Business life built on ethics

The West Australian, 4 Oct 2017

Here are some lit­tle-known facts about con­tro­ver­sial builder Gerry Hanssen.

He’s trained 1000 ap­pren­tices in two decades, us­ing two metic­u­lously de­signed guides that list in pic­ture and word for­mat the tools and safety gear for each task needed to build a high-rise tower and show­ing, step-by-step, how to get the job done.

He’s also deeply spir­i­tual, un­com­fort­ably com­mit­ted to telling the truth as he sees it, and — a rar­ity in an in­creas­ingly un­for­giv­ing world — he hires work­ers who have been in trou­ble with the law.

He will not fire you for mak­ing a mis­take.

He says he wants to em­power young peo­ple to be­come in­de­pen­dent and self-gov­ern­ing and in­sists Hanssen trainees who have a Hanssen ca­reer will, from age 20 to 65, earn more than dou­ble a tradie else­where.

His an­tipa­thy to unions and his po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions — he’s a mem­ber of the Lib­eral and Na­tional par­ties — are well known.

“I’m re­ally a so­cial­ist but I couldn’t be a mem­ber of the La­bor party be­cause of the CFMEU,” he jokes, though he doesn’t fully em­brace sug­ges­tions that for fully rounded po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence he could join the Greens, too.

Aside from his build­ing com­pany Hanssen Project Man­age­ment, which has forged a long-term re­la­tion­ship with apart­ment devel­oper Fin­bar, Mr Hanssen is pres­i­dent of the Swan Cham­ber of Com­merce and a strong sup­porter of Shalom House, a 120-bed re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre in the Swan Val­ley run by his friend Peter Lyn­don James.

Mr Hanssen lives at his Swan Val­ley Oa­sis Re­sort, which has a func­tion cen­tre and Supa Golf course and has plans for a ho­tel.

He is pas­sion­ate about plan­ning, pre­serv­ing park­land and green spa­ces in the Swan Val­ley.

He em­ploys 600 peo­ple from a wide range of na­tion­al­i­ties, says he does not tol­er­ate gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and his spir­i­tual ad­viser and com­pany chap­lain, for­mer pen­te­costal min­is­ter Tom Smilovi­tis plays an im­por­tant role in nur­tur­ing Hanssen em­ploy­ees and help­ing them learn to “self­gov­ern”.

Mr Hanssen has zero tol­er­ance for drugs.

He is com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing an “eth­i­cal” com­pany that builds the best high-rise res­i­den­tial apart­ment de­vel­op­ments eco­nom­i­cally, ef­fi­ciently and on time.

Hanssen does this by cre­at­ing “a lego kit” on site at a Hazelmere fac­tory, where work­ers build the pre­cast com­po­nents of his build­ings, many of which have won awards.

The plumb­ing, elec­tric­ity, en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign are all in­house, and Mr Hanssen es­ti­mates his Ikea-like sys­tem cuts 13 per cent from the cost of a job.

His three rules to work by are, in or­der, no unions, stay in con­trol of build­abil­ity and pay fort­nightly.

Each is a han­gover from the late 80s and early 90s when in three short years he went from be­ing a mil­lion­aire to broke, a mis­for­tune he be­lieves was com­pounded by the ac­tions of unions and the Australian Tax­a­tion Of­fice. The dark pe­riod that fol­lowed was com­pounded by the loss of his wife, Elke, who died of can­cer in 2000.

He started again at 50, broke and bereft, and he will never for­get it.

And he will never for­get Lions Eye In­sti­tute founder Pro­fes­sor Ian Con­sta­ble, who in 1992 took a chance on the fledg­ling Hanssen build­ing com­pany.

The bud­get was $6.5 mil­lion, funds painstak­ingly raised by Pro­fes­sor Con­sta­ble, but the go­ing rate for the build­ing the in­sti­tute needed was $8.5 mil­lion.

“I told Ian I will save you 20 per cent if I can have these three conditions, no deal with the unions, con­trol over build­abil­ity and you must pay me fort­nightly,” Mr Hanssen said, ad­ding that the build­ing was com­pleted in a year.

“I told Ian I will save you 20 per cent if I can have these three conditions, no deal with the unions, con­trol over build­abil­ity and you must pay me fort­nightly,” Mr Hanssen said, ad­ding that the build­ing was com­pleted in a year.

That, and meet­ing and strik­ing a rap­port with Fin­bar ex­ec­u­tive chair­man John Chan in 1996, are the sig­nif­i­cant events Mr Hanssen cred­its with help­ing him get back on his feet.

“The truth is the truth,” Mr Hanssen says, ad­ding that the buck stops with him and he is re­spon­si­ble. He cheer­fully ad­mits telling it like it is gets him into trou­ble.

“The truth is still bet­ter than any­thing else.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to run an eth­i­cal com­pany.

“That’s the big­gest chal­lenge we have. We can’t afford not to train peo­ple be­cause we have to cre­ate a new gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple with that work ethic.”

On the WorkSafe in­ves­ti­ga­tion that fol­lowed the death of Mar­i­anka Heu­mann, 27, a woman on a work­ing hol­i­day who fell 13 storeys to her death at Fin­bar’s Con­certo tower in Ade­laide Ter­race a year ago, he has made it clear he wants noth­ing hid­den.

“Just tell the truth,” he said. “I told my peo­ple I do not want any­thing else. What­ever the con­se­quence of the truth, well, that’s it. Ev­ery­thing is my fault. I take own­er­ship.”