Chris Bell Construction — 15 Years

Words by Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

He’s built some of Taranaki’s most beautiful homes and next year will begin work on one of the biggest housing projects New Plymouth has ever seen.

Born and bred in New Plymouth, Chris Bell has also been responsible for some of the region’s biggest commercial structures — both before he set up his own business and since.

This year marks 15 years since starting up Chris Bell Construction.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” he reflects of the humble start in his early 30s, when he borrowed his mum’s car and worked on his mother-in-law’s house renovation.

These days he has a team of 35 who work on architectural house builds, commercial and industrial projects, as well as house renovations of varying size, making his company one of the most versatile construction businesses in the region.

“Our collective goal is to deliver the highest quality builds to clients regardless of scale or budget.”

To ensure that quality, while keeping a control on costs, Chris Bell Construction takes a builder-builder-led approach to their jobs.

“We oversee and manage the building process in its entirety. Our clients meet with us, sharing their ideas and dreams for their projects. We then liaise with the most appropriate person for any specific project – architect, draftsperson or engineer depending on the scope of the build. 

“This builder-led approach allows us to drive the entire build process and employ the most appropriate solutions to best meet the unique needs of every project. 

“This method is more time and cost efficient and allows us to work in a transparent manner, getting the best out of our project teams in order to deliver builds of superior quality within the time and budgetary constraints of every project.”

IN THE BEGINNING

Chris’s parents were horrified when he went out on his own, giving up a management position in a well-established and respected local building firm.

“They told me I was mad, was taking on too much risk, especially my Dad, but after the first year he had completely changed his mind.

“He (Chris’s Dad) was probably another motivation. My business went to a whole other level after he passed, for whatever reason.”

When he first started his business, Chris just did houses.

“Though every house we build has a real commercial aspect to it — it may be two storey or three storey or have pre-cast, concrete floors or what have you.”

The third or fourth house he built with his new company, was massive. He and the crew referred to it as The Embassy. It was highly technical and really pushed Chris to his limit at the time.

“But I look back now and think how much I learnt from doing that job.”

It’s that willingness to take on the unknown that has helped grow Chris and his business.

“I’ve probably always sprinted before I could walk,” he grins. “I commit and worry about how I’m going to do it later.”

It’s an approach that has held him in good stead.

That and a certain bull-headedness.

He remembers one former boss telling him he would fail, going into business on his own.

“I hate failure. I’m probably actually scared of it. Which makes you more determined not to. I still want to be the best. I guess I have an expectation that’s probably unachievable but it’s what I strive for.”

THE TEAM

“I always thought four or five guys would maybe be the ultimate but it just exploded. I surrounded myself with real amazing people and tradesmen,” many of them people Chris had worked with before. “And those people haven’t left, many are still here 15 years later.”

In the early days he and the staff and families would do lots of social events.

“Families are important, wives are important. I guess I care for everyone. As we’ve gotten bigger it’s become harder to organise the social events we used to have, but the values are still there.”

Though his company is now quite sizeable, Chris doesn’t consider he’s one of the ‘big boys’.

He’s just Chris and his team.

He’s included long-term staff in his succession planning … Trent Lazarus and Joe Menzies both have 10% shares in CBC.

Though he doesn’t put on the tools himself these days, Chris loves ‘toys’. 

“I’ll go and drive the digger, or the crane, just generally help the boys on site to get a bit of relief and get out of the office.

“We’re doing some big panels up at the hospital so I’ll go and give the guys a hand with that, that kind of thing. I’d love to throw a hammer on but I’m not sure the body would handle it … and I’d probably annoy everyone,” he laughs.

He still doesn’t feel like ‘the boss’, he says.

“I actually think that I work for someone and I just go to work every day and work for that person.”

JOSEPH MENZIES – Project Manager

“I returned from London in 2014 and pretty much just harassed Chris until he gave me a job,” recalls Joe of how he ended up at Chris Bell Construction.

The high end work I had been involved with in London, seemed to compare well with the work that Chris Bell Construction was producing in New Plymouth.

Four years later Joseph became a shareholder with the company.

He likes the way Chris gives opportunities to his team and keeps the work interesting.

The high-end builds that initially attracted Joe to the company, are still a key part of their work, along with a vast range of commercial and industrial work makes it a more interesting and rewarding role.

“The entire CBC team and the sub-contractors who work on our sites feel the same way as well. I guess you’re talking about career versus job. Less challenging, repetitive scopes of work can be seen as just a job, but doing high-end, technically challenging construction is a career — well that’s the way I see it.”

You also learn something from every job however not everything goes smoothly.

“Everything on an architectural build is bespoke, every detail is completely different to what the last build was. You have to enjoy problem solving.”

Though Joe can see some advantages of specialisation, he likes that the CBC team tackles the entire build from foundations to finishing work and the management team works closely with the architects and clients throughout.

“Having input as early as the concept design we can assist in identifying what ideas will work; what will save money and in the current environment – what materials are actually available.”

TRENT LAZARUS – Site Manager

“I’ve known Chris since I was about 15,” says Trent Lazarus of his boss and friend.

The pair came to know each other through building.

Chris first met Trent’s dad, Steve Lazarus (better known as ‘Oz’), when they were both working at a local construction company. 

Trent joined the same firm as an apprentice and the three of them worked there together for several years, taking on jobs like the The Valley Mega Centre and PukeAriki.

They’d all work and surf together, until Chris switched to long distance triathlons and Half-Ironman events. These days the focus is on open water swimming.

“Chris always went to Dad for advice,” says Trent of the bond between Chris and Oz, that ended up lasting 30 years until Steve passed away this November.

“He’s just one of those people I always respected … he always kept my feet firmly planted on the ground,” Chris remembers.

When Chris first mentioned that he was thinking about going out on his own, Oz was all for it.

Trent was in Wellington at the time Chris set up his business and when he returned Oz said “Go to Chris.” That was 2007. It wasn’t long after that that Oz joined Chris Bell Construction as well. Oz retired from full-time work in 2018, and after a short holiday he returned to work 3 days a week, until a cancer diagnosis earlier this year. 

“Oz was one of life’s good people. He had a good work ethic, old school rules,” Chris says.

“The two of us were just good together. We had similar values, very loyal, he was one of those guys who’s always had my back.”

In 2017 Trent became a shareholder in Chris Bell Construction.

“Chris is a great friend but we have that work relationship as well. He expects 100% from all his staff. He gets it too. Probably because of the work we have … there really isn’t anyone else (in Taranaki) that does what we do. Just the range of work and the types of housing — the houses we build are pretty exceptional. 

“The commercial builds, the architecturally designed builds that we get to do … you always want a challenge, and you can tell when the guys look back and you can see they’re proud of what they’ve achieved.”

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

“I paddle my own canoe.” 

It’s a phrase Chris uses often. 

“We don’t take any notice of what anyone else does — we do things our way.”

The Chris Bell Construction way is a good value, quality result underpinned with ‘old school values’.

“Things like don’t be late, your word is your word, real basic stuff that maybe a lot of people don’t do. Looking after your clients and looking after your staff.”

Part of Chris’s old-school values include being fair and straight-up.

“There are practices I’ve seen big companies utilise that I refuse to do, and warn new staff not to bring any tricks they may have learned elsewhere. I’m just not interested in that sort of thing.”

He’s also proud of the quality of his team … some would be the best in the country at what they do, he says.

“I’m not so much about pricing … more about value. We don’t use the cheapest subs — we use subs who are fit for purpose and will give a quality result.”

Chris is passionate about what he does and hates letting people down. 

“I hate letting clients down and that stuff really consumes me when I do. I mean we all make mistakes but to me, it’s how you fix them.

“A few years ago I would have said 100% of our clients remain as friends but with the amount of jobs we do now I don’t always get a chance to spend as much time with them all. But I have so many clients who have become such good friends and people I catch up with years after we’ve finished their job.

“So that’s really cool and it’s how I judge a job as to whether it was a success or not.”

PRESSURE BUILDS DIAMONDS

He also loves a good challenge.

“I probably thrive under pressure or under any kind of crisis.”

That’s just as well as no two builds are alike.

“We don’t build anything that’s the same — every house we do is just so different. The harder they are the better we perform. We have some incredible houses coming up.”

Solving those tricky issues are what keeps Chris and his team interested.

Powerco’s National Operating Centre  (NOC) on Junction Road was a doozy.

Built to a High L4 level, it is one of the strongest buildings in the city — designed to withstand significant natural events.

“That was an amazing project — next level.”

Metrotel was another head-scratcher.

The Gill St hotel/motel complex is surrounded on three sides by other city buildings, with a busy road on the fourth side.

“A really tight street, neighbours living next door at the Liardet St apartments, so that was pretty cool.”

The 4 storey apartment on the corner of Molesworth and Hobson Streets that is nearing completion, has been constructed using in-situ concrete.

“You’re doing form work (old-fashioned boxing) and pouring concrete because the site’s so tight you can’t get in cranes or pre-cast panels,” explains Chris. In-situ concreting was a skill Chris learned overseas and had to train his crew in.

“I’ve really enjoyed that job.”

He and hie team also built some sub-stations down around Whanganui and in Taranaki.

“They’re really technical builds.

“Every job’s unique — that’s where the enjoyment is.”

WORD OF MOUTH

These days Chris Bell Construction is getting chosen on jobs just through reputation, “and that’s awesome.”

He has just picked up his biggest contract to date, through a Zoom interview, which he’ll start next year. 

“The client and I have the same company morals.

“Because we build such amazing different projects, we’re always up to speed with the latest and greatest in technology, products, new techniques.”

A key part of the future of building in New Zealand will be modular systems, Chris believes.

“If we don’t change the way we build, none of us will have work.”

“And If we don’t offer a point of difference from everyone else, well we’ll just become like everyone else.”

THE CONSTRUCTION BOOM

COVID has thrown out its challenges but every year Chris Bell Construction has grown, including through the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/09.

“In 15 years I’ve never had a day where there’s nothing to do.”

Now is the craziest time of all.

“First lockdown (April 2020) we were so crazy right before then. We all thought the world was going to end and I had all these jobs to price. I just wanted to make sure my guys had work so I priced them at no margin just to ensure I could keep them all employed. Of course we got all those jobs and after lockdown things went nuts and I had all these new jobs come in. It’s actually kind of frightening.”

Chris puts the construction boom down to two things: money’s cheap and people can’t travel overseas and are spending more time at home.

“We’ve got a lot of clients who have come from out of town, and a lot of ex-pats are moving back. They’re professional people and they’re bringing their expertise with them.”

“International families are also moving here for the Green School. That’s a massive attraction. It’s drawing a lot of people in.

“Maybe lifestyle too … I don’t know. I tell you what though, it’s not going to end next year, not from what we’re seeing.”

Chris is also finding he’s picking up more workers from Auckland, wanting to escape the traffic and lockdowns and keen to live the Kiwi dream.

“We’ve picked up two from Auckland, two from Wellington and one from the Coromandel. They’re all builders who have moved here because they want to buy a house, own it and not rent.

“The guy from Wellington can’t believe the lifestyle here. I sent him to Carters yesterday to buy some new tools for the job he’s on and he comes back and goes ‘They didn’t ask me for my driver’s licence, or photo ID, I just gave them the order number and they said ‘see ya later’. He asked ‘Are you sure that’s right?’ He couldn’t believe that people all kind of know each other here and operate on trust.

“The guy from the Coromandel came down for the surfing and lifestyle and brought his food truck with him — he does Balinese food.

“It’s quite cool listening to them and their views on the place.”

“Stratford is attracting so many people as well. I’ve had two builders, one from Waihi and one from Auckland, who have moved to Stratford to buy a house and applied for jobs in New Plymouth, because of course a 30 minute drive to work each day is nothing to them.

“What happens of course is after three or four months they realise that a 30 minute drive compared to 5 or 10 minutes if they lived in New Plymouth, is actually quite a long time to spend on the road if you don’t have to.

“So the region itself is a drawcard and that drives demand too.”

CELEBRATING 15 YEARS

Initially Chris operated his business from his home garage on Princes Street in Fitzroy.

He’s been moving slowly west ever since — in a unit behind Mitchell Cycles for a time, and then three years ago he shifted to his current premises on Devon Street East.

Chris wasn’t someone who reflected on his achievements, until the day he met legendary New Plymouth builder, Willie Still.

“He came into the office one day with the plans for Westwill Heights and told me ‘You’re building this’. He also gave me a book he’d published about his life’s achievements. This was the first time I’d ever met him.

“When he left I opened the book and written there was ‘To Chris, Look forward to working with you. All the best for the future.’ He had decided to give me the job before he’d even met me — before I even knew about it.”

By the next time they met, Chris had read the book. He told Willie “I’m going to have a book like yours one day.” On the 10 year anniversary of his business Chris published his first one. They’re doing an updated version for the 15th anniversary too.

“He’s the one that has inspired the books and also that sense that you need to celebrate your achievements and try and capture what you do.”

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