One Tradesman’s Plan to Finance an Early Retirement


Name: Jerry Hillenburg, owner Jerry Hillenburg & Co.

Industry: Carpentry

My Story

My school teacher dad had five boys with me being the fourth. To supplement his income, Dad always built a “spec” house during summer break – my brothers and I were his crew. At the tender age of four, I was in charge of building roads in the mason’s sand pile for a little 1950 Ford truck that was just like Dad’s big one!

I eventually graduated into more challenging roles and in 1971 at the age of 20, I started Jerry Hillenburg & Co. as a finish carpenter contractor. I changed my focus to custom cabinetmaking in 1976.

cabinetmaker carpentry keep craft alive jerry hillenburg

Jerry’s shop “properly cleaned up.”

What’s the best part of your day?

At the end of the day when the shop or job-site was properly cleaned up, I would look back at the day’s work with a sense of great accomplishment and satisfaction.

What’s the key to success in your industry?

Having a passion and love for woodworking and managing a business. I was so focused and excited on what I was doing that there was no way I was going to fail. Money, while important, was not the motivating factor to my success.

You mentioned you are retired; as a small business owner how did you prepare for retirement?

carpentry cabinetmaking keep craft alive Jerry Hillenburg

“I was so focused and excited on what I was doing that there was no way I was going to fail.”

Good employees require steady work or they will go elsewhere. To keep my employees busy during slow times, I paid them to maintain and upgrade a few investment properties and a farm I purchased over the years. This was not easy, and many times I questioned my sanity, but I retired at age 50 and our modest lifestyle is now funded by these properties. I kept the physical size of my shop small so I could afford to keep it when retired. It gives me a place to mess around and a facility for use as a maintenance building. I still work, but I do what I want to do when I want to do it.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of craftsman?

I grew my business slowly and paid cash for everything – even the building. I “retired” at the age of 50. I think my strategy could be emulated by any craftsman. I define retirement as, being able to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.

What can we do to get more students interested in a career in the trades?

I think society should quit trying to convince students that a college degree is the only way to success. I graduated high school by coasting through and then dropped out of college after one semester. I was not dumb, but I was bored in the classroom. I thrived when I went into the trades as a woodworker. I know there are others like me.

Early exposure to the trades sows seeds that can lead to satisfying careers.

We agree, completely.

Thanks, Jerry

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