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Don’t be afraid to switch up careers, custom home builder, 58, says

Two years ago Jim Knowlton of Oakville, Ont., started his dream construction business with two partners. Now, although Master Homes is thriving, he hasn’t yet given up his consulting work.

This story is part of a Second Careers series that looks at people who are making major career changes after 50 – workers who are staying relevant and thriving in today's job market.

Nearly two years after starting his dream business with his two partners, Jim Knowlton of Oakville, Ont., considers himself a master of the house.

"We came up with a real name for our company, Master Homes," says Mr. Knowlton, 58, who was first profiled in this series two years ago, Consultant, 56, builds new career in construction.

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Then, he was setting up a custom home design and construction company formerly called SMJ with partners Scott Campbell and Mike Swanson at the end of 2012.

"We have a logo now, too, though we still don't have business cards, a website or a lot of that kind of stuff yet."

What Master Homes does have is a viable business, with completed projects, money in the bank and a roster of more than 25 clients, Mr. Knowlton says. The dream, while still a work in progress, is unfolding – to establish a business in a field he loves that will carry him through retirement.

"We're quite a bit in the black, which is fabulous for a firm of our size," he says. "We knew that we'd have to start making money right away, so we started behaving as if we'd already existed. We started in doing projects in January, 2013."

Mr. Knowlton nevertheless continues his work as a business consultant with his other firm, Luminance Inc., where he is president. He conducted an extensive series of management classes for a Georgia firm late in 2013.

When Mr. Knowlton started his new business with his partners, he wasn't sure whether he would abandon his consulting work, or when the new business would do well enough for him to do so. Now, even though Master Homes is thriving, he doesn't want to give up consulting.

One thing he has realized in the past two years is that he likes both white collar and construction work. "I can do both – the only problem is I never stop work," he says.

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But he believes his consulting helps him and his partners develop their company. "I like what I do as a consultant," he says, adding that he intends to continue in this line of work as well.

The Master Homes partners are constantly refining their business model, Mr. Knowlton says. Last year they developed an 11-page business strategy document, which is still evolving.

"We pretty much follow it, but some of the things we put in it just aren't true. So we're going to sit down and revise it," he says.

The partners had originally planned their company to be a construction business with a school for teaching clients and students how to do construction work and a service for people who want do-it-yourself with help – a project they can work on themselves with professionals on site to troubleshoot and provide advice.

"The school is not practical," Mr. Knowlton says. "The DIY with help is an interesting idea, but it doesn't stand alone financially. We think we'd be better to have the construction business and pair it with a maintenance business," he adds.

"What we do is really asset management [homeowners maintaining their properties]. It sounds boring but it's important."

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While the idea of running a construction school has fallen by the wayside, the partners remain committed to helping their children and other young people learn business and workplace skills.

Mr. Knowlton's son Mathew, 25, and his son's friends, Adam Hughes and Awrey Southey, are Master Homes' employees and they have also developed their expertise by working each summer custom building a Knowlton family cabin on a remote lake in Northern Ontario.

Now the three are searching the job market for work that matches their education. "We started by hiring a bunch of kids just out of university and college, giving them a couple of years worth of work and income until they figure out what they're going to do," Mr. Knowlton says.

He is happy so far.

"If I don't like what I'm doing, then I'm responsible to change it. And if I'm ever in a situation where I don't like what I'm doing, I know who put me there," he says.

Advice for others

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"Make deliberate, conscious decisions about your career," Mr. Knowlton says. "Even a non-decision is a decision. So pluck up your courage, choose a direction and go.

"After a while, if you don't like the decision you've made, maybe it's time to make another decision. … Own responsibility for the decisions that got you where you are and think very carefully about the next decision that will get you to that better place. Things can't help but get better."

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