“They let us have all the old contacts – it was like winning the lottery!”
I’m the co-owner and co-director of Grange Joinery, specializing in high-end cabinetry and joinery.
I dropped out of school when I was 15, it wasn’t for me. I was good with my hands though, loved working on cars, building pergolas and such. My dad was a bank manager, but he was keen for me to become a tradie. You see, when he was younger, he wanted to be a plumber, but his dad made him get a ‘suit’ job. I suppose he wanted me to realize that potential for both of us.
After a brief stint in a building apprenticeship that didn’t work out, I sent letters to about 50 cabinet making companies. Out of the five that replied, I picked one, went to see them and started work the next day. I did my apprenticeship there for four years.
After my apprenticeship, I got a job at Design Craft Cabinets and ended up working there for 12 years. I started on the floor, as a tradesman for five years, then I became the foreman for four years. By then I knew the business really well, and was promoted to work at the office – deal with clients to get job specs, quote, measure and organize jobs.
In my last three years there, my boss sold the company and we all went over to new management, who were more focused on working with commercial buildings. I stayed for another two years, but as the focus shifted to shop fitting and such, our old residential clients started leaving.
Jay was the foreman there at the time. I’m a Dandy boy, and Jay is from Frankston. We’d known each other for a few years by then, from the clubs – remember 21st Century?
Also, starting from my apprenticeship years, I always did weekend work on the side. I started with a kitchen for my auntie, and it followed on from there, family and friends. But I didn’t want to spend the whole weekend working, so I asked Jay to help. He was up for it, and we ended up working a lot together, splitting everything 50/50.
So I said to Jay one day, we have relationships with all these builders and architects, but they are going elsewhere because the company doesn’t want them as clients. We should start up ourselves – it’s a perfect chance to get into the industry and with a ready customer base.
We told the new owners we wanted to branch out. They didn’t mind, as we weren’t in competition with them. They let us have all the old contacts – it was like winning the lottery!
We hired this factory. It was just us two at the start. For the first week, we’d come in, set up and have long BBQ lunches. Then I got a call from an architect, and we had our first job to start the following week. There were no more BBQs after that!
To get that job done, we had to put two people on. We employed some guys who wanted to come across from Design Craft, offered them good terms. However, both Jay and I still worked on the floor in the early days. We’d do all our office stuff, paperwork, prepare the plans, and then both go down to the floor and join in.
It grew fast. We kept on getting busier – we used to put an average of one person on every three months.
Now we’re up to 16 employees. There’s been some staff turnover, probably 30 people have worked for us at one time or another, but that’s normal in this industry.
Now, myself, Jay and two bloke are in the office, dealing with clients and paperwork. We have a foreman on the floor, Steve, and he runs the five guys on the benches. We give him the cutting lists and he distributes the work between the guys, ensures it’s all done to standard. Then there are the on-site guys who do the installation works.
Time management is a big one for me.
When we first started, we used to get here at 5am and could be here till 12am sometimes, which was an average of 80-90 hours a week. It could be quite stressful. Now that I have a young family, I say to Jay, we’ve got two under two, plus three older kids. I have to start later and finish earlier sometimes. Jay’s got two kids as well, so he gets it. So I might come home earlier, but then when the kids go to bed, I’ll sit up for another four hours to do a quote, or a cutting list.
I quote a lot of jobs – it involves speaking with the client, going out to site, measuring, getting their wish list for the perfect kitchen. Then I prepare the cutting list, which is a list of all the parts of your kitchen, with measurements. That goes down to the factory floor & gets cut to size.
On Mondays, we have management meetings – Jay and I, Steve, the other office guys. We go over work coming up, what we have to get out this week. Steve will raise production concerns, we’ll solve all those issues if they’re there. We talk about who we’re chasing for payments, who is chasing us for payments or quotes.
We are always busy.
Maybe we take on too much work. Jay might have fifteen jobs running, I might have five. The jobs vary in size & budget. For instance now I’ve got four big jobs, they are each worth between $200K and $400K. So I’m running a million dollars worth of work that’s gotta be finished before Christmas. And Jay has fifteen jobs, they might be smaller, around $50K, but it’ll add up to about the same.
We’re lucky in that we don’t chase new clients, we don’t have to advertise. We did set up a website seven years ago, but we haven’t really touched it since – it barely gets used. All our work is from repeat clients and word of mouth.
We probably have about fifty contacts, mostly architects and builders. Some might give us ten jobs a year, some only one. In that high-end market where we operate, everyone knows each other, so you have to keep your reputation top notch.
Mistakes happen sometimes, and I hate them. Something gets cut or installed wrong. The architect rings, wants to know what’s going on. It costs money!
These days, we make sure we get all our plans and drawings verified by the clients in writing, which covers us a bit. We used to get the materials on site and they’d turn around and say, that’s not we ordered. If there is nothing in writing, it becomes a major headache. Now we have everything in an email, and there’s no disputes as to who is responsible for changes or mistakes.
Most of the work we do is for grand family homes in areas like Armadale and Toorak. Or we go down to Portsea and Sorrento – it’s the same families’ holiday homes. Unfortunately, most of the times the clients don’t let us take photos, but when you walk in to see the finished job – these kitchens look amazing! I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing how they turn out.
Starting up the business was the best thing I did, it took me to that next level.
A lot of people warned me not to go into partnership, but it has worked from the start. Jay and I get on really well, we are both easy going and honest with each other. I love how the company has turned out, we have great people working for us. There are pressures that come with it, of course. You can say you’re feeding fifteen families, as most of the guys here have families. I do feel the responsibility to keep generating work not just for me, but for them also, so they can support their families.
I have no regrets, just lessons learnt.
Looking back, perhaps we should’ve learnt more about managing a business from day one. We knew how to build a kitchen, but didn’t know much about running a business. We relied on the accountant who set up our books, but we had no advice on budgeting, taxation, business systems and processes. We ended up growing really fast, maybe too fast, and it would’ve really helped if I had done a business management course, to get those basics right from the start – it would’ve saved us some time and money.
The plan for the next couple of years is to set up better systems in the office and automate some processes so that I can delegate responsibility and cut down my hours. That would allow me to oversee the business, but also branch out into other things.
I’d like to get into building and development.
My wife Lena is interested in getting into development in the future. We even did a course together, which was a Certificate IV in Carpentry. With that, I can go and get my building license, and we’ll start doing some more projects.
Lena is brilliant on the planning and paperwork side of things, but would prefer someone else to deal with builders and such. So it would be ideal for us to work together – she can find projects, organize all the planning and design, and I’ll manage the building.
I don’t see my kids going into cabinet making or taking over the business. I’d rather them be builders or developers, hopefully I’ll pave the way for them to do that. But it’s up to them, of course, I’ll have to wait and see what they like when they grow up. I still have a few years until then though!