North Drill operates like a whanau. (Photo: Te Puni Kokiri.)

Building a better life for Northlanders from the ground up

Rapidly growing Northland startup North Drill believes in making a profit so that it can hire more people and provide a better life for their whānau. Business editor Maria Slade reports.

Ida-Jean and Bronson Murray are buying homes in Whangārei. In a region where prices are up over 9% for the year, there’s nothing revolutionary about that.

The difference with the founders of underground directional drilling company North Drill is that they’re investing in properties so their employees have somewhere to live. “It’s either that or they’ve got to sleep on our couch,” Bronson says, laughing. “We’ve got three at the moment living at our house,” Ida-Jean adds.

“Housing has been hard. We’re pulling 17-year-olds from up north, they’re going to look at rental properties and there’s 30 professional couples turning up. It’s not going to get any better,” she says.

The couple bounce off each other as they tell the story of the contracting firm they started with one truck and one drill less than five years ago. North Drill is now the biggest drilling company in Northland and has made the Deloitte Fast 50 list for the second time, taking 37th place with 205% annual growth. Unlike many who debut on the list and are then eclipsed by faster growing enterprises, North Drill has improved on its 2018 position when it just scraped in at number 50.

The firm has literally grown from the ground up, digging holes to put infrastructure in and hiring people with no previous experience to do it. “I suppose our goal in our business is to bring young unemployed people in and try and build them up,” Bronson says. His wife finishes the sentiment. “That’s been our whole thing from the start, if we can grow the people then we can grow the business.”

North Drill co-founder Ida-Jean Murray. (Photo: Te Puni Kōkiri)

A former professional rugby player, Bronson Murray has adapted his skills as a sportsman to running a business. His Super Rugby career was nearing its end and the couple was considering a contract to play overseas when they discovered they were expecting their first child. Not wanting to bring their child up away from family they started thinking about what they could do back up north where they both come from. Ida-Jean’s dad ran a small contracting business, “old school, he was pretty much a two or three-man band”, but crucially it had a contract with electricity and broadband provider Northpower.

They bought the firm, and Bronson’s competitive streak came out. “If we were going to do something we were going to be the best at it, so that was our first conversation,” he says. “We wanted to make something that was going to be sustainable in Northland, and to do that I believed we needed to become the biggest.

“We took what I learned in rugby and we pretty much applied it. We put a lot of emphasis into our culture. We didn’t have the experience, and we didn’t have the equipment starting off, so where we made it up was our culture which relied a lot on our work ethic in terms of getting the jobs done and upskilling.”

They realised other drilling teams in Northland had just one or two people with the national drilling certificate. “That was going to be our competitive advantage,” Ida-Jean says. With the help of  Te Puni Kōkiri’s cadetships programme they put every single one of their first nine employees through the certificate in six months. “Those first nine are all in supervisor roles now.”

North Drill co-founder Bronson Murray. (Photo: Te Puni Kōkiri)

North Drill picks people who are keen to learn and willing to show up, and then invests in them – everything from financial literacy to healthy living and work skills, Bronson says. “One of the things I learned in rugby is the formula of performance: ability times application times attitude equals performance. Those three things are all equally as important. The best digger operator follows best process and he loves his job, that’s pretty much performance.”

North Drill has used experienced digger drivers but Bronson doesn’t believe they are as good as the staff he’s trained. “Our boys, their experience might be a 5 out of 10, but you’ll get 100% out of that 5.”

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Taking unskilled people off the dole queue has had its challenges, and they’ve also lost staff through issues at home such as the housing situation. Their team goals are “health, wealth, and better self”, and they try to involve the partners and children as much as possible so that the culture flows through, the Murrays say. The business is a whānau affair, employing cousins and siblings including a set of four brothers.

North Drill has never had to advertise for work, and with the ongoing ultra fast broadband (UFB) rollout there’s no sign of things slowing down. It now has 40 staff and aims to double that within five years. But its strategy of flying by the seat of its pants and investing every cent back into either equipment or training has given its accountant a few grey hairs, the couple concedes. “He called us a diamond in the rough,” Ida says, laughing. Bronson adds: “We want to help as many people so we’re like, ‘bring people in, bring people in’, and the accountant is about bottom line and he’s like, ‘nah nah’.”

So they sat their advisers down and explained their aims. “If he’s saying ‘we need to be more profitable’, then we need to figure out how we can make more money, not how we can stop hiring people,” Ida-Jean says. They’re now working together to provide more structure to the business and are looking to fill key roles such as an operations manager and a finance manager. However true to form they’re not necessarily seeking traditional managers and have encouraged people with military and coaching backgrounds to apply, because it’s all about growing everyone faster.

“We’re just trying to use the business as a tool to help us better ourselves and our team,” Bronson says.


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