being rolled out by Commonwealth and State governments. 

This all looks positive for Multiworks’ ongoing expansion and success. Meanwhile … if you visit one of Multiworks’ project sites in Melbourne you might still find Alan operating machinery, just as he’s done all his working life.

“I’m not out there to be the boss,” Alan laughs. “At the end of the day, I’m a truck driver like everyone else.”  

Sources

  • KPMG and Family Business Australia Survey of Family Businesses 2009 (in conjunction with Bond University) 
  • The MGI Australian Family and Private Business Survey 2010 (in conjunction with RMIT University) 
  • The MGI Family and Private Business Survey 2006 (in conjunction with RMIT University) 4 KPMG and Family Business Australia Survey of the Next Generation of Family Business (in conjunction with Bond University) 
  • Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) - Australian Construction Market Report, May 2021