Turning Childhood hobby into business
A carpentry business in Windhoek (The Guild) has been operating for the past 20 years under the ownership of British-born businessman, Gerald Brooker-Smith.
In his early years in England at just age 14, Smith’s love for carpentry blossomed enough for everyone to notice. However, his family never shared the same enthusiasm he had for penetrating into the woodwork market. They advised him to get qualifications first before going down that route. So he went on to study Geological Technology at the South London College, UK, to become a geologist.
His geological qualifications would later bring him to Namibia in 1984 after learning that the Government was in need of a geological specialist. He applied for the job and soon landed a three-year contract. Little did he know that this would be his new home and the future home of the business he had always dreamt of owning.
Situated in Windhoek’s southern industrial area on one of the city’s busiest streets, The Guild was established in 1992 while he was still working for the Government as a technical geologist.
With only two employees to assist him, Smith got his woodwork business on track. However, he faced the challenge of not being able to dedicate his full attention to the business since he still held onto his full-time job. This meant spending weekends at the workshop to ensure that productivity remained consistent. After trying to balance his business with his full-time job for over three years, Smith finally resigned from the Government. He used his pension payout to expand his business and to buy the material and machinery he needed to operate it sufficiently. Before long, he had built a strong client-base comprised of organisations, upholsteries, churches and individuals.
“I have a number of regular clients but of course there are those for whom I provide my services and then never see them again. Overall, most of the clients usually return,” he says.
When Prime Focus paid him a visit at his workshop, Smith and his team of three men and three women were hard at work, finalising a Government tender of 500 chairs. Orders of this magnitude are not unusual for his business but he points out that he has learnt to deliver the goods on time despite the constant pressure that comes with the orders.
“My role is simply to supply the furniture as requested by my clients and ensure that they are delivered on time,” he states.
Other aspects of his business include constructing built-in kitchens that involve wooded kitchen counters and bar-tools. “This includes having a look at the client’s kitchen-plan and making accurate measurements of the place to have an idea of what the client wants to achieve,” he explains.
From coffee tables, bookshelves, table-frames, head-boards to just about anything made from carpentry, The Guild has an endless supply of finished products as per the orders they get.
The process begins with a template that they use to make measurements and mark cutting dimensions of the product.
Smith keeps templates of different items such as tables, door-frames and other items to help him determine how each piece will fit together and to visualise the final product. He uses a thicknesser to cut boards that are of an even thickness throughout their length and flat on both surfaces. Then he moulds them as soon as the thick wood has been straightened.
“We then drill a series of holes in the areas that join the wood with a dowelling machine and assemble them together. It is a mechanised process that requires concentration,” he warns.
Depending on the shape, design and size of the item, product completion usually ranges from a day to a week’s time. A single, basic bed for example, will only take a day to complete while a more crafted bed takes a week. The prices also depend on how much time and wood the items take up. “A single bed costs only N$700 while a double, fancy bed can go up to N$10 000,” he explains.
Although a few of his employees have gone through training at various Vocational Training Centres (VTCs) and gained enough experience to start their own carpentry businesses, they have stuck with him through thick and thin for over 13 years.
One of his young female employees, Sussana Kandenge says she has been working at The Guild for over five years. Sussana joined the workshop as an intern while training at the Ovalombola Vocational Training Centre in Ongwediva and worked for three years but stayed after completing her training. She hopes to start her own carpentry business one day with the experience she has since attained from The Guild. However, she admits that starting a carpentry business has proven to be a challenge for her and many other young Namibians; “The experience is there but not the funds, because keeping such a business venture is very expensive.”
Sussana’s former colleagues who have managed to start their own carpentry businesses sometimes have to borrow machinery from The Guild to get a job done for their clients because they cannot afford their own.
Smith says the language barrier between him and his employees can sometimes be a challenge as it is often difficult to try to explain to them what exactly he wants done but “we always manage at the end of the day.”
He does not describe himself as a businessman but rather a “creator”; “This is because a lot of creativity is required in my line of work. I also try to improve the efficiency and keep up with the latest trends within the industry to stay afloat in the market.”
Smith gladly shares a bit of age-old English tradition with regard to how he came up with the business name; “To be able to trade in London, one has to undergo an apprenticeship under a master till you prove your ability. Thereafter, you’re be allowed to start your own business. Initially, different society groups existed to represent different kinds of trades. They looked after the interests of their members and were called ‘guilds’. I decided to be creative and added a bit of that in naming my business because I’m a freeman of the City of London.”
His secret for a successful business? Well, it takes hard work, dedication and a love for what you do to realise your dreams, he prompts. “I never thought I’d one day be in this business but here I am,” he concludes delightfully. PF