Zuccala Homes: process as well as product

Melbourne-based boutique design and construct residential builder Zuccala Homes has been a family-run business for over sixty years, priding itself on offering a flexible approach to building that values the process just as highly as the product.

Greg Zuccala is a registered builder and Director of Zuccala Homes. Mr Zuccala’s 35-year experience in the residential construction industry has included several years being actively involved with the Master Builders Association of Victoria, where he was President from 2012 to 2014. The Australian Business Executive spoke with Mr Zuccala recently to get his thoughts on the company’s difference to other developers on the market, his work with a number of national and regional bodies, and Zuccala’s commitment to offering a flexible design and build process to make sure customers’ unique needs are met.

Offering more flexibility

“My dad Vic started the business in 1957,” Mr Zuccala explains. “Shortly after he finished his apprenticeship as a carpenter, he strapped on his nail bag and went out and started building spec homes in metropolitan Melbourne.” This kind of building involves buying a block of land, designing and building a home to go on that land, and then proceeding to sell it. After a few years of building homes this way, the family’s burgeoning business began to change direction. “We started to build display homes in greenfield estates around residential Melbourne, and started to build house and land packages, whereby a customer would buy a block of land, or we would source one for them, and we would design a home on there for them.”

Today, the company views itself as more of a niche builder that provides customers with more flexibility than the average builder, allowing them to choose, modify or create a design from scratch, and giving each project a unique quality. “I’m pretty confident in saying not one of our homes is exactly the same as another,” Mr Zuccala says, “because each of our customers puts their own stamp on it, and we’re happy to allow them that flexibility.”

Zuccala Homes has been well recognised by the major industry bodies over the years, and has utilised its prominent position to become more involved with shaping the industry and helping it run more productively.

For Zuccala Homes, it is vital not just for the product to meet customer requirements, but for the process that the customer goes through to be one that allows them to get the very best quality and value for their money. “The customer has the flexibility to design that home to suit their needs, and be given the opportunity to choose the appropriate specifications to go in that home, and be aware of the appropriate specifications to go in that home.”

Equally important is that during the construction and administration parts of the process – from design through to contract, and from the build to the handover of the home – the company communicates regularly with customers to make sure they are always happy. “They have the ability or the opportunity to call us at any time and have a relationship with someone in our office, and also directly with their construction manager onsite. It’s important that we respect people’s requirement to ask questions.”

An element of the company’s ability to offer such flexibility comes from its relatively compact geographical footprint, which remains restricted to metropolitan Melbourne, and doesn’t stretch into regional Victoria. “We don’t have a large build area. We don’t do a big volume of homes. Our volume in the last few years has decreased, although our turnover’s probably increased. So that reflects the difference in the type of home that we’re designing and building now.” The company’s clientele has also changed a little in the last few years, with a shift from first-time buyer or affordable housing to more customised building of mostly larger homes that represent better value for money.

“People are requiring a lot more of their own input,” Mr Zuccala explains, “and special appliances, and special features, in their homes, and we’re doing a lot more of that than we’ve done previously.”

Today, the company views itself as more of a niche builder that provides customers with more flexibility than the average builder, allowing them to choose, modify or create a design from scratch, and giving each project a unique quality.

Working with industry bodies

Having been involved with industry groups in the sector for many years, Mr Zuccala has plenty of insight and experience into how the industry runs. His recent appointment on the Building Appeals Board in Victoria gives him further opportunity to make a difference. The board is a tribunal, similar to the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), but with a much narrower jurisdiction, dealing with building regulations, applications for modifications to building regulations, and appeals regarding building notices. “It’s run by the state government, and is composed of a number of industry professionals, such as myself, who run their own businesses. They are people like building surveyors, lawyers, engineers, planners and builders.”

Issues dealt with by the board tend to be building regulations that need to be changed by a builder or owner to suit their circumstances, a process which is allowed to happen if the Building Appeals Board finds it to be a fair and reasonable request. “One of the more topical things that comes across the board is the current fire cladding issue that’s on foot throughout the industry, and less recently there was the famous Corkman pub demolition.” The issue surrounding fire cladding started in Victoria a few years ago, when a high-rise residential block caught on fire. There followed an investigation into whether or not the exterior cladding was complaint with fire safety regulations.

“That’s an issue that’s being worked through by the state government, and the technical side of that is being heard from time-to-time through the Building Appeals Board. That affects not only Victoria, but also all the other states.” The Corkman Irish was a pub in Melbourne demolished by developers without a permit. The outcome was that the planning minister and the building surveyor issued orders for the developers to rebuild the property, as well as administering significant fines. “Those developers, under the Building Act, have the opportunity to appeal that decision at the Building Appeals Board,” Mr Zuccala explains. “So that was one of the things that they did.” Mr Zuccala’s role on the board sees him regularly joining a panel of other board members and hearing cases like these. Although the board sits biweekly, his involvement is closer to every 2-3 weeks, depending on the kind of cases that arise.

Zuccala Homes has been well recognised by the major industry bodies over the years, and has utilised its prominent position to become more involved with shaping the industry and helping it run more productively. “In the past we’ve won some awards at the Master Builders Association Housing Awards, and Housing Industry Association, but in recent times we haven’t applied so much for those. We’ve been focusing more on our participation in industry bodies.” In particular, Mr Zuccala’s work with the Master Builders Association of Victoria, including the national board of Master Builders Australia, and the Building Appeals Board, have been useful in helping the company attract new business.

“Rather than our products doing the talking for us, we’re focusing on our reputation in the industry, who we are and what we do for the industry and our experience in the industry. A lot of our business these days comes from referrals.”

Keeping pace with bigger firms

Interest rates are finally starting to rise a little in Australia, but Mr Zuccala believes they aren’t high enough yet to have any real impact on the industry. A more relevant issue is the lending behaviour of banks due to increased scrutiny of their practices. “What has affected the industry I think is the availability of finance, or the banks’ lending practices or criteria. That’s been tightening. That’s had already a significant effect on the industry in terms of the amount of credit that’s available out there.” Mr Zuccala admits that the company is able to avoid this issue a little, due in the most part to its customers being less concerned with affordability, many of them being second or third home buyers with equity in existing properties.

“The industry’s becoming more and more competitive. The bigger players, the volume builders in the market, are becoming more and more flexible these days. They’re building different sorts of products. They have big marketing budgets.” For smaller building firms, it has become vital to differentiate what is being offered in the market, to offer customers a value proposition. For Zuccala Homes, this means focusing on delivering a great process as well as product. “Who we are and how we do it is equally important as what we do. So we’re focused on our process, on communication and customer service, rather than just product alone. I think that’s an enduring point of difference that will see the smaller builder through.”

Zuccala’s real strength however is its longevity in the business, where it has amassed significant experience over more than sixty years in the industry, experience that is bound to see it continue delivering excellent service well into the future.

Find out more about Zuccala Homes by visiting www.zuccalahomes.com.au.