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Digging deep with CRE Group

The million-dollar idea uniting Victoria’s civil construction industry for a good cause

It may be a relatively new venture, but CRE Group, a civil construction business operating out of Victoria, is powered by decades of varied industry experience at a local, national and international level. It’s also steeped in the Irish heritage of its founders – something that is subtly reflected in their name with a clever play on words.

“We took a lot of time over the name,” Director, Michael Harding, explains. “CRE stands for civil resourcing and engineering, but it also means ‘earth’ in Irish. So, it’s a bit of a representation of our homeland. It’s not just three letters.”

This deeply considered approach to the way they work is a hallmark of the CRE brand. “Internally, one of the most important things for us is a culture of respect and excellence,” says Michael. “If you get the right culture and you’re respectful in business, it drives excellence.”

CRE certainly isn’t Michael or his fellow director, Patrick Doheny’s, first time heading up a civil construction company. Both served as directors of Global P4P before selling their interest back in 2019. “We both just decided it was time to go out by ourselves, really,” Michael explains.

So how do two boys from the Emerald Isle end up on the other side of the world, taking the Australian civil construction industry by storm?

“Both of us grew up around machinery from a very young age,” Michael says. “Patrick’s family had earth moving machinery back home – and still do. His Dad, Dennis, still operates around Tipperary, where we’re from.”

Like many young people from their part of the world, Patrick and Michael came to Australia seeking adventure in the sun. Their paths crossed while working as operators on a project in Queensland.

“We were both working for Murphy Pipe and Civil on a pipeline, operating machines,” Michael recalls. “Later, once I was living in Melbourne, Patrick, who was in Brisbane at that stage, moved down too. I’d just bought a house back in Ireland and the plan was to move home, but he said, ‘What’s the point? Why don’t we start something together?’”

It didn’t take long for CRE Group to land that first project. “We’d worked with a lot of the people in the industry previously,” Michael explains. “So, when we started up the business in mid-February 2019, we had our first project a week later. And from there it kind of snowballed.”

There’s a high concentration of exceptionally skilled Irish operators working in the Australian earth moving industry. Michael puts this down to the rural life many enjoy back home. “There’s a lot of agriculture in Ireland. A lot of the guys, they’ve grown up around farm machinery. It’s just part and parcel of life there, really,” he explains. “You’re starting your apprenticeship very young, learning from your parents and neighbors. So, you’re getting more experience than someone only getting into it at a later stage of life.”

Having clocked up many hours in the cab themselves, Michael and Patrick chose to head straight for top-of-the-line machines when building their fleet for CRE Group. “We both really like Volvo,” Michael says. “Obviously, they’re all great machines nowadays, all with the latest technology. But I think, for us, it’s Volvo – for their efficiency, high level of productivity and also just the comfort for the operator.”

They met with all the local dealerships when starting out, but it was CJD for the win. “Brian Lawson – who was working for Volvo at the time – was extremely knowledgeable about the machines and their capability,” Michael shares. “And that kind of family feel you get from CJD – that was what really attracted us to them. The way they’ve supported us and our business – you call at any time. They understand that the construction industry isn’t really an 8-5 job.”

Client demand saw CRE Group shift gears in the type of work they did, which, of course, influenced their choice of machine. They’ve gone from owning one machine to several in just over two years. “We started with a single Volvo EC220 – supported by Volvo. We would also hire from CJD.”

Michael says he and Patrick are very loyal in business, tending to stick with what has worked for them in the past. So, while they love the Volvo machines, it’s the support they value most.

On the hire side, they’ve been dealing with Michael Manley. “He’s been absolutely fantastic,” says Michael. “We’ve been with him for the last seven years, and there’s never a time that you give Michael a ring that he can’t deliver what you need. He’s just been exceptional. Absolutely exceptional.”

And the purchase side? “It was Brian Lawson, but he’s gone to Ahern Group, now,” Michael says. “Brian was fantastic. There was nothing he didn’t know about the Volvo machines and very, very passionate about it, you know? Myself and Patrick really enjoyed dealing with him. I’ve no doubt the next person will be great, too.”

In terms of attachments, Michael says it depends on the project. “Over the last 12 months we’ve had everything from your standard digging buckets, mud buckets, shaker buckets, rock breakers – there’s not much we haven’t had over the course of that time,” he says. “For rock breakers we’re using Walker hammers, here in Melbourne. They supply the Rammer hammer.”

Michael rates the Rammer hammer as one of the best he has worked with. “Once you reach West of the Melbourne CBD, you meet quite hard rock,” he explains. “We had a Volvo EC480 for a project and we wanted to pre-break all the rock before we started trenching. That EC480 and the Rammer hammer – I don’t know if there’s another machine with the power or efficiency to get through it at the rate we were going through it.”

As much as he values top-shelf machinery, Michael insists it’s the people that make a business. “We’ve brought together a highly experienced senior management team with detailed knowledge of the market and a great network of suppliers and subcontractors,” he says.

Indeed, having the best people for the job is something CRE focuses on at all levels of the business. “A machine is just a machine without the operator behind it,” Michael explains. “Coming from a background of operating ourselves, we go above and beyond to have the right operators on our projects. When you have the right machine and the right operator, you get great results.”

Although, having good equipment makes it easier to attract top talent. “From what I hear, people see the plant equipment and how well we maintain it on various social media platforms and that’s definitely an attraction,” Michael shares. “They see the Volvo Equipment there and the pride we take in any machine – whether it’s our own or on hire.”

Michael reckons the secret to hiring a good operator is seeing them in action. “Just because someone is good at writing a CV, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to have the required experience,” he explains. “We like to bring them out on site and work with them. Give them the time and support and see how they perform.”

With 50 operators working across various sites in Victoria, Michael reckons it’s less about trying to get good operators and more about keeping them. “We’ve built a really good core group of operators that have been with us all the way through and for that we are extremely grateful,” Michael says. “Our turnover is minimal, to be honest. We go above and beyond to get the best operators because, at the end of the day, they’re at the forefront of everything we do.”

Keeping operators happy is often, Michael says, about keeping them busy. “If we’ve a good operator and we know there’s a bit of downtime coming, we try to keep that consistency of work ahead of them,” he explains. “We have clients that just want a machine and operator. Yes, that means we lose them off our own project, but if we don’t give them anything, we’re going to lose them anyway. This way we’re able to bring them back in house once they’ve completed the project they are out on. It’s worked really well for us so far.”

With well-maintained machines being such a drawcard, CRE Group leaves their maintenance to the experts.

“CRE Group have a service and lease agreement with our heavy plant suppliers in Australia,” Michael explains.“Well-maintained, high-quality equipment means fewer disruptions due to breakdowns. And any time we need additional equipment, we can mobilise additional plant very quickly.”

Michael firmly believes this combination of great people and the highest quality equipment is what powers CRE’s success.

“With all that behind us, we’re able to focus on taking a professional and collaborative approach to working with our clients,” Michael says. “We’re all about delivering innovative and sustainable projects for all our clients safely, on budget and on time.”

In other news, CJD have been assisting CRE Group on a project that’s a little off their usual beaten track.

The ‘Dig Deep Event for Mental Health’ was an idea that started out small, but quickly gained momentum. “We’ve always said if we ever got the opportunity to do something for charity, we would love to give back a little bit,” Michael explains. “Just before COVID started, we wanted to run an excavator challenge with around 10 other civil companies within the construction industry. That’s snowballed into something far greater, thanks to the people around us.”

It didn’t take long for others to see the potential of banding together for a great cause.

“Once we realised how much goes into an event like this, we knew we needed other people to get involved,” Michael shares. “So, we had Tania White, Principal Lawyer & Director of Cross the T legal practice (www.crossthet.com.au) and Boutaina Richardson, owner/director of Build Socialcon social media and construction marketing (buildsocialcon.com) join the effort. They’ve been so generous with their expertise and time. And both have been an invaluable support to our business.”

Michael says both himself and Patrick were humbled by the way their own employees got behind the event. “Our accountant Patricia Redmond. David Fulco, who looks after CRE & Co Recruitment and Ben Chambers, who joined the business recently, but knows quite a few people in the market. They’ve all gone above and beyond to make this a success.”

CJD were, of course, the first company they thought of when looking for extra support. “I was blown away with their response” he says. “I literally just reached out and it was, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’”

So, what started as a small excavator challenge has turned into a full-scale, one day event. “It’s more of an exhibition for companies to showcase their machinery and what they do in the market,” Michael explains. “The operator competition will be the highlight, but there’ll be plenty going on. There’s been some major sponsors that have just been so generous with getting involved.”

Their goal is to raise $1 million for Beyond Blue – an Australian charity delivering information and support around mental health. “Everyone’s done it really tough over the last 12 months. And mental health is something everyone has been touched by, unfortunately,” Michael explains. “Year on year, we plan to run this event to support other charities. So, this year is mental health. Next year it may be the Dig Deep Event for another cause. They’re all worthy of whatever sponsorship they can get.”

With all that’s going on for CRE Group, Michael says the future is very exciting. “We’ve been very blessed to pick up some great clients,” he shares. “And we’ve been able to work through the Christmas period – this January has probably been the busiest we’ve been. I’m very grateful that we’ve a full pipeline of work until the middle of the year. And, of course, for our people – they’re the biggest single drivers of our reputation and our success.”

Even in the distant future, Michael says he and Patrick will remain involved at every level of the business. “We really enjoy it,” he explains, “and that team culture is really important to us.”

Michael doesn’t think he’ll be heading back to Ireland any time soon. “I think I’ll be here for quite a long time, to be honest with you,” he laughs. “With two young kids – Shay who’s three and Liam who’s 18 months old – hopefully, they’ll be an addition to CRE Group someday. I’d love for them to get involved. That’s the long-term goal for me – to give them the opportunity to come on board and make their own success. It’s like anything – you don’t know where it could potentially end up. You just get on with it. You keep doing the right thing over and over and create your own opportunity from there.”

Michael says none of it would be possible without his wife, Emma and for Patrick’s better half Boutaina. “They pick up a lot of the slack,” he says. “That’s what gives us the opportunity to really crack on. Not only with the business, but everything that we do.”

“We’re looking for any civil companies who’d like to take a stall and showcase their business,” says Michael. “And also, for families to get involved as well – really open up the lines of communication. The tagline for the event is ‘Keep digging, keep talking’. I think that’s what is really important.”


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