Better Building speaks to Decode Group's Sam El Rihani about expanding in a slowing market, the one interview question that helps shape strong internal culture and his win at The CEO Magazine Executive of the Year Awards.
When Sam El Rihani was named Building and Construction Executive of the Year at The CEO Magazine Executive of the Year Awards on November 14, the announcement probably didn't come as a surprise to many. As founder and managing director of Decode Group – which was listed on the AFR 100 Fast List in 2018 – El Rihani has defied a sluggish market to lead the organisation through a period of expansion while continuing to develop 13 projects across Sydney over the last 12 months.
To both celebrate his achievement and tap into his valuable insight, Better Building talked with El Rihani about his leadership style, developing strong internal culture and what it will take for construction companies to survive industry downturn.
Better Building: The market has been steadily slowing, yet Decode Group has been rapidly expanding over the last year. How have you managed to buck the trend so decisively?
Sam El Rihani: Businesses – and Decode is no exception – must evolve and adjust to accommodate changing market conditions if they wish to survive and thrive.
Along with others in the industry, we have experienced challenging times in the past 12 months. Financial conditions in the broader economy continue to tighten and we are still feeling the effects of the downturn in the apartment sector of the residential market.
We are fortunate to have a leadership team with a wealth of industry knowledge and experience and the agility to respond quickly to changing circumstances. We also had a clear vision of what was required for Decode to work through this period.
We defined all risks to the business and what was required to convert them into opportunities for growth. We focused on diversifying the business and to make it more efficient.
Implementing our diversification strategy started earlier this year when we appointed three highly experienced and well respected industry leaders who have considerable experience in creating and managing growth. They have helped create Decode's footprint in all industry sectors and we now have a strong pipeline of opportunities in commercial, industrial, government, health, affordable housing and aged care projects.
Working smarter, not just harder, drives our construction ethic and our vision has always been to de-risk the delivery process by creating supporting or allied businesses. This process, which covers all aspects of development, will include critical services such as independent quality assurance auditors, formwork, structural and civil engineering. By bringing them in-house we can control costs and maximise certainty of outcome and quality.
What sets Decode Group apart in the eyes of potential clients?
The strength of any organisation relies on the quality of its people. We have built a team of people who are passionate, highly driven and collaborative, and that's what sets us apart.
Our capability and success are driven by our values of integrity, reliability, teamwork and uncompromised quality. We are passionate about these values and our commitment to our people enables us to deliver consistently for our clients.
We make sure our people feel integral to the company and are a major part of its success. We offer them opportunities based on intent and merit, which creates an environment where they want to go above and beyond and where they value each opportunity.
Potential clients can be confident our people take responsibility for their role and the service we provide. It is our 'factor of care' that ensures we do a job well.
As the Building and Construction Executive of the Year, the impact you make inside your company is just as important as the one you create in external parties. What would you say defines your leadership style?
I hope to inspire the future industry leaders in our company by leading by example and mentoring them.
I am responsible for driving the right corporate culture and encouraging employee engagement. I believe our culture at Decode creates an environment where people feel valued and that they are an integral part of the team.
Providing people opportunities to develop personally and professionally is important, and we want people to succeed with us to achieve their goals. We encourage everyone to challenge their mindset and consistently push themselves to grow. Being accountable, resilient, having courage and the ability to react positively in the face of adversity are traits we strongly promote. Anyone who demonstrates a logical approach and works hard to get the job done, particularly in the face of adversity, we reward with greater opportunity.
Being accessible and sharing my construction industry knowledge is important.
In addition, what are some of the key opportunities you provide the Decode Group team and why do you believe they are so important?
We want to help our people succeed in all aspects of their lives. Asking at the initial interview, "what can we do to assist you in achieving your dream?" conveys our wish to be part of their journey and how prepared we are to work with them to provide practical opportunities for learning and development.
Our staff development program is key to the assistance we offer. The program focuses on four areas through formal learning and mentoring and includes:
- Back to Basics: building a strong foundational base of knowledge for everyone in the business
- Work Smarter: teaching efficiency through the following of processes and procedures and utilising systems correctly to achieve optimum capability
- All About Me: personal and professional skills development, and
- Workplace Well-being: physical and mental well-being.
At Decode, we are driven by our vision to be a company where everyone can excel. We believe people who are engaged, committed and have self-belief can be successful. If they succeed, our clients' projects succeed and Decode succeeds.
What will it take for organisations to survive the industry downturn forecast over the next five years?
Critical to the survival of organisations will be:
- Strong leadership and a clear vision to define all risks to the business
- The ability to quickly respond to and accommodate changing market conditions
- Creating and maintaining effective systems to support the operational framework, and
- Attracting, motivating and retaining the most qualified and talented people.
Finally, if there is one lesson or piece of knowledge you could draw from your experience and share with aspiring and emerging industry executives, what would it be?
Recounting my early experiences of starting Decode from very humble beginnings could provide great object lessons in resilience and not being willing to accept failure. Growing Decode over the past decade has been extraordinary and most rewarding. We had to be dynamic and adaptable in this fast-changing environment, especially in the property and construction industry.
My approach has always been to give 100 percent of my energy to everything I do. Never do things halfheartedly and always be consistent. Attack problems head-on rather than shy away. And don't be afraid of hard work.