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James Knowlton, 56, and his son Mathew, now 23, build family cabin about 10 hours north of Toronto. They learned how to organize and ship materials to a remote environment. After that, building a new career in home renovation in Toronto became easy. (Handout)
James Knowlton, 56, and his son Mathew, now 23, build family cabin about 10 hours north of Toronto. They learned how to organize and ship materials to a remote environment. After that, building a new career in home renovation in Toronto became easy. (Handout)

Retirement and RRSPs

Consultant, 56, builds new career in construction Add to ...

When Jim Knowlton reaches for a power tool these days he feels empowered by doing the work he loves.

“I expect to be doing this until I die,” says Mr. Knowlton, who co-founded a new home renovation firm on Jan. 1. That’s his RRSP, or more accurately his unregistered plan – Mr. Knowlton plans to just keep working away.

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Before the new year, Mr. Knowlton, a 56-year-old Oakville, Ont., resident, was on a different career path. He was a systems analyst, and the president of a small consulting firm, Luminance Inc., which helps larger companies with their information technology, management structure and staff training.

While he’s continuing with Luminance during his transition, he’s also one of three partners in SMJ, a custom home renovation business, and an offshoot called Do It Yourself With Help, which works with clients who want to do some of their own work to keep costs down.

The idea to move to a different career came to him about two years ago during a project with one of his clients, Rogers Communications Inc.

“We were interviewing a number of senior executives. One of the questions we asked was, ‘If you could do things differently, what would you do?’ ” he explains.

“What was interesting was that a number of the people who were between ages 55 and 65 said that what they’d do differently was spend more time with their kids in their teenage years.”

The executives said they had been there for their kids when they were young but threw themselves into work when their children reached adolescence.

“People would say, ‘I’m in my critical earning period and I’m good at what I do.’ ” But many of the executives had a nagging feeling that their teen children needed them. “I asked myself, ‘How different am I?’ ”

Mr. Knowlton’s self-questioning came at a time when his son Mathew, now 23, was struggling at home and at school. “We got the call from the Oakville police saying, ‘Can you come get your son?’ While it wasn’t serious trouble, it was enough to encourage Mr. Knowlton to look for a way to engage his son in something more productive.

Two years ago, the father-son team decided to take on a building project as a hobby – the family had inherited a remote piece of property near Gogama, Ont., a site about 10 hours north of Toronto, most easily accessible by rail and boat.

They decided to design and build a cabin on the site. At first they squeezed work into spare time and vacations, then last summer Mr. Knowlton spent most of his time at the site with Mathew, three of his son’s friends and a local builder.

Though always handy with tools, Mr. Knowlton discovered the project taxed the group’s ingenuity – for example, they had to build a makeshift raft to float the wooden beams needed for the cabin to the site.

He also discovered that he liked building and the construction business, more than he liked consulting.

“I took a bath in terms of my income,” he says, his former six-figure executive pay dropped dramatically as he set aside time for the building. The project cost about $150,000 over two years, Mr. Knowlton explains, paid for with an inheritance left to him by his father.

As the building neared completion, he entered into serious talks about going into business with two southern Ontario-based contractors he has known for years.

The partnership with Scott Campbell and Mike Swanson (SMJ comes from the three partners’ first initials) was a natural outgrowth of Mr. Knowlton’s beliefs about organizational behaviour – he says that successful companies are those that build long-term relationships with their customers.

Mr. Campbell and Mr. Swanson had their own clients, but could benefit from Mr. Knowlton’s experience in building new business.

Working with “builder-type guys,” as he terms his partners, pays off in other ways, Mr. Knowlton says. It adds to insights about workplace behaviour that he gained as a management consultant over the years.

“I discovered that there are good builders and bad builders,” he explains. This has less to do with the quality of the work than it does in finding “trusting relationships with people who say what they’re going to do and then they do it.”

Son Mathew has joined the firm, after graduating with a community college business degree. But employing his son was never the primary purpose of the new venture, Mr. Knowlton says.

The real job satisfaction comes from seeing how the three business partners have complementary roles, which make the new firm better than if he had started it alone.

Mr. Campbell and Mr. Swanson have been building for years, while Mr. Knowlton, with more limited building experience, has knowledge about increasing and maintaining a business.

“They have the technical skills, but they understand that the business is really about relationships. It’s the same as in consulting, that’s what splits the good businesses from the bad ones,” he says.

For a while, Mr. Knowlton will continue consulting, but he sees his long-term future in construction.

“People go to the same doctor for years. They use the same dentist and the same lawyer. They should be able to have the same kind of good working relationship with their contractor,” he says.

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