Ron Anderson by Karen Phelps
Ron Anderson’s CV is testament to his belief that if you put your mind to it you can do almost anything. Founding Director of Arrow International Ltd he is currently also Director and shareholder in a long list of companies including Long Plastics Ltd, Long Plastics Australia Limited, Vision Development Ltd, Taylor Equipment Ltd, Arrow International Australia Limited, Arrow International Limited, Apollo Projects Limited and Long International Limited. In addition he has competed in the Southern Traverse eleven times and the grueling Coast to Coast eight times. When I ask the 54-year-old Anderson if he is ‘superman’ he replies with typically dry Southland wit:
“Oh you need to get a photo of me probably, I look about 90.”
One wonders though if the rigors of running so many different businesses did start to take their toll. In 2002 Anderson exchanged his CEO role for Chairman and Hugh Morrison was appointed Managing Direct of Arrow International New Zealand and Australia - a move that one would presume did not come easily considering Arrow is essentially Anderson’s ‘baby’.
“As it grew Arrow demanded more time than I could give it. It’s been difficult for me but it was time for someone else to take over the job. And it’s been the best thing we could have done; we probably should have done it before we did.”
Since it was established in 1984 Arrow International has become a leader in the field of capital projects from development planning and strategic management through to project and construction management. Arrow now employs 180 people in six branches across New Zealand and Australia and turnover exceeds $100m annually.
Two areas broadly define Arrow’s services: Strategy Management (taking a capital works related opportunity or problem from business planning, through strategy development and analysis, to the production of a development plan or concept plan) and Delivery Management (encompassing project management and construction management, this takes a project from a development or concept plan to a commissioned facility).
The strength of Arrow has always been its unique approach to business in the property and construction industry based on an open book policy, trust and relationships. The aim has been to go head on with the big boys (Fletchers, Mainzeal etc) but not get into competition with them on the lowest price.
“There is no one in the industry of our size that can say they have 100% negotiated work. We have completed 55 projects for one client. When I set out to do something I do it - come hell or high water. When I promise a client we will deliver something if they live up their side of the bargain I make sure we deliver our side. Like when you are up the side of a mountain it [Arrow] was either going to work or we were going to die.”
This ‘do or die’ attitude is something Anderson grew up with during his childhood at Taiaroa near the entrance to the Otago harbour. It was, he says, a time of immense freedom spent roaming the hills and climbing the cliffs round the albatross and seal colonies. Already significant was the combination of outdoors activities and building, as the local kids would gather to light campfires and play in the contraptions Anderson had built.
Anderson admits he always had a “mad passion to be a builder”. A tool kit given by his parents to Anderson when he was about seven years old was immediately rejected as being sub-standard.
“I biffed it and took my father’s tools, borrowed some timber and started to build all manner of contraptions – huts, pole houses. My father had to eventually follow me and pull them all down because most of them were an eye sore.”
Attending school at Otakau Marae while the other kids were content to carve fish, Anderson would embark on complex full size Maori designs, which he later sold as people began to enquire if they could order them.
It was in his late teens that Anderson started designing and building houses. He built his first house on the cheap when he was just twenty, which he still lives in with his wife Elizabeth with sporadic visits from his three children – Victoria (32), David (28) and Richard (30), who works for Arrow organizing the adventure races.
Straight out of school Anderson began working with a builder whose workmanship was simply not up to Anderson’s standards. But there was one company that did impress him with its tidy well-run sites – Fletchers. He promptly knocked on the door and was taken on as a cadet. By the age of 30 he was manager of Fletchers Special Projects division.
“At the time I never thought the challenges were big enough but when I look back and realise how young I was I know they could only push me so far.
“I was still seen up in Auckland as some sort of ‘tea boy’ though. I remember I once faxed up an idea telling them about a fantastic opportunity and that we should advance. They misread it and the reply came back – ‘what does that tea boy want to go to a dance for?’ I soon realized that because I was so young no one really understood or was interested in what I was doing.”
When Bob Foster (later to become co-founder of Arrow) turned up at Fletchers Anderson recognized a kindred spirit and the two regularly threw on backpacks and took off for the great outdoors. Over the years the adventures increased in both size and nature until the two were participating in premiere endurance events such as the Southern Traverse and Coast to Coast. Anderson says the respect and trust created from such challenges helped the pair forge a strong relationship.
“A lot of people have said you can’t do what you are doing, running so many different businesses on the basis of a partnership such as ours - but it works.”
Although Anderson says both were happy at Fletchers it was the desire for a business built solely on negotiated repeat work, relationships and trust that led the pair to start Arrow International Ltd in Dunedin in 1994. It was not exactly a recipe for success – the pair had no money, no work, no office and no business experience. Arrow International was set up with an old $200 typewriter and $450 worth of second hand furniture. He admits building a multi-million dollar business on the smell of an oily rag and a good old-fashioned handshake has not been easy.
“It was pretty scary. I remember taking my little children aside and getting things off my conscience telling them things might be tough as I was starting this business and I might not be able to buy them any Christmas presents.”
The pair sat waiting for wonderful things to happen but it was six months before the phone rang and they got their first job as project and construction managers for an office building. The success of that project led to more work as people started to notice the Arrow flag hung up at sites. The business grew on average about 20% per year spreading throughout the country and then to Australia. Bob relocated to Christchurch while Anderson remained in Dunedin.
Today Arrow has earned a reputation for building incredibly quickly and often in difficult circumstances such as re-building the Hermitage Hotel Mt Cook during winter. Arrow has now completed more than 750 projects ranging from complex strategic planning exercises, to multi-million dollar construction programmes. The company has been recognised for its successes across a broad range of sectors: commercial and public buildings; transport and infrastructure projects; unique recreational facilities and purpose built educational institutions; world-class resorts; and environmental projects.
For Anderson highlights over the years have largely been projects, which combine his love of building, the outdoors and sport such as the protection and restoration of historic huts in Antarctica, rebuilding and refurbishment of huts on the Milford Track and working on the Sydney 2000 Olympics Rowing venue.
“Logistically these projects are challenging. You can’t just go down the road and buy a box of nails. When we solve the problems together with the client in these kinds of environments you can’t help but build relationships together.”
But the most challenging project Arrow has been involved in was project management for the Antarctic Project for Kelly Tarlton’s in Auckland where, among other things, Arrow had to import penguins into the country. A premiere New Zealand Institute of Building Award recognized the company’s efforts.
Current projects include a $70m hospital for the Southland District Health Board, the re-development of Dunedin International Airport, the luxury Moonlight Lodge in Queenstown (which daughter Victoria has helped her parents Ron and Elizabeth build and develop) and the recently finished Eastgate Shopping Centre in Christchurch.
Astonishingly some business deals are still sealed with a handshake and no written contract. A risky procedure and Anderson admits that on the odd occasion he has been let down:
“There’s a whole mixture of people out there and there are some we shouldn’t have worked for. Generally the people who have worked with us know us, trust us and believe in our integrity. They know how we perform and what we can achieve. Because we are good friends with our clients the friendship and hand shake with which we start each project is far more motivational than any [written] contract. To lose the respect and friendship we have with our clients would be for us the worst thing that could happen.”
Enthusiasm, communication, the outdoors and fitness are hallmarks of Arrow. From triathlons to the way people work together on a day-to-day basis, there is a philosophy of being active and goal driven. It is a distinct company culture and is best demonstrated in events such as the Arrow 24 Hour Endurance Race, which is open to the general public to enter. Arrow International was recognised at this year’s Multisport Awards, managed by Sportzhub, winning two awards for the 2003 Series – ‘Best Corporate Sponsor’ and ‘Best Value Adventure Event’. Anderson says the race helps him build relationships with his own clients and staff.
“The team that plays together stays together. Some of the results are exceptional.”
Work hard and play hard is a personal philosophy for Anderson:
“Sometimes I work exceptional hours but then I start to yearn for a break in the mountains. It’s about leading a balanced lifestyle.”
Although Anderson still oversees some of Arrow’s strategic projects, he intends to keep directing all the other companies in the Arrow Group.
“It’s been an enormous challenge. The secret to our success and the strength of our company is that our clients and employees are close friends. It’s not a boring industry and never plain sailing. It’s a challenge every day trying to cope with weather, time frames, budgets, getting materials. You’ve got to love the industry otherwise it would probably get to you.”