Argus Fire Protection – through the fire

Authored by: Jacqui Bensemann, CEO of Argus Fire Protection

I received a phone call from Bruce Sheppard, he invited me to present at the GS event themed ‘Purposeful Business’. I said to him, “What is a purposeful business?” Bruce replied, “Argus is one.” And while that wasn’t very helpful, it made me think and want to find out for myself what a ‘purposeful business’ is. 

First place to visit was Dr Google – and found out that yes, Bruce is right – Argus is a Purposeful Business.

This was demonstrated through an event that Argus went through, and would usually signal the end of a business, but it didn’t. We believe it’s because we are a purposeful business.

Easter Sunday at 2.10pm I received a phone call that changed my relaxing holiday in an instant – our flagship Auckland office was on fire.

This was not a sight anyone wants to be faced with, especially the managing director of a company whose sole purpose is to prevent this exact thing from happening. The irony was not lost on anyone.

Within five minutes of my arrival on site, the first of the Argus team were arriving in support. Within thirty minutes I was surrounded by 20 of our managers, project managers, technicians, admin staff and their families. Phone calls and texts were coming in from staff who had gone out of town for their Easter break – they were heading back to Auckland to help. Clients were texting and phoning, suppliers were texting and phoning. The landlord drove back from his holiday home in Northland, phoning around his own team to see if he had other offices for us to move into.

What is a purposeful business?

  • A shared purpose or mission
  • Expressed reason for ‘being’
  • Value is created for all stakeholders; shareholders, employees and their families, customers, suppliers, the environment and more…

Argus Fire is a private company, owned by a Family Trust along with three other shareholders and, although we are not blood relatives, the way we behave and interact is like family; it is key to our culture.

Around 18 years ago, my father was killed in a car accident. I had lost my Father and my business mentor. I knew I did not know enough to run the business. I wasn’t (and I’m still not) afraid to admit that. That’s a big lesson for anyone in business, if you don’t know, don’t pretend you do – you will always need good advisors and good help.

We reinvented Argus and formed a new Board including an Independent Director. The Board does represent the significant shareholding around the table, but we carefully asked each director to sit on the board for their values, skills and experience – not their shareholding. Our board are involved and engaged, they continue to stretch both myself and my team and demand more from the business. They don’t compromise and keep us on track. They are an essential part of the success of the business today.

Service Provider of the Year

We also looked at our management team. There was a lot that was good about them, but there was a lot not right. They were lovely people, some had been with the business for a very long time, and some were personal friends with my father. But, they weren’t the right people on the bus. With the strong support of my Board, who really did help me through this difficult time, I had to suggest to them quietly that they should move on. From there, we made new employment decisions. The best advice was to employ the best people we could possibly afford. And that’s what we did. The most expensive mistake you can make in business is employing the wrong people. We didn’t get it right first time or every time, but gradually we built a great team.

The business doubled in size the first two years after making these changes. We doubled again over the next three years and again over the next three. We now have branches in Auckland, Hamilton, Bay of Plenty, Wellington and Christchurch.

One of our critical success factors is listening to our customers. We hold regular client forums – which are a little bit of a secret success factor for Argus, the way we hold these, they are not just normal client forums. They continue to keep us on track, and we continue to be ‘the supplier of choice’ and ‘the employer of choice’.

We aren’t standing still, in the past few years, we did another full review of the business and Board, adding another independent director, with different industry experience and to a certain extent sophistication to how we run our meetings and business. We again identified that the management team needed to step up and gaps needed to be filled. The review included a Hogan Study of the senior leadership team which identified zero, yes, zero detail focus. This explained issues we had experienced and frustrations I was feeling.

We didn’t just ditch people – it’s important to our culture and values that we look after each other. We respect and value what each person does and their unique characteristics. What we did, is we filled the gaps by bringing in complementary skills and we now have a General Manager who has a focus on detail.

So that is Argus – who we are and how we got there. Why do we think that Argus is purposeful?

Our Mission: Protect people, businesses, livelihoods and property
through fire protection and by keeping buildings compliant.

When new people join our business, I describe this to them, as Argus being the custodians of the infrastructure of New Zealand. We look after the power stations, the tunnels, the universities, the databanks, the hospitals, the CBD’s – everything New Zealand is dependent upon to continue to provide for us, our families and the greater community.

We protect the economy by making sure the buildings and infrastructure dependent on those buildings are there for people to work, live and play. That is our true purpose – that, is why we come to work.

Our values:

  • Value and respect our fellow team members and customers
  • Do the right thing so everybody wins
  • Excellent service at a fair price
  • Compliance driven, profitability focused

The five pillars of the Argus Way
– these are the behaviours that underpin our values:

  • Partnering relationships
    • Everybody wins
    • Our word is our bond
  • Safety, wellness and development
    • Everyone goes home safe and healthy every day
    • Care about and support the well-being, development and success of every person in our team
    • Safety is considered in every decision and action
  • Professional and technical excellence
    • Compliance driven
    • The best in the industry
    • Exceeding expectations
    • Excellence in everything we do
  • Creativity, innovation and fun
    • The industry leader
    • Raise standards of behaviour and service by finding different ways to do things
    • See new ideas and solutions
    • Have fun
  • Financial return
    • Fair return on investment
    • A no surprises culture – transparency and a safe reporting environment

What happened after Easter Sunday?

On the first working day after Easter – the Tuesday, 36 hours after the fire – we were running as if nothing had happened. How did we do this?

Communication

Emails and texts were sent to directors, shareholders, all employees, key clients and key suppliers – before the six o’clock news to avoid surprise.

Clear messaging – this has happened but no one’s been hurt. Its business as usual, jobs are safe. We are a strong business with supportive directors and shareholders. A telephone tree was set up, every employee was phoned and spoken to in person within 24 hours.

All clients and suppliers were emailed again on Tuesday morning with the same messaging.

All our data was in the cloud

We could set up and operate from anywhere. Technicians could operate from their vans, Project Managers could operate from their sites.

Support from all stakeholders

We had a critical planning meeting on Easter Monday with all our key Operational Managers – that is when things ‘kicked-in’ and demonstrated to me that we had something truly special in Argus.

Several key clients stepped up and played critical parts;

  • Sky – opened a boardroom for us on Easter Monday to hold a meeting.
  • Goodman and Oyster – found us a spare floor for us, which they leased to us for six months, on the Easter Monday, and on a handshake.
  • Theta – our IT provider – cleared eight of their technical desks so our service coordinators could set up shop for a week while they worked relentlessly and connected all our IT in our new temporary home.
  • Titan Furniture – our furniture supplier – opened their warehouse on Easter Monday. Sixty new desks and chairs were ordered and prepared for delivery over the next week.
  • Sharp – our photocopier and printer suppliers – they were there on Tuesday with replacement printers and photocopiers ready for us to connect.

Our competition did try to poach some of our staff – we did not lose one person, not one! And even to this day, we have not lost anyone because of the fire.

There was noise on social media, the irony was not lost on anyone, but it was pretty quickly shut down by our friends out there. Even on radio, someone tried to take a cheap shot, but it was shut down by the radio host with one sentence.

The support we received from all of our key stakeholders – shareholders, directors, employees and their families, clients, suppliers and the outside community – they all showed us the respect they have for us and the value they see we bring to them. That last component in the definition of a purposeful business.

In Summary

Our mission is clear – we are custodians of the infrastructure of New Zealand and the economy.

Our values are clear – we call them The Argus Way.

Our value to all our stakeholders – clearly demonstrated by how all rushed to our assistance when we needed them, for which we are very grateful for and moved by.

From Gilligan Sheppard

We recommended the sale of a client business Argus Fire Protection to the Bensemann family in 1989.

They came to us looking for an electrical contracting business and were sold a fire protection company.  The Bensemann family had previously grown and invested in a Fire company called Benefis.

Our CEO Bruce Sheppard invested with the families, and they have stayed together for the best part of 30 years growing an awesome business as Jacqui has detailed. Bruce has served on the board of Argus from the beginning, and Gilligan Shepard has provided consulting services and accounting support for the journey.

When Argus was undergoing a period of huge growth, their margins suddenly started to drop which affected the bottom line negatively, despite growing revenue. We were engaged to discover and analyse the issues. This involved interviewing the leadership team and middle management. We also looked at the numbers, detailed where time was being spent in terms of job sizes, satisfaction, contract reports, and contract exception reports and traced the exceptions back to contract quoting. A range of recommendations were made covering communication, training requirements, changes to project management practices and reporting lines.

We are proud supporters of a truly purposeful business.

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