Ralf Dutton has carved out a long career in the unpredictable construction industry due to his astute talent for forward thinking, writes Hayden Smith.
RALF’S CREED BUILT TO LAST
RALF Dutton has always been a man with a plan. Forward thinking helped the Cairns construction industry veteran “weather the storm” of the Global Financial Crisis, which brought about the demise of several well-known local builders.
“I can’t say I saw the GFC coming, but I saw the end of the boom,” the Value Homes director said. “Instead of going out and buying a yacht, I put it into a war-chest, because that’s how Cairns works. Numbers drop 50 per cent in two months and then it goes down from there. I’ve been delving into that chest over the past 10 years. That’s why I’m still here.”
As Master Builders Queensland president, Mr Dutton’s construction sector influence stretches far beyond his company’s Mulgrave Rd office. He often flies to Brisbane and Canberra for meetings with politicians and building industry powerbrokers.
“It allows the ability to change things. To be part of the discussion,” he said. “It’s rewarding when you can actually help move things forward. That’s the part that is most important to me – to actually help make a difference.”
Few people in Cairns are more knowledgeable of the local construction sector’s history than Mr Dutton, who started out as a draftsman with Barney Lynn Architects.
“They designed the Civic Centre, which has now, of course, been pulled down,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in Cairns.”
Drawn to the appeal of the building industry, Mr Dutton worked as a manager for Ballantyne Homes before deciding to go out on his own. He opened Value Homes in 1992, when Cairns was “coming off a boom.”
“There was still enough there for us to survive and crack into the market,” he said. “My approach to business is that, if you’re fair dinkum about opening a business, you need it to be more than just you. I always treated the business as something that could go on without me and that I am only a custodian of that.”
The past 25 years have been full of many ups and downs. “We were coming off a boom before the GFC,” he said. “It was the days when the banks loaned to everybody. A lot of mums and dads had investment property … then Cairns was suddenly overstocked and oversupplied. Every box ha a cross in it, rather than a tick.
“That took the confidence out of this city for a good 10 years. Our turnover before the GFC, at the peak of the boom, was about $22 million. It then went down to $4 million.”
Mr Dutton said, while things were starting to turn around for Cairns’ residential construction sector, the industry was “being let down” by perennial undervaluation of homes – which he believed what thwarted the industry’s natural growth.
“I’m going to be working this year with financiers and city fathers … they’re saying, ‘how do we get this going?’, he said. “I’m going to be working with them on how we try and move Cairns steadily forward to overcome the timidness that has surrounded the valuation industry for 10 years.
“Cairns had everything crossed 10 years ago, but virtually every box is ticked now. They’re talking about a 20 year global increase in tourism. And who’s going to benefit? Cairns will.”
Value Homes has 12 dedicated staff members and Mr Dutton said the company would be in good hands when his son Blake eventually takes over the reins. “He just loves it and is probably better than I was at the appropriate age,” he said.
But the Stratford resident said he still had plenty more to give the industry that had given him so much over the decades. “Being relevant, I think, keeps you alive,” Mr Dutton said simply. “As long as I can contribute, I will still do it.”