The ingredients that made a successful kitchen company. - Space Craft Joinery

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The ingredients that made a successful kitchen company.

by Ellen Wundersitz, December 2016

This is the story of a joinery: how two people met, fell in love, and with the full support of their families, joined together in matrimony and business to pursue a joint addiction to the craft that builds spaces people love living in.

During her school holidays at the end of year 11, a 17-year-old girl contracted a bug that changed her life forever. Fortunately, it was the renovation bug, which proved fateful rather than fatal.

While her classmates were tearing up dance floors, Ellen was polishing the floorboards in her bedroom, stripping paint from the timber doors, frames and windows, and painting. By the end of her holidays, the room was finished but the bug hadn’t.

At 22, Ellen purchased and renovated her first home, a flat in Burnside, quickly followed four years later by a home in Prospect. She didn’t know it but just a couple of suburbs away in Manningham, a 24-year-old and similarly afflicted lad named Nathan was not just polishing floors and painting his first home but also putting his skills in designing, building and installing joinery to good use. She could have used a man like him.

Despite the fact that they were virtually neighbours with a shared love of homemaking, the two would finally meet in Mannum at the footy finals, cheering on the Imperials. (Another shared passion.) As the Blues celebrated victory that night, another team was forming on the dance floor.

Ellen and Nathan ended up buying a 40-acre property in Hartley, complete with a gorgeous but dilapidated 1910 villa. Pooling the proceeds from the sale of their two homes, they smartly set about renovating the house and it was during this process that the idea for SpaceCraft was born.

At that stage, Nathan was working at Weylands Cabinet Makers in Murray Bridge, having worked in the industry since leaving school, completing an apprenticeship at Walls Bros and developing his skills at Gawler Custom Cabinet Makers in between. Anthony Weyland quickly recognised Nathan’s enormous potential and brought him into the office to set out, cost and quote. On the side, he also started designing kitchens and showed his flair with an orange glass splashback that stopped people in their tracks in the Weylands showroom.

Nathan was now ready for the next step, and with Anthony’s blessing, left to extend himself in a business that he and Ellen would run. Supporting that decision, Ellen had a full-time job as studio manager at Parallax Design in Adelaide.

Ellen and Nathan spent the next 12 months planning the business and six months investigating premises. But the lengthy gestation of the business was interrupted by another important birth: Ellen delivered Kiefer, their first son. You could argue, in hindsight, that the timing wasn’t exactly perfect. But neither Kiefer nor destiny would be denied. So Ellen took maternity leave whilst helping Nathan finalise the plans for the new business with no guaranteed income.

Seventeen months later, little Harley followed his brother Kiefer into the world. This meant that Ellen’s second maternity leave from Parallax became a juggling act with two boisterous baby boys and a part-time job with the nascent family business. Things got a little hairy. (And we don’t just mean the boys.)

Originally, with 40 acres of space available at home in Hartley, it made sense (and would have saved a lot of dollars) for Nathan and Ellen to build a big, industrial-sized shed there. Thankfully as it turns out – although they weren’t thankful at the time – the council wouldn’t approve that plan. They then turned to the mega-blocks at Monarto, which they found they couldn’t afford. The end of 2007 wasn’t looking exceptionally flash.

Then, on Christmas Day, as luck would have it, a little miracle occurred. Opening up The Argus, they stumbled onto an ad for a shed in King Street, Strathalbyn. On the way to Ellen’s family for Christmas lunch, they drove by the site and it seemed absolutely perfect. They then spent the rest of the day fantasising about the possibilities. The reality was, however, that they just didn’t have the money to buy their own premises on top of the panel saws, edge-banders, hand tools and materials the business required.

There was no denying the shed was perfect, albeit the fact that it needed a lot of love. As dyed-in-the-wool renovators, however, that didn’t scare Nathan and Ellen. But the money did. And that’s when the extended family truly bought into this family business. Ellen’s father, Ted Byrt, was as excited by the prospect as they were and knew a good investment when he saw it. So much so, he generously agreed to fund the purchase of the shed using his superannuation. Over the next few months, he negotiated with Harry and Paul Wilhem, as any good lawyer would, to secure a competitive deal and then funded the renovations.

In 2008, SpaceCraft was ‘go’.

Just like its namesake, the launch of the business was slow and deliberate. Accordingly, Nathan was grateful to family and friends, who commissioned some early work. Marketing was somewhat haphazard and, despite having invested in branding and a web site with Ellen’s connections in design, social media was still in its infancy and not really working for businesses at the time.

Some things you just can’t skimp on and Nathan soon realised he needed an extra pair of hands. That led to the addition of an apprentice and the first unrelated employee to join SpaceCraft’s extended ‘family’.

Since then, Ellen and Nathan have employed one new team member every year. Accordingly, in the company’s ninth year of operation, they’ve been on the hunt for staff member number nine: a production planner, which is a new role created especially to help Nathan manage the influx of new work.

Ellen and Nathan still find recruiting one of their hardest challenges. After all, you don’t just want people with the best skills; you want people it’s a pleasure to work with and who can relate to clients, as well. Obviously, it’s not easy finding people with both those traits, especially within the smaller pool of talent outside of Adelaide. Ellen freely admits their recruitment process is decidedly more sophisticated than it used to be. That said, they have always managed to luck in with a great team of local people, who keep winning plaudits from clients.

As other business owners who’ve started from scratch will no doubt agree, failure isn’t the only way to strike problems. A growing business is a hungry beast that keeps raising new and interesting problems to solve along the way.

For example, in 2011, Ellen and Nathan set up their own self-managed superannuation fund to purchase the King Street workshop off Ellen’s dad. At that point, they never anticipated needing more space. Barely five years later, however, they had grown to bursting point. In January 2016, after looking unsuccessfully for an alternative site in Strath, fortune once again smiled on them as they were able to lease a shed directly across the road to double their floorspace and production capacity. Within months, though, that shed, too, was filled to capacity. So, appropriately, SpaceCraft will have to continue to explore space.

Another problem came out of the blue a few years ago when a large builder, who was a client, went into liquidation. The result was a massive shock and financial drain, which drove Ellen back to part-time work as a studio manager at Voice Design to supplement the income. This might have been a blow but it did come with unexpected benefits.

In addition to helping them repair their cash flow, Ellen was immersed in new marketing trends, particularly in relation to responsive web design and the commercial use of social media. That led to a full review of SpaceCraft’s marketing strategy. With the help of Kellie, a designer Ellen had worked with at Parallax, and David, a copywriter from Wholly Mackrell!, the business rebranded with a dynamic, new web site. This has paid enormous dividends for SpaceCraft, which attests to the value of investing in a sustainable brand positioning supported by effective communication and outstanding design. SpaceCraft now posts regularly on Instagram and Facebook, showing recently completed kitchens, as well as those that have won awards.

Speaking of awards, SpaceCraft won its first in 2012, with its very first entry in the South Australian HIA awards. That has spurred Ellen and Nathan to enter every year since. And in the last five years, they have won the same category (Renovated Kitchen up to $30,000) four times. In fact, in 2016, they not only took out the HIA Kitchen of the Year, but Nathan was also hailed as the KBDi Kitchen Designer of the Year.

The company’s web site has proven so effective that Ellen was able to return to working full-time at SpaceCraft from the beginning of 2016, a year that saw enormous growth. Indeed, the schedule is currently booked out six months ahead.

So: what brings clients to SpaceCraft? No doubt, it’s because they find people they can relate to, not humanoid sales drones, and they can see the ‘SpaceCraftsmanship’ built lovingly into every project. But, increasingly over the last ten years, they have come because they want something different to the status quo, humdrum, run-of-the-mill kitchens you can get anywhere.

What sets Nathan apart is that over and above his 20 years of hands-on cabinet-making, he has the boundless imagination that makes a great designer as well as the ability to understand what people want, even if they can’t express it. Jokingly, they call him a ‘kitchen whisperer’. The truth is SpaceCraft takes on the challenges other companies put in the too-hard basket, whether it’s because it’s a style they just don’t get or materials they’ve never worked with. Ellen and Nathan have never lost that pure fascination that comes from the renovator’s bug. And, now, after 18 months of intense study, Nathan has acquired his credentials as a Certified Kitchen Designer.

There’s no doubt SpaceCraft is looking forward to a huge year in 2017, after spending the previous year finessing its systems and processes to handle a larger volume of work. Ellen and Nathan acknowledge there have been mistakes – or, ‘learning experiences’ – along the way. But each time something has gone wrong, they’ve always looked after their clients first and foremost, and investigated how to ensure they don’t make the same mistake again.

Ellen and Nathan both believe that running and growing a small business is all about learning. They say the day you think you know it all, something totally unexpected comes along to confound you. But they both enjoy the challenge and often still pinch themselves to see what they’ve created.

All of which comes back to the very good fortune of meeting and working with so many inspiring, trusting and supportive clients, including a host of local builders and, more recently, an interior architectural studio called Fabrikate. Most are now ambassadors for the business and are always keen to hear what’s happening via the e-newsletter or, in the case of the locals, on the grapevine.

In July 2017, SpaceCraft will reach its landmark 10th birthday, which is a massive achievement for any small business. Whilst Ellen and Nathan have been too busy to work out how they’re going to celebrate the event, there’s no doubt they’ll somehow find some time to pop a few bottles of fizz around the bar of their own SpaceCraft kitchen with the family and friends who’ve been with them all along.

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