A buildher Building Tale...
She's a buildHer & a DevelopHer - hello Karen Roebuck
Karen Roebuck (from Kadabra Group – a Victorian-based building company) didn’t start out as a builder. In episode 12 of Building with BuildHer, Karen talks of her entry into the building world from an unlikely origin in accounting and marketing; her career-change prompted by the joy and satisfaction she drew from project managing her own family home. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Daniel (a young carpenter in her employ), would become her business partner, creating a partnership lasting now 15 years and spanning high-end Victorian terraces to modern apartments.
Join Karen and Building with BuildHer’s Rebeka as they discuss the challenges and experiences Karen has faced, along with their much-needed empathy for clients surveying their works-in-progress.
If you have a topic or question you’d like us to cover, contact us here.
SOME TOPICS THAT WE COVER:
Karen’s origin story
Understanding what the client really wants, and how to achieve that
Being open and honest to maintain a healthy client/builder relationship
How to deal with clients that can’t visualise the end-product
Managing client site-visits in a way that is constructive and helpful for everyone
Gender roles in project management and the strengths it affords
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Read the Full Podcast Transcript Below:
Rebeka: Hello, lovely BuildHers. Today, we have an amazing and inspiring woman. We have Karen Roebuck from Kadabra Group. She's a builder with her business partner, Daniel. They do amazing houses. She shares her journey from how really renovating and developing her own home became a passion for building and creating a business out of that, and how she was able to follow her dream and her career path after already having a career in marketing and accounting. I hope you enjoy it as much as me. I find her incredibly inspiring. I am just so pleased that she has taken the time out of her busy schedule to have a chat with us today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Rebeka: Hi, I'm Rebeka.
Kribashini: I'm Kribashini.
Rebeka: Welcome to Building with BuildHer.
Kribashini: Our podcast, we believe that building is fun.
Rebeka: Super fun.
Kribashini: So much fun.
Rebeka: BuildHer Collective was created to help women with building and renovating. We believe that with the right tools, everyone can build. For us, it's all about encouraging women to take back control of the building process and really achieve their dreams.
Kribashini: We have women in the building industry, and as developers, builders and project managers, it's our passion to share everything we know with other women doing the same. That's why we've created this podcast for you.
Rebeka: If you love all things building.
Kribashini: You're into design.
Rebeka: Keen on the numbers.
Kribashini: About to renovate.
Rebeka: Thinking and dreaming of that forever home and what it would look like or even developing for profit, then you found your family.
Kribashini: Subscribe to our podcast and follow our journey over at buildhercollective.com.au.
Rebeka: Today, I am honoured to have Karen Roebuck from the Kadabra group. She is one half of a building company, an amazing builder, developer. Actually, a complete inspiration to myself, and I'm sure you by the end of finishing this. I found her story super interesting. I'd love to have a chat about that. Can you have a chat maybe about how you got started as a builder because that wasn't your initial choice of career?
Karen Roebuck: No, not at all. Accounting and then marketing was my background. I started doing a renovation at my family home back in 2005. Project managed that, which was great, and got to know one of the young carpenters on site. He was looking to go out on his own. I had a couple of projects that I was wanting to then move forward with. We teamed up and did a couple of projects together, which was really good. He helped me with doing--
Long story short, my mum went into a nursing home so I had to fix up her house. He was the one who worked with me on doing that. We did a couple of others and then people kept saying to us, "This seems to be working really well for you two. Why don't you do this? Make it into a more formal business?" We did.
Rebeka: That's really amazing. Now, it's quite an established-- It's been going for-- Where are we now?
Karen: 15 years later. '05 we met. We started the business in '07.
Rebeka: You had young kids at that point, right?
Karen: High school kids.
Rebeka: You were working as an accountant or marketing or you were out of the workforce?
Karen: No, I was out. I did casual work but not full-time work, no.
Rebeka: Perfect. Doing up your house, that was like a passion project? That was just you renovating?
Karen: For sure. Yes. We had bought our forever home, I suppose. I didn't want the architect to project manage my build. I was like, "No, I will do it. I will do the interiors, and you can design it, and then I take it over." The builder we had loved that as well. He, like lots of builders, prefers to deal with the clients.
It's great having some architects and interior designers and everybody, but sometimes you get too many people in the pie. The builder we found was really happy to deal with me and have all the others as consultants. It became my baby, and it became my full-time job for a year, I suppose to get that finished in amongst living in the house in two rooms while we did it as well.
Kribashini: Yes, which is a good experience, I think?
Karen: Yes, which is the way I learnt actually everything that goes on.
Rebeka: I have to say that's a fairly similar setup to what we did. That, wanting the architect to design the space, but then wanting to have like - this
is your dream, this is your home - having that control and that input over every detail.
Karen: Yes, I wanted to be the one that made those final decisions, not the architect, which I did, which was great.
Rebeka: Did you always have a love of property or a flare for it or were you just drawn to it on your house?
Karen: We did our first renovation when I had a brand new baby which, of course, like lots of people do, had our first test. [laughs]
Rebeka: They go hand-in-hand, don't they? [laughs]
Karen: You ought to have a baby or renovate a house, yes. We finished that. We did that as an owner-builder for our first house. We were at lockup for our eldest daughter's first birthday. We had a first birthday party with extension leads and spotlights in our house so that's where it started.
Rebeka: Perfect. It's good for them to learn to walk around those things. [laughs]
Karen: That's what she did.
Rebeka: From there, you did that. Then you had a couple of projects, so your mum's house and, when did you do a development?
Karen: We did mum's. We did another house. Then we did two houses that we flipped for the business. Then we started doing dual-occ developments, that sort of thing probably in 2010 maybe, 2011.
Rebeka: Talk to me about the process. You've done your own home that's taken a year, which is probably what a renovation of a home should take to be fair when you get through the details. Then you've done your mum's straightaway afterwards because that timing just worked out?
Karen: Yes, that was just timing.
Rebeka: It's that flick to the next project. Was that something you'd already had on the--
Karen: No, not all. Our next would have been we bought an old beach house. We did some renovation work on that, so that was probably where we moved to next.
Rebeka: That was your own home or was that--
Karen: That was ours.
Rebeka: That was your own home?
Karen: Yes. Those were the two that we did the two of us too, and then to find our fate I suppose whether it was going to work or not. Then we bought a property in Greenwood as a business.
Rebeka: You and the-
Rebeka: -carpenter, Daniel?
Karen: Yes. That's when we formalised the business.
Rebeka: Your agreement.
Karen: Did that, renovated that place, sold that, bought another one in Mitcham, did that.
Rebeka: And off you went.
Karen: Then moved on to-- Yes, started-- They were just more cosmetic renovations, the first ones, and then we moved on to doing dual-occs, knockdowns, and dual-occs then we did a few of them and then ended up with people contacting us, "Will you do--" I went like, "Client work?" We had never done any client work before. From then on, we've done a bit of both.
Rebeka: Yes, finding your feet. That's an interesting progression, isn't it? If you do something well, and you've done it well because you're doing it for yourself, you're learning on those flips. When you were doing those initial feasibilities, was that a scary thing or were you really confident in your numbers, were--
Karen: No, it was scary because I hadn't done it before. It was like even saying to my husband, "This is what I want to do." We'd always been in business before. That side of it wasn't an issue, but it was like “get it done, buy something, do it” and hopefully, we make money out of it. No. A big learning curve along from that side of things along the way.
Rebeka: I like it because I think the thing is everyone starts somewhere, looking at you now you've got big developments on the go. What have you got on the go now?
Karen: We're just about to finish an old Victorian terrace major renovation in East Melbourne, and then our first-year apartment build in Richmond.
Rebeka: Which we've been through, it was pretty impressive.
Karen: We're at the plaster stage now.
Rebeka: It's getting closer.
Kribashini: It's looking like a building now, it is.
Karen: From where we started to now, it's been a--
Kribashini: How many apartments have you got in that one?
Karen: Five plus the original house.
Rebeka: Plus the house. You could say that's quite a big costly build?
Karen: Very, yes, which is mine.
Rebeka: That's quite a progression from-
Karen: Buying a little house or doing a deck for someone, yes.
Rebeka: -buying a little house and-- Which is amazing because I think that's the thing, it's easy to look at someone now and go, "I could never do that because I wouldn't have the funds to do that." You've got to realize you start somewhere and ease this progression and you learn.
Karen: 12 years down the track. We've learnt a lot along the way.
Rebeka: I guess you're also learning to work together. What part of the business does Daniel manage and what part do you manage?
Karen: He's the construction manager. He runs the sites from the trades point of view, and then I run the business side.
Rebeka: Business marketing clients?
Karen: Clients, interiors.
Rebeka: Funding. [chuckles]
Karen: Yes, all of that.
Rebeka: Funding is so fun.
Karen: We cross over in some things, obviously, now after all this time, I know a lot more about what goes on on-site. He runs the actual build.
Rebeka: Up to how many projects would you have on at one time?
Karen: Probably only four, say two or three major ones. Then we do, like at the moment, we've also got a bathroom renovation happening. We've just finished another house renovation. We've got a new wardrobe for someone. We'll pick up things like kitchens, bathrooms, all that sort of stuff as well as the big ones.
Rebeka: It's nice to have that kind of flow through as well because building ebbs and flows. I don't know about you. I find building ebbs and flows.
Karen: For sure.
Rebeka: You've got kinks. You build and--
Karen: You've got to try and-- We've got stuff. We've got to try and keep them doing something, so we need to try and you pick up those little things to fill in the gaps as well, which a lot of people got, "We didn't realize you did that." Because they now think we only do big things because I had--
Rebeka: That's what you document after a while because it's all you can get. [laughs]
Karen: No, we're more than happy to do it. We do lots of things that I know most of our guys are trained in. That's what they find our chippies on-site from where to go. They know how to do a whole lot of things.
Rebeka: For those of you who probably aren't aware, you've got chippies that you've got all-rounders, and you've got framing, fixing, form working. You've got very specific chippies, so a framing chippy will get a frame up really quickly, but they're really going to struggle with the detail on a fix. That's how sometimes you don't get amazing finishes if you use the wrong type of carpenter to do the wrong job. That complicates it, but that's really the reality of it. You've got to get really good at honing what people's skill sets are.
Karen: For sure. We find that with even our carpenters that we have on-site. Some are great. Their skills are different. They're all great carpenters, but some of them have different things or things they are passionate about, so that makes them love to do that part of it.
Rebeka: Yes, and I think that's the same as really any type of person. You've got people that are great at detail and really want to get stuck into that job. You've got people that are great at moving through the quick- like the bigger picture jobs, so you're marrying people. That's a lot of what a builder's doing, is marrying the right trades to-
Karen: What the job is.
Rebeka: -the right project, so everything does run smoothly. On the client-face, it's very organized and easy, but at the back end, you're pulling people in and pulling them out. I guess you've got that depth of people that you work with now, right?
Karen: Yes, we just try and get the same going. We use all the same external trades. We don't have any plumbers, electricians, any of those guys on staff. There are surveys that we use the same ones for every job.
Rebeka: You built up that really good rapport, that good team, and that good pricing structure, so everyone knows where they sit. What have you found the most exciting part of this career-change, move, and way of life?
Karen: I suppose with the transformation even though I've done my own projects, now doing some client jobs, it's what a client actually thinks at the end. We finished up last year, a total renovation for-- Was it a 15-year old volume- built home that they-- I won't name names, but they did say, "Can you take the X out of the house?" It started off as I went to see them, they wanted just a kitchen renovation. That's what they wanted initially. It then turned into a full house renovation once we got involved with them.
Rebeka: 15 years isn't old?
Rebeka: I guess there's a way that things are built that is maybe more timeless and there is a way then it's going to need refurbing sooner.
Karen: Yes, they said it was great, because we started off thinking it was the smallest job, then by the time we got involved with them, it became a total house renovation and they love it.
Rebeka: That's the thing. I don't know about you, but I find that with our clients, it's how do you take something that's fairly standard and put your mark on it, make it individual or personal? I think that's what they were doing. They were really creating their home.
Karen: Turning it into their home, exactly.
Rebeka: That's quite a lovely journey to be on with someone.
Karen: That's what I said, that's what I like, and for them to be able to get exactly what they want. The guys build it, but that's where I like to deal with the clients and make sure they get what they want.
Rebeka: Yes, and it's nice to have that interface because you've got that understanding of what they're trying to achieve.
Karen: Yes. We've just finished or just about to finish one of my best friends' homes.
Rebeka: Ooo [laughs]
Karen: Exactly and everybody said to me, "You cannot do that, you will lose your friend." I haven't.
Rebeka: Well, that's a testament to the way you build and the way you communicate.
Karen: We said that we were very open, and she said, "Well, who else am I going to ask to do it? What am I going to do? Go and find another builder and you just watch somebody else build my home that you're going to be in every week?"
Rebeka: Yes, and that's a really funny thing, I agree, a lot of people wouldn't want to muddy that relationship because the client-builder relationship is a really delicate relationship. Have you got any tips for people, either hiring a builder and the way to manage that? Or from a builder's perspective, how do you manage the client relationship?
Karen: Open and honest, and that's why I said with this job, that's why we are still friends.
Rebeka: Proactive maybe?
Karen: Yes, be very upfront, both of you, the client and the builder. That is our motto. We are very open and honest with all our clients. There's nothing hidden. Because I started off as a client, that's the way I treat clients. If I was the client, what would I want to know? How would I want things done? That's the hat I wear. That's the builder hat.
Rebeka: That's really nice as well because it's got that personal interface, that understanding behind it. This is where I see a lot of relationships with builders go murky is where the client is asking a question, and the builder thinks they're being attacked, or the builder's putting forward a solution and the client thinks that they're being taken advantage of.
Karen: Yes. Obviously, we've been through both of those.
Rebeka: Yes, everyone would. [chuckles]
Karen: We did a small reno in an apartment a few months ago, and it was a young couple who had never done any type of renovating before. She kept calling me and going, "I'm really sorry to keep calling you, but I've never done this before." I just said, "Call me as many times as you want." She said, "You need to hold my hand because we don't know what we're doing." We said, "That's fine, just we will help you every step of the way."
Rebeka: That's the thing, it's a lot of money that people are outlaying, so having that, with that lens, from the builder's perspective, it's kind of, "We need to get through this quickly because we need to pay the trades. We want to get a good finish," but from the client's perspective, you're in their home, you're ripping things apart, and you're making a mess. [laughs]
Karen: They don't know how it's going to end.
Rebeka: They don't know how it's going to end. Sometimes they can't read the plans very well, so they've got faith, but they can't visualize what they're going to get at the end.
Karen: That's what I find all the time. People can't visualize. They're like, "I don't know what this is going to look like."
Rebeka: How do you deal with that?
Karen: I think it's good for people like that if they can get renders done through 3D, so they can actually get-- Especially kitchens and bathrooms, a lot of people I deal with go, "I don't know--" They don't want to look at a mood board with tiles and a colour sample, and the rest because it doesn't mean anything to them. They'll need to see it put up there.
Rebeka: There are a few great services that you can get now, so you can get people to do renders, but you can also get people that will project the plans on the floor and on the walls-
Karen: Yes, so they can literally walk through their home.
Rebeka: -so they can walk through it because it's scary. Do you let clients on-site?
Rebeka: Some builders do. Some builders don't, and it's--
Karen: Supervised and organized visits.
Rebeka: Which I actually think is better for the client and for the builder, because going there every day doesn't really help solve the need of what you're trying to achieve. [laughs]
Karen: No. We're happy to have weekly or fortnightly visits, whatever they want, or at other times, if they really want to come and look at something, then that's fine. No, we certainly don't restrict access as long as it is with a staff member on-site.
Rebeka: Yes, and there are safety reasons for that.
Karen: Exactly. That's why.
Rebeka: There's also, if you don't understand what you're looking at, it can be more confusing, so that visualization process, there are phases through the job where the rooms look really small, and where they look really big.
Karen: Yes, and that's what I find clients comment on all the time going, "It's so tiny," and then we say, "Wait until this happens."
Rebeka: Because especially when you put the site down, you're like, "Oh my god, we're living just in this?" [chuckles] Like, "Yes. It's going to be fine. It's a big house. Don't worry."
Karen: Yes. When we put some walls up--
Rebeka: Those adjustments along the way that you make, you're like, "Oh my god." That knee jerk reaction that sometimes people want to do, it's good to have a bit of perspective to run a site.
Karen: Yes, and I think it's good to have someone on-site with them who can give them the answers, because if they were just to walk around the site, as you said if they don't understand the build, they're going to think, "Why does this look like this?" They need someone who can actually answer their questions.
Rebeka: Yes. You're part of the BuildHer community. You're a developer. You're doing your own projects. Why did you make that step?
Karen: It's a great thing to have a bunch of women in the industry. I love to meet any female in the industry, or if I can help anybody that wants to end up where I am.
Rebeka: Yes, and I think that's really amazing because I think we were speaking about that yesterday. I didn't know any female builders before we started BuildHer, we had DevelopHer, and now there's-- you're a female builder, and there's a number of us that are all working in this space and can provide services to clients, but also do our own developments, learn and lean on each other as well.
Karen: I think females I find too, especially in our business, the two of us look at things from a different perspective. Even when we first started out, and we were doing designs, I'd say things that I would say as a female, that he didn't think about and the same thing, so you end up often with better designs and better outcomes having different heads. As you said, the majority of builders are men so to add that female brain.
Rebeka: Yes, and I think we were talking yesterday also about the fact that it's not just you. It's you and Daniel your partner and together, you're stronger. Together you have two perspectives and you've got different design outcomes. A lot of the people that I know are the same. Like I'm the same. It's not just me, it's myself and John and Jess from Chamberlain Property. It's not just Jess, it's Jess and Matt.
Together you've got a more well-rounded business. I, a lot of times, find it, say, a partner as well as in life and business. I liked the fact that you were chasing your vision. You came from a different background, you found you were really good at something and you had this great relationship with this, and he's a little bit younger than you, right?
Rebeka: [chuckles] Younger carpenter and together you formed a business, which was able to then service customers and build your own developments and chase a career. I think that's really beautiful.
Karen: Yes, it's great.
Rebeka: And gutsy. [laughs]
Karen: Yes, like you, I had a husband who said, "Yes, go for it."
Rebeka: Yes and that's the other thing. It takes a lot of family support to build.
Karen: Yes, we were already in business at the time, my husband and I, so then to take on something else.
Rebeka: Yes. I really think. Thank you so much for talking to us. I guess if you are interested in finding out more about what Karen does, you can-- What's your website again?
Rebeka: Kadabra.com.au. So that's K-A-D-A-B-R-A.com.au. If you're part of the inner circle or if you are interested in being a developer, we actually have a video series that we are doing with Karen as well where she helps outline how that process works. If you're interested in doing that or being a master builder, get in touch with us and we can talk you through the process of really the more women that we can support in the industry I think is-
Karen: Great. Awesome.
Rebeka: Yes. Thank you.
Karen: Thank you.
Kribashini: Thanks for listening to Building with BuildHer. We'd love for you to spread the word. For show notes, links and downloads and other resources and freebies, head to buildhercollective.com.au. Don't forget, that's BuildHer with an H-E-R.
Rebeka: If you enjoyed this episode, it would mean so much to both of us if you could take a minute or two to leave a review.
Kribashini: Don't forget to subscribe so you can listen next time as we talk all things building and women making a mark in the building industry.