A carpenter, his mentor and business lessons from the best

A mentor is a powerful asset to any small business owner: you can share ideas, they'll guide and inspire you, and they're there to share in the highs and lows. Some people are lucky enough to land a mentor from the get-go, others enter into an enriching relationship along the way.

For Melbourne-based builder Brock Morgan, it was very much the latter. He met his mentor, Chris Barlow, after working on a six-month long project at Barlow’s house. At the time, Morgan was doing carpentry work as a subcontractor for a landscaping company – but he clearly made a great impression. About a year later, Barlow was looking to undertake a more substantial development project at his home and heard Morgan had since established his own business, Morgan & Co Builders.

The pair reconnected over a coffee, discussed the project, and have been working on it together ever since. In hindsight, their catch up was a defining moment for Morgan – he not only secured his first long-term, million dollar project, but he gained a mentor in Barlow. We dive into the pair's mentoring relationship and discuss the personal and business success Morgan has experienced ever since that first meeting.

Brock Morgan, the 28-year-old owner of Morgan & Co Builders

Brock Morgan, the 28-year-old owner of Morgan & Co Builders

When Morgan first started his business, his father – also a tradesman – served as his main sounding board. Morgan wasn't looking for a mentor when he began working for Barlow but was more than happy when their relationship started to thrive and he was on the receiving end of some useful business advice. “The mentoring relationship with Chris was more of a natural evolution,” recalls Morgan.

“When I first started Morgan & Co, I was doing a lot smaller stuff; no houses, no new builds or big projects. When Chris approached me to renovate his house – which was to be a three-part project – I told him very honestly I’d never worked on anything so big before, but was more than happy to give it a go. He instilled the confidence in me to do it, and offered to help along the way. The mentoring relationship sort of fell into place as he offered me advice.”

Thought #1: Entertain the possibility that everyone who crosses your path could potentially serve as a great mentor.

Mentoring is a two-way relationship

Morgan and Barlow’s relationship is based on a healthy amount of respect and shared ideas. Their relationship works because they contribute to one another's skill set and continue to grow and learn through shared experiences. It might seem like common sense, but a mentoring relationship is doomed to fail if it’s simply one party sharing all their knowledge and the other taking.

In their case, Barlow, who is also a director of several companies and has a background in infrastructure, says the relationship allows him to do what he loves: building and project management. “It’s also provided a launchpad for Brock’s business on the back of a three-to-five-year project timeline,” he says. “That was our goal going in, but the output has been greater than anticipated. Our development project continues and is surpassing all expectations, but we've also developed a very productive working relationship on top of that."

Thought #2: It's not just about you. A mentoring relationship needs to benefit both parties.

Make sure your mentor challenges you

When Barlow and Morgan first started working on the renovation project, they would hold weekly meetings to discuss issues, make decisions and check in on progress. Morgan recalls not knowing how to hold or conduct himself in those early days.

“As a carpenter who’s spent most of his time on the tools, I didn’t know how to structure a meeting, how to converse or how to drive an agenda. Chris put a lot of processes in place for the meetings, for how they’d run and what we’d discuss. That taught me a lot. For example, he’d create an Excel spreadsheet and we’d tick stuff off, then revisit it the next week and check all issues had been handled. I didn’t have the management skills for that side of the business to start with.But over time, he instilled that confidence in me, and now I feel really comfortable doing it.”

For Barlow’s part, he says Morgan is an enthusiastic, bright and mature young man. “Brock’s best outcomes have come from us simply asking each other questions and when appropriate, respectfully challenging assumptions and ideas. We have always maintained space in our working rhythm for curiosity and we keep a healthy appetite for stuffing things up… once.”

Thought #3: Don’t shy away from uncomfortable situations in business. Growth comes from leaving your comfort zone – and a mentor's guidance can encourage this.

Morgan's design and building skills were put to the test on this project: his first wine cellar in a Bayside Melbourne property

Morgan's design and building skills were put to the test on this project: his first wine cellar in a Bayside Melbourne property.

Share your learnings and continue the cycle

Morgan says one of his greatest learnings from Barlow is the ability to lead people towards a desired outcome – a skill that's been particularly handy in hiring and training young apprentices on-site. “Chris has really taught me how to approach and manage people, to get a desired, beneficial outcome out of them. With my apprentice, if he makes a mistake, rather than get angry or yell, I’ll have a chat to him about it and talk about how we can fix things, or prevent it from happening again. It’s very much a ‘get the job done and get it done right’ approach, without making a person feel bad. It’s very different to what happens in most trades,” he says.

Thought #4: The knowledge a mentor passes onto you can benefit everyone you encounter in business, especially younger team members.

Learn the value of a deadline

In his line of work, Morgan says managing other tradespeople is difficult. Working with Barlow has reinforced the importance of deadlines, and sticking to them, no matter the circumstances. “Other tradies’ reliability is the toughest thing in this business. Quite often they say they’ll turn up at 12pm then they call and ask, ‘can we do it tomorrow instead?’. In the past, working for myself, I would’ve just said ‘yes, ok’ but Chris insists that people deliver as promised, and he’s very strong on deadlines. He’s given me the confidence and the skills to problem-solve, to throw more people at a project to get it done, or to get rid of people who haven’t performed. It’s cut-throat, but you get results.”

Thought #5: A good mentor will first help you navigate rocky waters, then teach you to manage these difficult situations on your own.

Building a water-proofed garden on top of a basement at this Brighton property saw Morgan work with several other trades towards a great result.

Building a water-proofed garden on top of a basement at this Brighton property saw Morgan work with several other trades towards a great result.

Ask for help when you need it

As his business grows, Morgan spends more time on-site overseeing other trades, and less time on the tools. He’s also discovered that he consequently has less time for things like bookkeeping. Rather than struggle with the finances, like he did for the first 12 months, he’s outsourced it all to an accountant.

“At the start, I was trying to do it myself… I was reconciling all my accounts and it was taking me forever. Half the time I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right and it’d take three-to-four hours out of my night. When I turned to an accountant, it suddenly worked so much better. Now, it takes maybe one day a month to get it all up to scratch. I email figures to the accountant at the end of the month and it just gets done.”

This lesson was one that Morgan had to learn for himself, but Barlow says he sees an ability in his young protege to adapt and problem-solve towards a positive outcome, a necessary strength in small business. “In a very short time, Brock has developed as a great manager and motivator of people, and has become quite adept at shifting gears relative to the various settings he finds himself in,” he says.

Thought #6: As a small business owner, you’re not expected to be great at everything. Recognise the areas where you need help and ask for it. That help can come from your mentor or perhaps another expert.