Rendine's elder statesman Geoff McKendrick reflects on four decades in construction
Today's version of Rendine Constructions looks markedly different to the company Geoff McKendrick joined in 1979, forming a four-man crew specialising in commercial construction across the Geelong region.
In 2021, Geoff is celebrating 42 years of service, now one of 60-plus staff spread across modern administration and factory facilities offering an extensive array of traditional and modular building solutions that we can roll out anywhere in the state.
As the longest-serving member of our staff, it took forensic work involving photos of the company's works-in-progress in the late 1970s to establish exactly when Geoff joined.
“There are some photos from 1979 of the Ocean Grove Post Office, half-built, and the old State Bank in Garden Street (East Geelong) - both were current Rendine jobs when I started,” he says.
“My first day, I was sent off to Leopold Primary School where we were building a multi-purpose room. There was a lot of work on over at the Winchester ammunition factory, back in their prime.”
After answering an employment ad for a carpenter, Geoff was hired on the spot by company founder and then-managing director Laurie Mills, who quickly pressed him to step up. “I said I don't want to be a foreman, I want to be a carpenter,” Geoff recalls.
One of his earliest jobs remains one of the most unique and memorable, as part of a team working at the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) site at Avalon Airport to install an arrester system for the RAAF's newly commissioned FA-18 Hornet fighters.
This involved the highly specialised installation of 10-foot tall inertia reel belts either side of the runway, with a steel arrester cable strung between them to simulate the experience of landing a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier.
“When the government bought the FA-18 Hornets, we didn't own an aircraft carrier so they had nothing to practise on,” Geoff says. “We had to work on the runway while it was 'live', we were escorted on and off as planes took off and landed. The planes would taxi out to the other end of the runway and we'd be copping the jet blast, getting sand-blasted every time. It was a very interesting job; we were there for about six months.”
Another project to stand out was the construction in the 1980s of Geelong's first crematorium, at Mount Duneed. “The building was pretty unique, there were a lot of curved walls, it was designed by McGlashan Everest,” Geoff says. “They then brought two incinerators out from England, along with a bloke to set them up. He was here about three months. You had to get the flame just right.
“I did a couple of kindergartens down at Clifton Springs early on and the first one was Central Road. It had curved brick walls, which was really different for the Bellarine Shire Council, as it was known back then. This thing had curved walls and raked ceilings. My kids went there, in the end.”
Not long after, Geoff finally agreed to Laurie's request to become a foreman, and oversaw projects including several components of the army base on Swan Island off Queenscliff, and the Lorne Hospital. “Laurie was the boss and I was his 2IC, I did all the 'outside' stuff,” he says.
“He said to me at the time, 'I'll buy you a new ute, don't come back until it's worn out!' Back then it was all travelling from site to site. And then I had to start to do some office work, and over the years it went from 10 per cent office work to 10 per cent on the road and the rest in the office!”
Geoff was “construction boss” for 26 years before a bout of ill-health forced a change. “They said 'come into the office and do something easy'. Well, easy was what I already knew, I had to learn to a whole new trade, estimating. Laurie had given me a few jobs along the way to quote, but it's a different thing to do it full-time,” he says.
“If the body allowed, I'd still be out on the tools, but I've been out of it too long now. I didn't train to be an estimator, I trained to be a carpenter. But I'm grateful, I was the first estimator the company had, and now we have a team.”
Times, unsurprisingly, have changed in the transition of Rendine Constructions from a small team of carpenters and joiners in the 1970s and '80s to today's large workforce, in which Geoff is the company's Senior Estimator.
“Under Greg (Mills, Laurie's son), the place has moved along and gone into different fields such as modular construction,” Geoff says.
“Building forms have changed. Everything's got to be quicker on site. My first job as an apprentice in 1972 (with J.C. Taylor), that took 18 months, but I was there from start to finish.
“Back in the day everything was onsite, and if it rained you got wet and everything stopped. So there was downtime. Now with Modularity, the rain doesn't affect construction, it's only the on-site staff that are going to be affected.
“Back then, the architect was God. Now it's more collaborative, the architect has some good ideas but you are part of the deal. You can ring them and flag a problem and work it out. The architect is talking to the engineer, who is talking to the builder. It's more collaborative.
“Everyone's had to become smarter than the old days - for example, concrete is not just what you walk on in your house anymore, it's pre-stressed, it's going to have some load to it, we'll put some camber on it and bring it back to level. We've evolved.”
After serving 42 of his 50 years in construction with Rendine, Geoff says he is indebted to his first boss, Laurie Mills, and successor, Greg Mills.
“Greg's upped the ante, we're going from strength to strength,” he says. “Without him, I wouldn't have a job. It's a very different place now to when I started, but I've had a ball.”