OPINION: In a past life, and for only a short time, I was an electrician. After spectacularly failing in my ambition and familial expectation to become a doctor, I dropped out of school to pursue an apprenticeship.

I got through that journey, but it laser etched in my consciousness the awareness that I was wholly unsuited to trade life and hence my electrical career was short-lived.

What I did observe, however, in the short time that I was on the tools, was a very Kiwi rite of passage that was historically followed by so many people. That rite of passage was to leave school, learn a trade and then, newly armed with some practical skills and a desire to secure one’s own destiny, go out alone and start a small business.

Every small town in New Zealand is full of these self-employed sparkies, chippies, hairdressers and engineers who provide the solid backbone for New Zealand, all without gaining much in the way of attention.

This lack of attention is, even more, the case today when “entrepreneurship” has been newly defined as creating something that grows at warp speed, that is often run by what my sparkie friends would have referred to as “office Wallys” or “shiny bums” and that can be conceived of, grown and sold for gazillions, all in less than the 8000 hours or four years that traditional apprenticeships took.

Now before I get excoriated for demeaning software companies, high growth initiatives or the new economy (excoriation has, alas, been a feature of my world of late) let me say that I’m highly involved in that world. I’m an investor, adviser, board member and founder of a large number of different businesses – some have failed completely, some have taken 30 years to become an overnight success and others have followed the modern model – grown quickly and sold to offshore companies. I love business, and accept that there are many different models, all of which are valid.

I was reflecting on the old fashioned rite of passage the other day after having a yarn with Rosie Tong, half of the dynamic duo behind The Engineering Co in Hawkes Bay. Alongside her husband, Dan, Rosie bought the business a few months ago with a vision of continuing a proud legacy and building a successful future over time. If you think that sounds like a theme that is totally close to my heart, you’d be correct. There are similar values in Rosie and Dan’s business to those at Cactus Outdoor – building something solid and sustainable for the future, and protecting the legacy of those who put hard work into making things of quality. The Engineering Co is, in my estimation, driven by core values of longevity, something that we’re lacking these days.

It’s appropriate that longevity is central to Rosie and Dan’s view of business since their business is literally in the business of engineering some of the strongest and staunchest products this side of a radiata stump. The Engineering Co ethos is one of “fabricating and fixing the unfixable.” They are responsible for carrying out the fabrication of new safety guarding on many forestry and earthworks machines. While that was initially limited to a Hawke’s Bay customer base, they’ve recently been fabricating new guarding for machines nationwide.

There are a few interesting angles here. From the perspective of that Kiwi rite of passage I wrote about, it’s worth noting that Dan’s journey conforms to the traditional model. He left school early, went to work for his dad as an engineer before wanting to stand on his own two feet and finding an apprenticeship with another firm. He served his apprenticeship with Foot Engineering, founded back in 2000, worked his way up to being foreman and, 21 years after it was founded, took over the business and renamed it the Engineering Co.

There is another interesting angle, one which bucks the trend of high-tech and automation. We hear on a daily basis that the only way New Zealand companies generally, and manufacturing companies specifically, can survive is to invest heavily in technology and automation, and to pretty much abandon traditional approaches towards manufacturing. Interestingly, Dan and Rosie have a more traditional approach toward their engineering practices, and some of the machinery and tooling they use in their workshop is now considered redundant in this era of CNC laser technology.

Rosie contends that “It’s not so much a resistance to newer technologies but more that we will strive to keep the skill of engineering alive which frequently enables us to carry out repairs deemed ‘impossible’.” Perhaps there’s something that those old-school tradespeople could have taught us, right?

That’s not to say that the couple isn’t looking at ways to make their process more efficient, however. Their customers, many of whom are in the high-pressure forestry industry, demand quick and efficient service, especially for breakdown repairs. The Engineering Co have modern “rolling workshops” to deliver quick service on-site for customers. Because, in the forestry harvesting game, time is money.

Or there is Rosie’s eclectic career journey – from an (unused) beauty therapist qualification, several years spent in a bank, to a taste test of her own via the tradie life. More latterly she finally found her passion for photography and she uses this both in the context of producing marketing material for the engineering business but also in her side hustle as a hunter where she has a large following on social media.

Perhaps the best angle, at least as it relates to the current “rinse and repeat” style of inauthentic business lies in Dan himself. This is a guy who is passionate about engineering and being there to find engineering solutions for other businesses. Matched with Rosie’s focus on building a strong team as a woman leader within the typically male-dominated field, this is one couple who in many ways buck the stereotypical trends, while also following the path of a well-worn rite of passage.

They’re unlikely to feature in business magazines, and probably won’t get much attention from the various Government agencies set up to foster New Zealand business, but the work that Dan and Rosie do is still important and it’s people like them that form the backbone of our country.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He was perhaps the world’s worst electrician but would like to think he learned something from his apprenticeship.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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