Tradie Profile: Jon Wilks – The Quintessential Kiwi

Jon Wilks owns a small building company in Christchurch, and his journey getting there is one a lot of New Zealanders will be familiar with. Ethan Neville caught up with him over the phone during Level 3 lockdown for this issue’s ColorCote Tradie Profile.

I’m not sure if you’ll find a more Kiwi Kiwi than Jon Wilks. When a mate got in touch and told me Jon was the bloke I needed to interview for my next Tradie Profile, I only knew he was a keen South Island builder who spent most of his spare moments in the mountains hunting. It turns out, however, his working life started about a 1000km north on his family farm in Katikati – a small town not too far away from Tauranga. 

“I was home schooled, and have spent the rest of my life recovering from it because you get so much stick from your mates,” he laughed over the phone. “Near the end, I wasn’t into the schooling side of things and university was not something that appealed to me, so I spent my time working on the dairy farm.”

His older brother who he looked up to had moved on from the farm to the tools, so, as Jon told me, “I wanted to follow in his steps a bit.” His big break came when one of his older brother’s mates got injured, and the building company he worked for needed a hand straight away.

“I started with the small company – only four of us – and managed to wrangle an apprenticeship with them. The boss was always asking me, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ I spent a bit of time not knowing if I wanted to commit, but building was practical and working with your hands is rewarding.”

From there, Jon didn’t look back with building, and particularly enjoyed working in a smaller team, despite the way apprentices were introduced to the trade 15 or so years ago.

“You get the usual stick about having a left handed hammer and left handed screwdriver, and you start to question it, but thankfully I didn’t fall for all of them,” he said, laughing again (which became a pretty regular feature of our conversation).

Flash forward five years, and Jon was now a qualified builder with some experience under his belt. It was time for another change – and this took the form of a six month stint in Australia. Jon dabbled in a bit of commercial work and was even brave enough to do residential building in the scorching Perth heat, but eventually booked a return flight to NZ for Christmas. While he never truly intended to go back over the ditch after his holiday, his Dad’s health sealed his decision.

“In that period, my Dad got leptospirosis and was in intensive care for six weeks or so. I was at home just helping out around the farm, and the next thing I knew I was in the deep end through the calving season… This is the most hectic time of the year and I only had some part time guy from down the road helping me out… it was a crazy little period.”

With his dad needing six months to recover, Jon hung around on the family farm for a good year or so, but once his dad’s health started improving, he reduced his workload and decided it was time for another break. As if to tick off the “young Kiwi bloke bingo” (farmer, tradie and stint in Aussie were already completed), Jon hopped on a plane for four months solo travel in Southeast Asia. 

“I was keen to get away for a bit, and it was awesome. I had some cool experiences and created some memories.”

He visited four countries, and even survived a three week long journey travelling through Vietnam on a $300 100cc motorbike, which involved plenty of dodging and weaving and running repairs. 

When he arrived back in NZ, he went back to the farm, but knew it was still a bit early in life to be settling in Katikati. A few friends of his friends had already moved to Christchurch, so he packed up the car and started the long drive south.

“The scenery is just epic down here. Big rivers and big mountains, and one of the things I really appreciate is the high country tops out in the open above the bush line. You just go a couple of hours through the beech forest and you’re in this epic country. I spent a lot of my time hunting, fishing and even tramping.”

The first job he landed was for a guy who would end up being not only his boss, but also his mentor, and this approach is something Jon has already taken on board with his own leadership style. After working for a few years for the small Christchurch company, Jon’s boss took an opportunity to move to Wanaka, and kindly let him take over the clientele with a similar business name. Holmesmade was born, and Jon quickly settled into his new role.

“When I took over, there were me and two other guys from the company – one was an apprentice and one was recently qualified… They’ve now stayed with me for six years, which is unreal…”

Over the next few years, the business grew steadily, taking on new apprentices each year, as well as a couple of qualified guys. There are now seven of them working in the Canterbury area – so my next obvious question to Jon was, on behalf of the younger tradies out there – “What’s the secret to growing your business and retaining your staff?”

“Building a company for me is all about relationships – relationships with the teams, relationships with the clients. For me, it’s not about the dollar figure driving the company. It’s about providing a service for people and wanting to start the job with the client with a good relationship, and then I want to be able to enjoy a BBQ with them at the end of the job. That’s the goal.

“Another big part of the job is problem solving. I used to call my boss all the time. Someone would call with a minor problem on site, but it wasn’t mild to me at the time. I’d have a minor panic attack when I’d see the phone ringing. My old boss helped me out through those times and those problems get smaller and smaller as you get more experienced. And then you’re not worried about what problems may happen, because there are always problems to solve, whether it’s getting something amended through the council or changing the paint colour, it’s all about working with people and getting it solved.”

This is one of the key lessons Jon has passed on to his own team – which he thinks is probably why they have hung around such a long time.

“The guys I have around me all feel like we are part of the company together… I solve problems with them… and they do get to make decisions.

“We haven’t tried to grow as such, it’s just been natural growth. When the right guy shows up for the team, the work’s there. The interview for Stevo my first apprentice was while we were snowboarding up Mt Hutt. We were just sitting down for lunch, and my wife was there, and we were just yarning and hanging out, and I thought this guy’s awesome and will get on well with the team. Now he’s now running a renovation job on the hill.”

What is particularly impressive is that Jon has managed to grow this business while also being a committed father and husband. He got married three years back, and he now has a two year old daughter and a four month old son. He did admit his family commitments have changed his weekends, but I would say he’s still doing pretty well considering the circumstances. His answer was telling when I asked him what he gets up to ‘off site.’

“I think I narrowed down to five hobbies: mountain biking, hunting, snowboarding, surfing and fishing.”

Having a family and a business has meant making the most of every spare moment he gets, even if it is only a few hours. And if you’re wondering what this looks like for someone living in Christchurch, a recent trip with his mate Struan (another Off-Site contributor)provides the perfect example.

“One Saturday, we said let’s get up to Kaikoura for the weekend to stay at a friend’s bach… We hooked the boat on, drove up there and stayed at the bach for the night. We then got up at the crack of dawn and were hoping to get out boating, but it was a bit rough, so we headed up the coast into DoC land hoping for an early morning deer. We had no luck, but still picked off a few goats off the hills. We then headed back to the car, got back into Kaikoura township and picked up the boat, and it was now glassy calm. We headed out to the secret spot, caught our limit of groper, headed back to the shore and then were home in time for dinner with the family back in Christchurch.”

I was impressed. As work/family/hobby balance goes, I’d say Jon’s got things about right. With our conversation drawing to an end, I couldn’t help but think Jon was quintessentially Kiwi – if someone asked me what the “Kiwi dream” looks like, it’d be hard to look past Jon for an example. People first, money second, and still making time to get into the mountains and on the water. Sounds about right to me. 

Article by: Ethan Neville