Young marine fabricators in Australia

Published On: September 1, 2022Categories: Business

Employing young people is painful.” “They don’t know how good they’ve got it.” “All they know how to do is play games on their phones and computers.” 

I hear these things often, and they are just so wrong. I love young people. I used to be one!

Here in Australia, I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to teach our next generation, and we are in good hands. But how, you may wonder, do we find more of these stellar young fabricators? 

It starts with discarding preconceived ideas and giving a young and/or inexperienced person a go. Tomorrow. And if you don’t find one tomorrow, the next day or the day after that, and never stop because young people are the future of our trade. 

I am so grateful that Vernon Conlon decided to give a very young and immature student a go. He taught me how to use a sewing machine, dream up and draw new designs, bend pipe, cut fabric and, for a long time, make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. What a start. What an absolute blessing that someone I had never met before gave me an opportunity. 

And 44 years later, I am still passionate about those skills and our industry.

My new work takes me all around Australia, and I am blessed to see our trade thriving among young people. There are many young business owners who believe in themselves and want to change the landscape that I lived. But they are also facing serious challenges—employing staff, technology, accounting systems, training—and we need to be ready to offer help.

I want to recognize a few young fabricators in this column, but also offer a shout-out to many others in Australia and around the world who are taking a crack at it. To them I say, Stick with it. It is worth the journey, and never forget to reach out to me or other “oldsters” should you feel the need.

Michael Walker, Avtek Covers, Cranbourne, Victoria

Now 35, Walker took the reins from the former owner of Avtek back in 2006 when he completed his apprenticeship and has not looked back. His exuberance at making a sale is electric to watch, and when he gets the chance to share his experiences in business, he is an unmovable force. 

“I am very grateful for the friendships I have with fellow fabricators,” says Walker. “I take every opportunity to reach out to them and share my experiences.”

Walker’s sales ability is unique. He loves a deal and loves the value-added sale. He is a master at it. He has evolved Avtek Covers into a business that does the deal, sticks to the deal and delivers the exact outcome for the client in an incredibly short space of time. That’s not unique in business, but Walker does it day in and day out with the energy of a hurricane.

He is a great listener when learning, never afraid to ask questions, and is always prepared to gamble on his desire to achieve new heights in project excellence.

Lessons learned so far

“I don’t work outside my box,” says Walker. “I am a marine fabricator, not a motor trimmer or an upholsterer. I don’t get caught up in projects that are not marine related.”

Walker believes in repetition and constant improvement to achieve revenue goals with regular, incremental changes to move with industry trends. Technology is on his horizon, starting with a cutter/plotter, and he is aiming for 3D scanning equipment.

“The industry has never been healthier, and the demand is overwhelming,” he says.  

Ki-Raphael Sulkowski, K1 Marine Trimming, Fremantle, Western Australia

Still in his 20s, Sulkowski has built a thriving business in a booming marine market. Those who follow the America’s Cup of sailing will remember Fremantle as the venue where Dennis Conner and Team USA won back the trophy. 

Part of Sulkowski’s evolution was working in sail lofts. He is very vocal in his local marine fabricator community, and he stays active by teaching apprentices and is a representative on the Marine Fabricators Committee of Australia’s Specialised Textiles Association.

“Starting my own business came down to my desire to do it my way and control my own destiny,” says Sulkowski. “I’m always looking to initiate new designs and work with the latest fabrics and machinery.”

Editor’s Note: Ki-Raphael Sulkowski won an Award of Excellence in the 2022 MFA Fabrication Excellence Awards in the Sailboat Enclosures category. His award-winning project is featured on the cover of this issue. 

Brandon Cox, BJC Covers, Port Stephens, New South Wales 

Cox has a different story to tell. He is an incredibly talented young fabricator in his mid-20s who says he is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the sheer volume of marine work to be done. 

“I have no energy left for the business,” Cox says. Managing the workload and his own expectations has convinced Cox that he needs a rest from BJC Covers, a company he started at an even younger age.

In beautiful Port Stephens, customers have few options for quality marine fabrication, and Cox says his local competitors (friends) run equally busy shops and have long lead times to complete projects. These challenges are not uncommon, but the explosion of new boat owners through the pandemic has increased the workload exponentially, along with the burnout.

“This is a new challenge for my generation of fabricator,” Cox says.

Supporting young fabricators

Losing highly qualified young fabricators is devastating. Cox must do what is right for him, and we older business owners must learn how to help young business owners cope. 

Really listening to young business owners and new workers is a critical first step in reinforcing our industry. It is their time, and we need to tell them about the rewards that are possible with careful business/life planning and the strategic execution of their skills. We oldsters didn’t get every situation right. We worked far too many hours, and we should discuss this with them.

“In my day” conversations fall on deaf ears, and so they should. It’s not our day. In my case that’s long gone, but we can be there to help and support the next generation. They want what we wanted, and we owe it to them to nurture their energies and support them. Listen more. Encourage them. And don’t be judgmental because if we are, then our trade is in trouble.

But I believe we are not in trouble.

Watching Michael Walker and Ki-Raphael Sulkowski give presentations and network at workshops, openly discuss their methods and vulnerabilities, and engage with attendees is so rewarding. 

Brandon Cox is a quality young person who will carve an amazing career in whatever pursuit he chooses. He recently sent me this update, “I’m just doing a few days a week to keep my skills up and I’m enjoying it.” I will do my darndest to keep him in our fold and support him on his journey.

These are three terrific young people, and our trade is full of wonderful young leaders that I am so proud of. Despite the challenges, I can say with confidence that “our trade is in good hands.” 

Neil Hancock, MFC, started his marine fabrication journey as a 16-year-old in 1977. He retired in 2018 to join the Nolan Group, an Australian supplier of commercial and industrial textiles, as Market Manager for the marine and automotive industries. 

SIDEBAR: Next-gen support

Here are concrete steps you can take to support young marine fabricators:

  • Listen more. All generations can teach and learn from each other.
  • Mentor young business owners in business skills and consider partnership opportunities. What young people lack in terms of investable cash can be made up for with their creativity, risk tolerance and willingness to embrace technology.
  • Discard preconceived ideas about young people and don’t be judgmental.
  • Hire a young and/or inexperienced person and set aside time to train them. 
  • Be patient and kind. They genuinely may not know what you are talking about.
  • Set people up for success, not failure.
  • Guard against gender and age bias.
  • Always ask new staff members to write and draw or sketch their thoughts.