The Smooth Operator initiative showcases leaders in the construction industry who are changing the way they operate in innovative ways with people, processes and technology. This week’s Smooth Operator is Nicole Farren, Director of Swilly Traffic.
Nicole started as a traffic controller in 2012 and worked across regional and city areas in New South Wales (NSW). With this experience, she understood the inner workings, challenges and operations of being a traffic controller and launched her own traffic management business, Swilly Traffic in 2016. Since then, her team has completed over 200 projects, created over 7000 traffic control plans and were Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce Business Award (IACC) finalists in 2018.
What has your journey been like so far in the traffic management industry?
In 2012, I moved with my partner from Ireland to Australia. When we arrived we met a few Irish girls who were working as traffic controllers and said that the money was great! So 3 weeks into our move to Australia, I did all my inductions and tickets and whatever it took to be a traffic controller. I got phone numbers of subcontractors and called every day asking if there was work available. Finally, I got a job and was sent to a project in Woy Woy and got enough experience to be a leading hand traffic controller.
Working as a traffic controller was really challenging. I used to be a hairdresser, so I was used to standing up for long hours but standing in one spot for 12 hours over the course of 6 days made my back and feet really sore. The hours are long and usually across night shifts and weekends. Consequently, it was difficult to stay motivated and engaged in such a role. I was always a bit conflicted about the traffic management industry. Over the years, I have been in and out of the industry but the income I could generate was the main driver. What I made in a week as a traffic controller was equivalent to what I could make in a month back home in Ireland. Through these challenges, I was lucky to work with a lot of Irish girls who were working hard to pay rent and bills in this new country whilst being a little homesick. This community and connection really helped me overcome the physical and mental challenges of being a traffic controller.
In January 2016, a former colleague asked if I wanted to start a traffic control company for his civil crew. He financially backed the start of the business with the purchase of utes and equipment and I was in charge of the allocating, traffic plans and payroll. During this process, I thought I could do this for myself instead of for somebody else! I gave everything I had to purchase my first ute and was able to win a civil contract with 2-3 days work a week through word of mouth. Bit by bit Swilly Traffic grew. And then one day it felt like we blew up overnight. By 3 months we had 3 utes, 6 months we had 6 utes and at the end of our first year, we had 8 utes and over 30 staff.
What was it like setting up Swilly Traffic and the work culture you created for your team?
Setting up Swilly Traffic was tough. We had limited resources in terms of staff and finance and I had to make a lot of sacrifices to start the business. It was a risk and during the beginning stages I also worked as a porter in a hospital to make ends meet but we pushed through. We became well known for our quality work and friendly service and became preferred suppliers of traffic controllers for some of our clients. With this growth, we are currently looking into expanding interstate and being a part of the IACC Business Awards has been a huge part of that journey. To be honest, I felt a bit out of my depth as a finalist at the IACC Business Awards. I didn’t have a degree, had no business experience and learnt through trial and error. But being a finalist re-affirmed the hard work my team and I had been putting into the business to make it a success and taught us that we are worthy to compete against other amazing companies across different industries.
In terms of the working environment, I had worked for a lot of traffic management companies before starting Swilly Traffic. Sometimes I did feel like anumber or just another replaceable employee within a huge company. Going through that, I knew I didn’t want that for my staff. I wanted to create an environment where it wasn’t just a job to pay the bills but a place where you could start a career. My team and I really created a supportive environment, like a family here at Swilly Traffic. We understand the importance of open communication and make sure that everyone is happy and has control over their work-life balance. I like to encourage an environment where our employees can take pride in what they do and in turn guide others on that same journey of learning and make a career out of traffic management. I believe that if you look after your staff, they look after your clients.
Bridging the gap between training and experience
We noticed a gap in the market with the service that was being delivered for the training of those wanting to become traffic controllers and the students certified after the courses. Yes, they had tickets and licenses but some struggled to communicate clearly or weren’t capable of the role. Traffic control is a high-risk role and it can be very dangerous if you can’t comprehend unsafe situations or communicate effectively. We are actively promoting safety at Swilly Traffic and know that starts with training. We believe that a well-trained traffic controller is a safe traffic controller and we want to help make the industry better. Investing time in the training of your staff pays off in the long run. When you help them gain the necessary experience and confidence they are empowered to set up sites safely and professionally.
Currently, we are in partnership with the registered training office (RTO) Admire Workplace Safety. Our trainers have 40-50 years of experience between them and host the Swilly courses in Traffic Control at our office in Botany. Within the traffic management industry, it’s hard to get a job without experience. At the moment, the industry is experiencing a high influx of traffic controllers with tickets and licenses but no experience. At Swilly Traffic we understand that everyone needs to start somewhere. So in addition to Swilly courses, we try to provide the certified graduates with a few shifts a week. We want to give people a chance and give them the basic experience of what it is like onsite and how to adapt to different situations to set the foundation of great traffic controllers. From that experience, our certified traffic controllers are beneficial to any employee who take them on. We really are managing the human factor in the training process and know that when traffic controllers finish their Swilly courses they have the experience to progress and make a career whether that is with Swilly Traffic or not.
Why do you think there is a large Irish community in Traffic Management and the construction industry in general?
Irish traffic controllers are well-received by the industry because we do things in a friendly manner but are not afraid to get our hands dirty. We are people from the land and our hard work ethic sees us not afraid to work day or night, rain, hail or shine. I think a lot of the Irish boys started in construction and saw that there was potential for the girls to be included as well. Consequently, leading to the influx of Irish workers in the industry. Additionally, I believe our strong personalities assists us in diffusing different types of situations that can happen on the job. It’s really about achieving that balance of maintaining high safety standards and delivering quality work whilst having a laugh along the way in a friendly working environment.
As a small business owner, Nicole was executing multiple roles at once. Now with operations software, she has the time to concentrate on business development activities. Read the Swilly Traffic case study and learn how they use Assignar to grow interstate.