Total Construction explains complexity of building a food processing plant

Tony Tateedit

Hidden away on the top storey of an old brick building at the heart of North Strathfield, Sydney are the offices of Total Construction.

If a company ever wanted to show off its wares, then its own offices are a great advertisement.

Old cracked bricks surround the open-plan working space with modern furnishings, polished floors and designer furniture making it an inviting place to do business for potential clients.

Started almost 25 years ago by Steven Taylor (the number’s guy) and Bill Franks (the practical man), it has grown into a business that services many industries including food and beverage.

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Heading that department is the affable Tony Tate, a Carlisle man from Cumbria in England’s north who had the distinction of playing against the likes of Alan Shearer, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley – not in the English Premier League, but at the more modest school boy level.

It is a memory that is bound to last a life  time. However, Tate then went on to a career in the food industry. Starting out as an electrical engineer, you could almost call Tate the accidental tourist when he arrived on Australian shores.

He never intended to stay for long in Australia, but 20 years later, he is still here.

“I got headhunted from the UK to come to Australia to head up Top Notch, which was the first ready-meal, high-care facility in Australia, which was owned by Goodman Fielder,” said Tate.

“In the UK, the ready-meals industry was booming. Meals had a five- to seven-day shelf life. In Australia, we were trying to break into the market but the downside was that you could go to Darling Harbour and have a good meal for $20 instead of paying $9 for a butter chicken or lasagne from the supermarket shelf. Australia wasn’t ready, so it was probably 20 years too soon.”

When he left Top Notch, Tate started touring Australia with the intention of heading back to the UK, but then stayed when he got a job offer from Goodman Fielder.

After a couple of other roles, Tate started working for Total Construction in 2008, where his expertise in stringent hygiene standards needed for food processing factories came to the fore.

“The key was my food background – especially cutting my teeth on hygienic standards when supplying Marks and Spencers, which were world leaders in hygiene,” said Tate. “In England, 35 years ago, we were already building high-care facilities. They’ve only started putting high-care facilities in Australia over the past five years. In the last 20 years in Australia they only started doing HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) systems. You get a lot of businesses coming to me who say, ‘we’ve got HACCP approval, aren’t we wonderful’. But to me, that is the minimum you need for food safety.”

Tate cannot reiterate enough how important food hygiene is when companies are looking at building a new food processing facility.

People can become complacent when it comes to instances of food poisoning and think that it is the purview of third-world countries.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As recently as April 2018, six people died from an outbreak of listeria that was traced back to a rock melon farm in New South Wales.

“Hygiene in Australia has been pretty low,” said Tate.

“It’s not being disrespectful. In England, people still die due to food poisoning. About 250,000 Americans die of food poisoning every year. So food safety is pretty critical. I always say people safety is synonymous with food safety.”

Tate knows Total Construction’s main job is to manage the build but believes his knowledge gives the company’s clients a head’s up on what is needed to build a facility to a certain standard.

“When I talk to the clients, they know nothing about building,” he said. “The key from our point of view is to support the client. The client has to put a roof over their head because they have to keep the rain out to protect the product. They’re interested in the process equipment, which can cost them $15 million from Europe. However, they don’t understand standards. We do. They don’t need to know the building codes of Australia. They don’t need to know the FM standards for insurances. That’s what we bring to the table. There are not many food literate builders or process engineers. We have that expertise here.”

Another key to Total Construction is that it offers an all-inclusive service – from design stage to project managing the build. And it is the extra things that it brings to the table that gives clients added value.

This can be anything from advising them whether to build up or out, through to how strong a roof needs to be on a food processing plant.

“You can’t hang your air conditioning, your pipes or other gear from the roof and its trusses if it has been designed to hold up just the tin roof,” said Tate. “I tell the story a couple of years ago when the roof on a retail warehouse collapsed. There was a huge hail storm and the hail blocked the gutters on the roof. It banked up the ice and water, which caused the roof to collapse because it was too heavy.

“Most developers build a warehouse at the cheapest and most economical cost. They don’t build a warehouse with the mind of, ‘Well, we better strengthen it just in case somebody wants to put a food facility inside of it’. With a lot of food processing plant, you could have up to 80 kilograms in various items hanging off the ceiling. This is the kind of thing we tell our clients at the scope stage.”

Another angle that is a little unusual in the building trade is that Total Construction has an open book policy whereby they will show clients how much something is going to cost. They have had issues in the past where some clients have taken a hard look at costings and not been too happy. However, Tate feels that the way they do things takes the sting out of the tail – people know what to expect.

“I have great coverage on the three major trades – hydraulic, mechanical and refrigeration,” he said. “We had one project where the price seemed a little steep for the client, but that was the market cost. All the subcontractors gave me a price based on the drawings. It was an open book to the client and we brought it under 20 per cent on what the price was. He was still a little cranky but deep down he was pleasantly pleased with the service he was getting.”

Another sticky situation arose when a client wanted to be in their facility by a certain month. However, in order to do so, Tate pointed out that the lead time was too short if they wanted to pour a concrete slab that was going to be affected by changes in temperature from 36°C to -18°C.

The temperature needed to come down gradually over a few weeks in order for the slab to retain its integrity. The client wanted it to happen over a period of days. Tate informed the client that the date had to be moved to a later time. The client was not happy and demanded that the facility be ready by the date he wanted to move in.

“I said to him that we could do what he wanted but we were not warranting the slab,” said Tate. “No cement can withstand that about of temperature range over a short space of time. I told him to hire freezer containers for $250 a week, put them in his yard and put the stock in them until we could bring the temperature down gradually. That is all he wanted. A solution. And we gave him one.”

And Tate says the payoff is tangible and can be measured by repeat business. “We get 80 percent repeat business with clients,” said Tate. “I have clients phoning me up that I haven’t spoken to for two years. They go, ‘Mate, I’ve got a problem, can you come down and give us advice?’ I go and help them and I don’t charge. But I know if they are going to build a facility – whether it be Melbourne or Sydney, or up in Queensland – their first port of call is going to be Total Construction.”