Past winner of business awards tells how a concrete company poured itself into excellence

Last week, as Rakesh Nauhria prepped for another four-week executive course with Harvard Business School in Austin, Texas, the chief executive of Nauhria Precast & Reinforcing Ltd had 45 case studies to read on the flight.

Three years of such readings may have helped the company's semifinal and supreme award wins in the Westpac Auckland Business Awards two years on the trot in 2014 and 2015.

Nauhria's in no doubt that the Harvard-level ideas - clarity of leadership, aligning vision and culture across the organisation as well as good, smart (meaning jargon-free) writing helped his team focus on what mattered when the company first entered the awards.

Nauhria was a finalist in the marketing and strategy categories in 2014, going on to win innovation, business leadership and the supreme award in 2015.

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The Westpac Auckland Business Awards are delivered annually by Auckland Chamber of Commerce in partnership with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) across the Auckland region.

"We had won stacks of concrete industry awards and were doing some people and development work with The Learning Wave," Nauhria explains. "They asked if we'd ever thought of these bigger business awards. We could see it was about improving and benchmarking ourselves, thinking about targets beyond the traditional financial ones.

"We also found it was inspiring for the staff to be involved. It's about the living organisation, the lived culture - and that's changing every day. In our second year, we involved some 20 or so people in the entry. Innovation is everyone's responsibility. "

The business school graduate joined his father Roshan Nauhria's business in 1999, eight years after it was founded. By 2006, the pair realised innovation was the key to differentiating themselves in a mature sector.

Nauhria senior had worked through cyclical downturns in construction before so knew that complacency was dangerous. Research with architects and construction clients led to a world-wide search for pre-cast technology.

But the hit from the global downturn not long after the company had invested in machinery was challenging.

"When we saw the Monarc product [creative precast concrete panels], it was a 'you have to have it moment'" says Rakesh. "By the time the GFC hit, we had a big investment and no sales.

"But we believed in it and kept investing in marketing. That paid off. We are around sustainability of the product, and of the business, and not being complacent."

Indeed, when the company won the innovation and business leadership awards, judges told Nauhria it was the way the company innovated in a long-time, stable industry that caught their eye.

Michael Barnett, Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO, agrees: "Hoping something will happen is not a strategy," he says. "Entering the awards forces you to do something, to go back and check 'why am I in business?' 'why am I doing this?'. It's rewarding [to the entrants] - you compare, you look at why you compete."

He says award-winning businesses like Nauhria, have engaged all their staff, creating good behaviours that spill into the wider communities where the company's people live and work.

"You recognise the role you can play as an employer, you can change lives and you've changed the community," he says. "We keep the awards geographical because businesses see themselves as part of their central, south, or west or north community. I always say successful businesses make a successful Auckland, and we must celebrate that success."

The new chief executive of ATEED, Nick Hill, has the new Auckland Growth Monitor and Auckland Index figures to prove this.

"Auckland is New Zealand's economic powerhouse and primary international gateway, generating 38 per cent of our country's gross domestic product," he says. "Auckland is at the heart of New Zealand's technology, commercial services, and food and beverage processing sectors.

"Businesses are also increasingly connected globally - Auckland generated $12 billion in exports last year, just under 850,000 people work in the region in 184,000 registered businesses."

He points out that while food and beverage and information technology industries are recent standouts, the city has a diverse range of business sectors, including companies like Nauhria's in advanced industries like hi-tech manufacturing and commercial services.

"Businesses focused on thinking outside the square, those that constantly innovate and invest in research and development, are key to driving Auckland's productivity growth."

Barnett adds: "Business is people who have risked their capital, risked their lives to inspire others. We want young people to risk their own capital and start businesses."

As a judge now for the 2016 and 2017 awards, Nauhria is even more enthusiastic for the awards than as an entrant.

"I learned so much from the entries and the interviews," he says. "You're constantly going 'oh wow, how are they doing that?'"