Name: Jerry Hillenburg, owner Jerry Hillenburg & Co.
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.
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?
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.
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