“We’re not here, just for now.
We’re here, trying to make this forever.”

This article was written by FTMA’s Kat Welsh

A few hours west of Sydney, lies Orange, a city with an abundant reputation for good food and wine. With a climate perfect for growing pears and apples, a history of gold mining, and V8 supercars in its veins, Orange has been a fertile spot for a community to exist and thrive. With expanding populations, comes building trades. In the early 1980’s Westruss opened its doors – originally in Millthorpe, then relocating to Orange as the business grew.

Nikita Bourke is the Operations Manager for Westruss, roof truss and frame suppliers in NSW, and the granddaughter of Jim Cheney, founder of the business. Nikita is also a board member for FTMA. Westruss has been a family enterprise over the past few decades, and Nikita has a vital role, supporting all the functions – accounts, payroll, computer programming, HR, all the stuff that keeps it ticking over. “My pop owns it, he started it 40 years ago. I’ve been here on and off pretty much since I was a kid,” Nikita said, “I went to uni, then came back to town, worked here. I took 2 years off to work externally, and then I’ve been back here ever since.”

When I asked Nikita if she had wanted to go into the timber industry, she joked “I don’t really know, I don’t think I had much choice.” For Nikita, growing up a part of the family business has been a natural pathway, and comes with meaning and rewards. “I spent a lot of time in my youth with my grandfather, I was always around it. I’d always be here in the factory, playing as a kid. As I got older, I’d come in and help in the office. It’s in my blood. I love it.” Nikita went on to describe what she prized about being in the industry, and how things are progressing with technology and engineering.

Nikita talked about the feeling of being a part of history, and when driving through town, her kids will point out houses and ask if she built them. “It’s really nice to be a part of something that is so important in people’s lives.” Being involved in the development of a community brings a connection to positive progression, now, and into the future.

Westruss is one of the bigger employers in town, supporting financial economy and security for the local area. “One of the guys we’ve got here has been here 35 years, and I am 37. We’ve got such good employees, and so many long-term ones. It’s really nice.” Nikita spoke fondly about the staff, and celebrating employment milestones – when the industry is struggling with staff shortages, you need to hold on to the good ones. “We’ve nearly halved from what we were,” Nikita said, “that’s not just staff shortages, but also the workload. Things are changing. When we had the huge timber issues, the interest rate hikes, the declines in housing, everyone we’ve talked to has less work on.”

The fluctuation of the industry has had a significant impact on so many businesses. Nikita talked about going from a lack of work, now to an impending uptake – needing to run extra shifts to keep up with the changing demand. For now, the current staff have opportunities of over-time, but that can be tricky to sustain long-term. Finding ways to get and retain skilled staff is a constant question mark.  When it comes to the timber industry having a voice and a social presence, it just doesn’t get the acknowledgment and engagement of workers, in the same way that the building trades do. The wood and the frames have to come from somewhere. “How is a house constructed?” Nikita asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t just fall off a tree and get stood up. Not even just the manufacturing, but the logging and the mills, they would be suffering too. It definitely isn’t out there,” Nikita said, about the lack of representation there has been for the timber industry – despite it supplying materials for so much of society’s daily needs.

Interestingly, while COVID has decimated the globe in so many ways since 2020, what came out of it for Nikita and Westruss, was creative transformations. “Being in the central west, for us it was a little bit beneficial, in the fact that we had to pull out of some of our delivery areas. We couldn’t get there because of restrictions, it made us diversify into other areas. What that then has done, has expanded our client base. It’s made us a bit more versatile during this down time. We’re pulling from a bigger pool and different areas,” Nikita said. Being creative about how the work got done, also brought changes to roles. For example, staff having to work remotely, highlighted that the work could be done from home if need be. COVID resourcefulness has continued for staff, preserving their skills as part of the team, and finding new ways of doing things. It was obvious that Nikita fully supports whatever it takes to look after the staff, which in turn supports the business. “It definitely made us adapt. And accept changes. I think it made people a little bit more understanding.”

Through that time, Nikita began her volunteer board role with FTMA and is into her 3rd year. “I absolutely love it. It has been so eye-opening. The other board members are amazing. Being involved in the background stuff, it’s so much more than what the business is.” Nikita talked about the role FTMA has played in the industry when it comes to unifying and supporting members with the training, the programs, and getting the Carbon Warrior message out there. She especially values being involved with FTMA and “… the cohesiveness between other fabricators. I love the fact the we have friends at different plants, we’re not just looking at each other as competitors.” Nikita described how FTMA has been significant in providing that sense of collaboration for its members. The work that goes on behind the scenes became apparent to Nikita when she joined the board – the time, the care, the passion of providing business supports, and a robust representation for the industry.

The work of FTMA, has given businesses a sense of pride about what they do. “Encouraging staff to appreciate timber, and understand what we’re doing for the environment. It’s been vital,” Nikita said. In terms of knowing the problems of the sector, “we can be part of the solution.” It is assisting in the identity crisis the sector has faced for a long time, and for workers and fabricators to feel confident and proud of what they are doing. “We’re not here, just for now. We’re here trying to make this forever.”

As an association, the work that Nikita, the board, and staff puts in to fully represent members is crucial. “We’re going above and beyond what people need… long term we need training, we need timber, we need programs. We’re doing a higher service and I like that. Beyond the needs, we’re getting the wants, the it-would-be-nicers, and the imagine-ifs.” Nikita’s dedication is clear – to be a part of the change and supports, not just for her own family business, but everybody’s family business, the environment, and the industry. “We try and be active in building the future, not just letting it be formed around us.”

Knowing that being in a family business takes up a lot of time, I tentatively asked Nikita what she liked to do outside of work and the board – wondering if she had any energy left! Surprisingly, there was a lot more to the iceberg! Like all rural city communities, the social scenes run deep in Orange. Spreading her passion beyond the timber industry, Nikita is the treasurer at the local rugby club, and a director for the Waratah Sports Club. Around all these extra local commitments, Nikita also finds time to play sports, get away with her family in the caravan, and go trail running. With the beautiful scenery around Orange, it would be a great place to lace up the runners and get outside.

Nikita talked modestly about the running events she signs up for, in that humble way that runners do, when they have become accustomed to endurance sports. But, the behind-the-scenes training to run long distances – like the work side of things Nikita talked about – involves mammoth amounts of commitment and time. As well as the achievements, there’s usually blood, sweat, and tears – and the hard work isn’t always visible.

Nikita is a devoted person, incredible in her ethics, and embodies what it means to be a strong, and a compassionate person – giving all she can to make a contribution. Thanks Nikita, for finding time to catch up in her lunchbreak!  It was inspiring to hear how much she is part of – for the business, her family, her local town, and the future of the industry.

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