The master and the apprentice

A true mentor can be relied upon to help you grow and develop in business. And if you’re lucky enough, they may even become a friend.

That was the case with Tommy Knudsen (joiner and owner of Hammer Scope), mentor to Rory Wilkinson (carpenter and owner of Beaches Home Maintenance).

Under his guidance, Wilkinson grew from a 17-year-old apprentice learning hands-on skills to a fully-trained carpenter. Now 30, Wilkinson still calls on Knudsen for advice – and a catch-up coffee (or beer). He's recently started his own carpentry business and credits what he learned under Knudsen as the foundations of his new venture.

"At the time, I thought I was just learning how to actually build and create," explains Wilkinson. "But now I have had some perspective and I am setting up my own business, I can see that there's a lot Tommy taught me that shaped how I run the company, treat customers and do business myself."

Here are eight lessons Wilkinson learned that made a huge difference.

1. The little things are actually big things

“I didn’t realise how fastidious Tommy was until I went and worked with other builders and carpenters,” explains Wilkinson. “I saw how some of them could be quite sloppy, used quick rough and ready workarounds and as a result, delivered subpar work. Tommy is a perfectionist and the form of carpentry he does – creating specialist timber staircases and handrails – demands it. His attention to detail meant that he always retained customers for future work and that he created an impeccable reputation for himself in the industry.” Wilkinson explains that by always focusing on producing a superior end result, Knudsen carved out a point of difference in the market. His company was recognised for delivering excellence which attracted high-end customers and consistent work.

2. Do it once, do it right

As a young, eager apprentice, Wilkinson was always keen to leap in and start work. Knudsen explained the value in thoroughly assessing a situation or a job before commencing. “By taking a moment to consider context – how and why something was being crafted the way it was, what impact it might leave afterwards – I eventually learned to slow down. This meant I realised the importance of doing it once and doing it right, rather than charging in and making a mess of things as I figured it out – or worse – having to make changes or repairs later.”

3. Establish a rule of thumb with pricing

Wilkinson explains that Knudsen seemed like a wizard when it came to conjuring up quotes on the spot, something he admittedly still struggles to manage. “He finally explained he had worked up a few ‘rule of thumb’ formulas with pricing,” reveals Wilkinson. “For example, he knew that materials were always roughly a certain percentage of any job, labour was another percentage and he had to add on time for preparation and so on.” By knowing rough percentages of regular items he might invoice for, Knudsen was able to map out a job and quote it roughly in his own mind, determining when jobs were valuable and when to decline.

4. Legacy is everything

Perhaps the most powerful lesson Knudsen imparted was the value of creating and upholding a legacy – giving him a point of difference and value in the market. “Tommy designs custom staircases and handrails, which is a specialty business in itself,” shares Wilkinson. “He was always teaching himself more about the craft and about materials. He absolutely loves wood and has a great respect for it. That’s something he certainly instilled in me – to respect the natural grain, to learn how to enhance the value of the raw material we are working with and to embrace any so-called flaws in the wood. He’s known for what he does – he has naturally created a legacy for himself in business because he delivers beautiful work. And many of his lessons tie into that, but ultimately, loving what you’re making is probably at the top of the list.”

5. The power of a partnership

When Wilkinson initially worked with Knudsen he had a business partner who shared the load. Wilkinson says the two were at the core, an “odd couple” when it came to personality types, but they embraced each other’s strengths. “One was great at bookwork and following through with admin. One was great ‘on the tools’,” explains Wilkinson. “They complemented each other.” The lesson being that if you have an area in your business where you struggle to deliver, aligning with a business partner who complements your skill base (and gaps!) could help you become more successful and alleviate pressure.

6. Under-promise, over-deliver

“As an apprentice, I was making next to nothing and I couldn’t wait to get out of work at 5pm to go for a surf or relax with my mates. That quickly changed, working with Tommy!” laughs Wilkinson. He says his former mentor worked hard and Wilkinson could clearly see the results. “He always under-promised and over-delivered,” says Wilkinson. “His hard work embodied his focus and attention to detail but also meant I got to see lots of happy customers and it was clear to see what the pay-off was. We didn’t let people down – that was a pretty good feeling.”

7. Respect the value of good people - you never know when you might meet them again

“With our industry, there’s a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations, so you always want to make sure you treat people with respect,” says Wilkinson. Further to that, Wilkinson noticed Knudsen was always keen to work with people he valued – even if they had moved on. He regularly reached out to ex-employees for one-off jobs or to help support their new businesses. As a result, Wilkinson often now sends work Knudsen’s way and has also worked alongside Knudsen on a few ad hoc occasions. "If I am at a job and they need stairs, Tommy is the first person I recommend because I know he will do a great job. Tommy gets more work, my reputation isn't in danger and the client gets a good end result."

8. Personality matters

As a nervous young apprentice, Wilkinson wasn’t even sure what to put on the résumé he printed and took along to his original job interview with Knudsen. “He didn’t even look at it!” says Wilkinson. Instead, he sat with the teenager over a cup of tea and the two had a long chat about football before he was offered the job. Wilkinson later learned that Knudsen was more focused on finding someone who was the right cultural fit. Knowing you spend such a huge amount of time with your team members, Knudsen continued to stress the value of finding colleagues who were a great personality match. “He knew he could – and did – train me up to fit in terms of the work, but he wanted a natural ‘click’ to build on first,” says Wilkinson. “That’s what eventually led to us being great mates.”