Conal Dempsey started Dempsey Wood with friend Tony back in 1993. Since then the business has continued to grow with a firm focus on its people, becoming a key player in Auckland’s civil infrastructure scene.
In its early days, Dempsey Wood had just two staff and focused solely on foundation work. But Conal says he and Tony always saw it expanding into the civil engineering industry.
“We started in foundations with a view that it would be a good vehicle to move into civil – which is where we always intended on working. Being best mates, Tony and I had a level of trust, something I think is key when you’re starting a business together.”
Today, Dempsey Wood employs nearly 400 people. And, while it sits predominantly in the civil engineering space, the business encompasses a whole raft of disciplines – from land surveying to traffic management. One key point of difference is that the company operates a ‘self-performing main contractor model’, which means it can implement training that benefits both staff and company.
“Over the years we’ve bought a number of support businesses and developed them, rather than contracting aspects of the work out. We prefer to keep things in-house – it gives us more control, allows us to be more dynamic and adaptable to client changes, and helps us offer greater certainty of delivery. Supplementing our in-house capability is a suite of professional sub-contractors who have been on board with us for many years and whose businesses have grown alongside ours.”
Over the past 25 years, Dempsey Wood has worked on some of Auckland’s biggest projects – including the $39 million Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in New Lynn, the upgrade of Western Springs Stadium and the development of Hobsonville Point.
“Hobsonville Point was particularly exciting as it was about building a community,” Conal says. “We looked after the infrastructure, roading and subdivisions for the first stage, and we’ve since completed 80% of the subsequent development, comprising a community of around 4,000 homes. We’re really proud of it – it’s not only received international acclaim but is one of New Zealand’s most progressive densification projects.”
Today, a renewed focus on developing Auckland’s infrastructure, improving social housing and creating more affordable homes means things are only going to get busier for Dempsey Wood. But, regardless of how much they grow, Conal says the business will remain one that cares about its people.
“I’ve always been very hands-on at Dempsey Wood; I know our staff personally and the company is very family-focused. My door is always open and I think this creates the right attitude which filters through the company. Regardless of how busy we are, we make time for a chat and place value in the power of conversation.”
Conal’s road to Dempsey Wood began when he joined Unitec after high school. Six years later, in 1986, he graduated with a certificate in Land Surveying.
“I studied while working full time at land surveying company, Hollier & Associates – now Hollier Grieg. So my qualification wasn’t something I rushed! There are so many other things going on at that time of your life – you’ve got to live, have a social life, earn money. It can be a struggle to find time, but you do what you need to do to get there in the end. The great thing about Unitec was that I could attend night classes, so it fitted around my life and my work.”
Conal completed around two papers each year, while at the same time gaining a huge amount of on-the-job experience – something he believes is just as valuable as studying.
“I think real-life experience is key. The more work hours you get under your belt, the more the study makes sense. Unitec has a really practical approach to learning – incorporating real-life projects and placements. Because I was working, I could tailor what I was doing in the workplace to fit the practical requirements of the subject I was studying.”
Investing in a career
Conal worked for a number of different companies after graduating, including in Harrison Grierson’s vertical set out team, where he worked as a chainman, as part of Ports of Auckland’s hydrographic survey crew, as well as roles at Vuksich & Borich Civil Engineering and HEB Construction. He also spent time working and travelling overseas.
“I had quite a lot of varied experience under my belt before starting Dempsey Wood. I think it’s important to stay at a job for at least two years – so you can get the most out of the role and really develop yourself in that area.
“My main driver for starting my own business was job satisfaction: I felt like I was being undervalued for the work I was doing. It’s something I’m very mindful of with my own employees now – I want them to feel valued for the time and effort they put in. Having your own business certainly brings more satisfaction and control, but there’s no safety net – you take on a lot more risk and hard work!”
“My biggest advice to students would be to learn from your failures. When I was at Unitec I didn’t pass all of my exams the first time – but I’d always go back and do them again, and I believe I was better off for it! I’d actually nail it the second time around.
“Having a qualification is something you can really build upon. When I lived overseas the combination of a kiwi ‘can-do attitude’ and a qualification opened doors and I worked on some amazing projects – including the development of London’s Docklands area, which was an opportunity I simply wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Conal has maintained a connection with Unitec over the years, working as a guest lecturer and attending Unitec’s open days. Dempsey Wood also has many Unitec students join the company on placements or in full-time roles.
“While our relationship with Unitec isn’t official, I think it’s a great institution with so many good people, so I enjoy putting in the time. I believe the investment you put into anything always comes back to you – whether it’s your education, your work or your people.”