Some people might find the prospect of working with family the best thing while others might think it’s the worst. For Christopher Schiavello, it took a while to get used to the idea. After a few years as a resistant young adult in retail and hospitality jobs, he eventually came around to it.
His father and uncle established Schiavello, today a top property and construction company, in 1966. Now in its second generation of leadership with his cousin Peter as Managing Director, Christopher was always involved in some way from a young age.
“My parents always taught me that you never really get school holidays, you spend most of those working on the factory floor,” he recalls. “I was always involved, but I never had strong feelings towards coming to work for the business as an adult.”
After travelling and working overseas, Christopher decided to come back to the business. “I decided that I was going to come back now that I had more life skills and experience around what’s important to the customer – because you learn that firsthand in hospitality. I knew that I could add more value to the family business.”
Just before his 21st birthday, Christopher started in the business as a cadet, working his way through operational project management roles to the strategic role of director. He says there are many traits from his family that he has carried into the business, including their open-mindedness.
“I’m not hierarchical,” he explains. “My experience in operational roles, and being hands on, contributes to the creative thinking I have today. It makes you realise that the best ideas can come from anywhere in the business, no matter what title you hold. It is why we have an open-door policy. It is something that my uncle and father have always held true to – creating working environments that foster creativity is how you attract the best people.”
He has learned from his family to treat everyone equally and with respect. “One of our biggest family values is respecting each other, and to have empathy. This attitude extends to not just our employees, but our clients and contractors as well.”
Christopher has never considered himself a builder, but says he is in the business of customer service. “I didn’t get into the building industry because I love Lego, steel and concrete,” he says.
However, the most satisfying part of the job for him is understanding a client’s needs and motivations, and being able see them happy after a completed project.
“We’re lucky because we get some amazing clients, and building a physical environment is just a piece of the bigger picture. For example, they’re building something because they have a strategy behind it. A university will spend time building a new facility or research centre because they have aspirations. That facility could represent world-leading innovation, which could create global change, and we get to enable that.”
Christopher is ambitious, and always tries to push the boundaries of creativity. He tells his staff to never be afraid to come up with an idea. “You should always promote free thinking, which I believe is something every company should encourage,” he says.
“If you want to get the best people working in your organisation, you need to give them an environment so that they can perform at their best. This means challenging and supporting them at the same time.”
Schiavello Group offers a supportive environment, which Christopher attributes to being a family business. “The notion of family for us means thinking about relationships in the long-term, looking out for each other and everybody’s best interests,” he explains.
“We treat our clients like family. We bring them on board and try to understand and support their ambitions. We treat them like people we’d love to do business with again and again.”
“We treat our clients like they're family.”
As an energetic and passionate leader, Christopher encourages others to be the same, and believes this comes through creating inclusive environments where people can bring their best self to work.
“We have a great diversity of people in our business who offer different perspectives and experiences,” he says. “To achieve an energetic business, you need to have an element of inclusiveness, take people for their merits and give them a supportive environment so they can thrive.”
Christopher firmly believes in an inclusive and diverse environment. As a gay man in the construction industry, he says it’s essential to accept everyone and never judge. “We don’t judge people on anything, including race, religion or gender,” he explains. “That is something I’m proud we have in our business, and stems from our migrant heritage.”
He sits on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Property Council of Australia. As business leaders, he and the committee want to change business from the top. “It’s an interesting space to be in because we have conversations about creating environments that are supportive of those who are under-represented, such as women,”
“To me, you need to be accepting of everyone, or you’re not accepting at all. Given my background of being a gay male, I can understand that some people would have packed up and left the property and construction industry because they didn’t feel comfortable being themselves.”
Christopher got involved with the committee because he believed if there are gay people in the industry, or about to enter the industry, he could be a beacon to them. “I wanted people to see that there are leaders in the space who are gay, and that your career shouldn’t be limited by the things that make you unique. The property and construction industry is far-reaching across many areas – builders, designers, subcontractors, lawyers,” he continues.
“We still have a long way to go because what plays out in an office is only one aspect of it. We’re making sure that the message filters down to our suppliers and contractors as well, so we can make real change.”
“We’re making sure that the message filters down to our suppliers and contractors as well, so we can make real change.”
A believer in leading by example, Christopher acts out what he expects from his team. “You can’t sit distant from it and tell them to do one thing while your actions say something completely different,” he says. “I think consistency and setting an example is imperative.”
He also believes in the power of empathy. “Along with the open-door policy, sometimes it’s about making sure that your staff can come and talk to you openly about the challenges they face,” he explains. “We live in a connected world where the lines are blurred between work and personal life, yet we expect so much from our employees.
“The reality is, stuff happens – for example, struggles with mental health. Whatever happens in people’s lives, we need to be understanding and help and support them through it.”
This care also extends to the company’s clients, something in which Christopher’s father and uncle have set a precedent. “You could ring them about anything,” he says.
"Even if they didn’t know about the project, clients could call them and they would get involved, ultimately because they care about the client. We genuinely do care about the outcome we give to the client, and about creating relationships beyond projects,” he adds.
“We always aim to go above and beyond so that the next time they have a project, we’re the first partner to come to mind. What underpins our success is that we always have a customer-centric attitude.”
Schiavello Group doesn’t just get the job done; it aims to establish a relationship for life. “I think it probably comes down to being a family business,” Christopher explains. “We aren’t a startup. We can’t just disappear tomorrow. I think our name on the door is a level of accountability because when somebody says something bad about the company, they’re effectively saying something bad about you.”
What’s more, Schiavello Group has never forgotten where it came from. “We’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Christopher adds. “We don’t take our people for granted and, most importantly, we never take the client for granted.”
Although it’s an established company, Christopher jokes that it’s “53 years young” because it’s continually evolving. “Customer service and satisfaction drive home with our values because, without our customers, we’re nothing,” he says.
“And it doesn’t matter how old you are. We’re always pushing our business to change, adapt and never become complacent. We want to be at the forefront of everything within the industry.”
“We’re always pushing our business to change, adapt and never become complacent.”
Christopher believes that the moment you think that you know everything and you stop learning, is the moment that you should be afraid. “There are always other people out there who are hungrier than you, who will take you from being first to even non-existent, in some cases.
“As a leader, you do need to have a level of ambition, be open to learning constantly and be agile in making decisions.” The company is always on the lookout for what is changing in the industry, and Christopher reflects on how much the company has evolved.
“What we do today is not what we did 53 years ago,” he assures. “If I were to say to my dad and uncle, ‘Is this the business that you envisaged it would be 53 years ago?’, their response would be, ‘You’d never be able to predict that’. Having an open mind and being able to adapt quickly is essential.”
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