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Success through innovation: Michael Hickinbotham

Michael Hickinbotham Managing Director of Hickinbotham Group

Hickinbotham Group Managing Director Michael Hickinbotham recognises that building a house is not the same as building a home – and it’s a distinction he has built his life and business around. Established in 1954 by his father, Chairman Alan David Hickinbotham, and grandfather, Alan Robb Hickinbotham, the business is an Australian success story. A leading and trusted company with a fine reputation for building South Australia’s best-value homes, the Group’s founding values and commitment to innovation, creativity, quality and value ring true to this day.

As the state’s largest and longest established building group, the family-owned company has built 40,000 homes (all with a 25-year structural guarantee), housed over 100,000 people, and developed more than 50 community estates. Michael promises that when you build with Hickinbotham, your dream home is in the best hands.

Michael Hickinbotham Managing Director Hickinbotham Group
Michael Hickinbotham, Managing Director of Hickinbotham Group

“Our overarching mission of improving lives makes us very different from some other corporations that exist solely to make money. We’ve been doing this for more than 60 years and our work is deeply meaningful to us,” Michael says.

After starting his career in corporate law at what was then Blake Dawson Waldron in Melbourne, Michael returned to South Australia in 1993 to continue the family legacy at Hickinbotham.

“Law provided me with a strong foundation in business and it equipped me with a disciplined and analytical mindset and a strong work ethic. However, it also made me risk-averse. The nature of business is that there is always some level of risk associated with it, so you have to understand it, manage it, and accept that you’ll never be able to completely eliminate it.

“So, it took a while for me to change the way I approached risk,” Michael explains. “I’m impatient by nature and I’ve had to bridle myself because business is all about being patient and playing the long game.

“Luckily for me our passionate team seems to thrive on my sense of urgency and, when we do decide to do something, we go for it and we do it as well as we can.”

Michael says his father Alan had always encouraged him to join the business alongside his older brother David – both of whom have seen great success at Hickinbotham. “I valued the opportunity to learn from them,” he recalls. “There have certainly been some challenges and tough times.” Michael recounts the State Bank disaster that hit the South Australian economy in the early 1990s.“I quickly realised that there was a very difficult road ahead for me and my brother to turn the business around.”

Michael Hickinbotham Managing Director Hickinbotham Group

Building from the ground up

Michael says the reason the business is back on track today is because it made a series of tough decisions during those early years. “We had to start over with a fraction of the people we previously had and we didn’t have the buying power or the resources we needed to grow. Instead, we focused on what was within our sphere of influence and perfecting our product and service – from design and construction, to our presentation, marketing, and customer service,” he explains. “Day by day, we started to solidify our position and created a strong foundation for growth.”

Such a major comeback is rare in the competitive property industry. “My father was a proud and talented man and he found it difficult to accept that Hickinbotham was in trouble,” Michael explains. “In hindsight, these challenges proved to be valuable lessons because they forced my brother and I to re-engineer the business and rebuild it person by person, block by block, department by department. We re-doubled our efforts on every front to ensure we could keep delivering for South Australians.

Doing things differently

To move ahead, for Hickinbotham – and South Australia as a whole – it was critical to embrace innovation. “In the mid 1990s, we were building a large residential development south of the city and it was clear that the community needed a school. When we approached the government, they agreed that a school was required but told us they didn’t have the money to fund it,” Michael recalls.

“So, Hickinbotham took the financial risk on the school and decided to design, build and lease the school back to the government. We financed the project and, in 1995, Woodend Primary received national publicity when it opened its doors as Australia’s first privately owned public school.”

Michael says the new school generated a lot of attention for Hickinbotham due to its rapid construction and non-institutional design. “We built the school so that if the government decided not to renew the lease in 15 years’ time, the building could be repurposed as an aged care facility or even a shopping centre. The students and their families and teachers all loved it, so we went on to build a number of schools,” he says. “This kind of innovation is engrained in our DNA and it speaks to our mantra of always looking outside the square and being clever about the way we do it.”

At about the same time, Hickinbotham took on the construction of St Columba College in Andrews Farm, which is adjacent to an area that had produced very few tertiary education graduates since World War II. “Neither the Anglican nor
the Catholic church could commit to a school at the time,” Michael explains. “We could see that children in this area desperately needed educational opportunities, so we brought the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops together and made a plan.

“We donated the land, we built the school and it’s now one of the largest schools in the state with around 1,400 students. I am proud of this school and our association with it has been deeply rewarding – it is full of wonderful stories of children who have been given the gift of a first-class education and have gone on to have successful lives.

“A big part of our organisation is community building, and if you walk into my office you’ll see the words ‘Improving lives’ in big letters on the wall, which is our core purpose,” Michael explains. “That is what we exist to do and we do it in all sorts of ways – from building beautiful homes and fantastic communities, to supporting local businesses and establishing schools, to sponsoring community groups, sporting teams and cultural organisations and funding scholarships for kids in high-need areas so they can get an education and fulfil their potential.”

Michael Hickinbotham Managing Director Hickinbotham Group

Liberty Estate

The Hickinbotham Group is also behind South Australia’s largest private residential development, Liberty, which will provide around 470 onsite construction jobs each year until at least 2036. The first stage of the project is part of the A$1.2 billion Two Wells township expansion, which will generate more than 3,000 jobs over the next 20 years and boost the local population from 2,500 to well over 10,000. Michael explains that the 400-hectare Liberty development is located just 45 kilometres north of Adelaide, next to its sister estate Eden, and aims to provide families with high-quality and affordable housing at all stages of life.

“We’re only 12 months in and the Eden development is already 30 per cent sold. The current demand is so strong that we’re selling three stages ahead of development – which is something rarely seen in the South Australian property market. Consisting of around 3,500 blocks, it’s in a regional area that is also close to the city, so it is the best of both worlds,” Michael explains. Surrounded by more than 50 hectares of natural parks and reserves, Liberty and Eden have been designed to fit organically within this natural landscape. “We’re proud there’s plenty of open space for kids to kick a ball or fly a kite and for families to thrive.”

To meet the needs of this growing community, Hickinbotham is working closely with the Lutheran Schools Association on a new Birth-to-Year 12 school in Two Wells. “With so many families living nearby, this school will be the focal point of Liberty Estate,” says Michael. “It already has 500 early registrations and, when it opens in 2020, I am confident it will be one of the best schools in South Australia. It will provide pathways to tertiary education in the areas of horticulture, viticulture and agriculture, which is exactly what that region and our state needs.”

Powered by people

Hickinbotham is one of those rare established businesses that has evolved with the times, while also remaining true to its beliefs. Michael credits this to the continued commitment of his family and his people. “I love that the business is both cerebral and practical; it’s about discovering innovative and creative new ideas, and engineering and organising the production process so we can provide fantastic value for the market,” he says. “When you combine this
all together, the end result is remarkable. I’m fortunate to be working with such a talented and passionate group of people – I’m blessed.”

Michael knows that the success of the business would not have been possible without his internal staff and external sub-contractors, suppliers and service providers. “I’m so proud that we’re able to create thousands of jobs across the state and help fuel the economy, all while building beautiful homes for people,” he explains. “Many of our subcontractors, engineers and service providers have been with us from the beginning, so a lot are second generation and some are even in their third generation. We see them as part of our family – they’ve played an important role in the organisation’s success in such a competitive environment.”

Michael says the family’s values underpin the organisation and are crucial to its ongoing success. “Above all, I believe in the concepts of innovation, creativity and value because it’s innovation and creativity that allow us to create value, and it’s the ability to offer superior value that underpins our success,” he explains. “These values are evident in the relationships we have with our staff, our subcontractors, our suppliers, our service providers and our clients – and it’s the reason our customers come back to us time and time again.”

Innovation in all things

Michael is proud to say that in its more than 60-year history, Hickinbotham Group has pioneered a long list of firsts within the Australian building industry. “We were the first company to build a display village here in South Australia, the first to have restrictive encumbrances on the felling of trees, and the first to utilise underground power and cable telephones for a housing estate. We also invented the Grillage Raft Footing System, which is now an industry standard and shared it with the industry, royalty free. Notably, we were also the first to capture storm water in wetland systems and inject it into aquifers for future re-use, rather than simply running it out to sea in concrete drains, which was the standard at the time,” he explains.

“My father, known for his innovation, came up with the idea and we partnered with the CSIRO, University of Adelaide, local government and Playford council and established the system and the technical underpinning – it’s now standard practice across Australia,” Michael remarks.

Michael says he and his team are constantly looking for better ways of doing things. “It doesn’t always have to be groundbreaking; it can be innovation in lots of small ways and, when you add it up, it means you get a better product, a better service and a better way of doing things. “I also believe that luck has been a big part of our success. Fortune favours the brave, as the saying goes, so you have to create your own opportunities and seize opportunities when they present themselves.”

In line with the launch of Hickinbotham’s new residential developments, including Eden and Liberty at Two Wells, Roseworthy and Seaford Meadows, Michael says he is always looking for areas of improvement. “We’ve been doing a lot of research into what makes a beautiful residential area – from the layout of the roads and the master planning of the homes, to the lovely landscaping and fantastic playgrounds,” he notes.

To better understand how to meet the needs of growing children, Michael consulted with Canadian researcher and Thinker-in-Residence Dr Fraser Mustard (1927–2011), who was a world leader in early childhood development and the benefits of learning through play.

“Together, we developed a modus operandi for our parks, gardens and playgrounds where children can have fun while learning, by taking risks and getting a little muddy at the same time. I know we got it right because every time we drive near any of our playgrounds, my kids make me stop the car so they can go and play,” Michael says.

Michael Hickinbotham Managing Director Hickinbotham Group

Industry improvements

While Michael is proud at the fast pace of Hickinbotham’s growth and developments, he believes the Australian planning system would benefit from an overhaul. “The planning system needs to be much more market responsive,” he argues. “One of the main reasons we have a housing affordability crisis in this country is because the system doesn’t allow the industry to respond to change in market demand quickly.

“It’s well known a lot of young people are having trouble getting into the housing market and when they do, it takes them years to pay off the mortgage because around 30–40 per cent of the value of a house or land is tax,” Michael adds. “It’s frustrating because many other advanced democratic countries don’t charge sales tax on new housing because housing is considered a necessity. Within the constraints that exist, Hickinbotham is always trying to come up with new and unique initiatives to help people get into the housing market.”

Michael isn’t afraid to admit that not all these initiatives are a success. “We are very market responsive, so more often than not we hit the mark. But sometimes we fail, and when we do, I accept it because I think if you’re not experiencing some failures, then you’re not pushing the envelope far enough; you’re not testing your limits, and you’re not growing. Some failure is healthy but luckily, our successes far outweigh our failures,” he says.

Michael reveals that one of the inherent downsides of being a market leader is the issue of imitation. “It’s a very competitive industry and we often find other builders infringe upon our intellectual property by copying our designs and marketing strategies, which is disappointing because we spend a huge amount of time and money on research and development,” he explains. “We use focus groups, we test the market, we gather input from everyone within the organisation, we talk to the buyers and architects, and then we reverse-engineer our homes to ensure they’re both solid and well-built as well as affordable.”

Rewarding work

Looking back on his career shift from law to property, Michael doesn’t regret making the move into the family business. “This job is incredibly rewarding. When I was a lawyer, I often felt as though I didn’t get to see the end results of my hard work,” he admits. “Now, every day I see the happy faces of people who take ownership of their beautiful new home as well as the fantastic communities we are creating”

Michael is determined to carry his family’s legacy forward, drawing on the leadership of his father, grandfather and brother before him. “I believe a good leader is someone who has a vision and cares deeply about their product, their company and their people. In my case, my overarching vision and mission is to improve the lives of the people we touch and have fun along the way – that’s what makes us different from a lot of other corporations that exist solely to make money. Our work is meaningful and that’s what excites us.”

Michael is a third-generation leader who is proud of his company’s past and optimistic about its future, and he hopes at least one of his children will find a passion equal to his at Hickinbotham Group. “I’ve been very lucky because I love my job – every day is a new adventure!”

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