Saturday, 17 Apr 2021

Teenage contractor employed his first staff at the age of 12

In part three of our junior-preneur series, Jane Phare looks at the difference between being self-employed and an entrepreneur, talks to a teenager who employed his first staff at the age of 12 and another who has developed a tracking device for dementia sufferers.

South African-born entrepreneur, researcher and author Sandy Geyer says Kiwis often think being self-employed is entrepreneurship. Wrong, she says. More often than not, self-employment means selling your hours.

Entrepreneurship, she says, is leveraging your creativity to create a business.
“Entrepreneurial is when you’ve worked out how to do it and you’ve worked on how to get other people to pull with you and see your vision.”

Young Johnny O’Neill learned early on that selling his time mowing lawns was never going to earn him enough money for his ultimate goal – to own a digger.

As a 10-year-old, he began mowing lawns in his home town of Cromwell, towing his push mower behind his bike, a set of weed wackers across the handlebars. He soon realised he would need to expand his business, working weekends at jobs including packing ice to earn enough money to buy a ride-mower two years later.

Johnny, now 15, was born to become an entrepreneur. He was the kid who sold lemons outside his parents’ Cromwell home, spending hours sitting in the sun waiting for customers. He was the kid who, although good at schoolwork, wasn’t too fussed about it and still isn’t.

By the age of 12 he had set up J.C. O’Neill contracting business and employed his first staff member. His grandfather and father taught him to weld and he built a trailer with which to tow gear.

By the age of 14 he had a healthy list of clients for his gardening and maintenance business, and had several full-time staff working for him, often while he was at school.

'Get off that ride-on, Johnny'

It was then that he hit the local papers and the TV news when he was copped driving his ride-on mower along the street between jobs. A local complained and the police were obliged to send him a written warning telling him to stop driving around town, forcing him to hire a driver.

A Christchurch owner of Smith Crane and Construction saw Johnny on Fair Go, heard about his goal to one day own a digger and offered him the loan of a 2.7-tonne beauty that was not being used, until Johnny could afford to pay for it.

J.C. O’Neill thrived using the borrowed digger, tractors, trailers, utes and mowing gear. Then Covid-19 hit and the seasonal workers disappeared. He struggled to keep staff and, after his mother voiced concerns about the toll the garden maintenance was taking on his back, he sold the mowing business earlier this year.

He’s bought himself a late model Toyota Hilux and says that, after years of working 12-hour days for six days a week, “I think I bloody well deserve it”.

“It’s nice to be able to get into something when you go to work that has heated seats and the air conditioning works, and what not.”

The rest of the money has gone back into running the business, paying staff and he’s invested some in share portfolios. Johnny still needs a driver for the Hilux because he can’t get his licence until he turns 16 in August. And although he owns 100 per cent of the shares in his company, he’ll have to wait another two years before he is old enough to become a director.

In the meantime he’s taken on a drain laying apprenticeship to add to his skills and plans to keep building up J.C. O’Neill. He has a contract for subdivision roading maintenance, and staff are cutting in new driveways, scraping out sections, preparing new lawns, digging trenches and making retaining walls.

He’s learned to use the digger but acknowledges most of the talent pool lies in his staff.

“Most of the guys I employ now, their skill set is way beyond what I could ever achieve but that’s all part of business. You surround yourself with people that are better than you.”

Both his parents have been supportive but are not overly keen on the earthmoving business. They question whether he might make more money in property.

But Johnny is determined to stick with J.C. O’Neill. “I know there’s a lot better ways to make money than this business but I really enjoy it so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Running the business has been invaluable, he says. He’s learned about tax, accounts, mechanics and the headache of finding, and keeping, good staff.

Johnny’s mother, Willi de Jong, says her Dutch father raised her with a strong work ethic which she has in turn instilled in Johnny and his younger brother Seth. Working for things helps children understand that money just doesn’t miraculously appear, she says. “You can get whatever you want in this life if you set up a game plan to get it.”

De Jong would like to see more programmes for children who may not be academic and are unsure of what they want to do.

“I think it’s important that we don’t have these kids who leave school, don’t have an interest, study for a while then decide they don’t like it, they end up on the benefit and we end up getting immigrant workers in.”

De Jong asked Cromwell College if they could help teach Johnny metal work skills but was told he was too young.

“I had him in my garage trying to build a trailer and he’s welding and using equipment that I don’t know how to use and don’t know what the safety procedures are.”

She contacted Otago Polytechnic’s Cromwell campus and a lecturer agreed to teach Johnny welding and automotive skills in his own time, three afternoons a week.

Training entrepreneurial leaders

Geyer, who runs a training practice called EnQ Practice in New Zealand, agrees that New Zealand’s secondary system needs to be more flexible and wants to see more students leave school believing they can be entrepreneurial leaders.

She makes a distinction between that and traditional leadership within a school structure which is limited to a few students whose role it is to make the other students do what the school wants them to do.

“I’m not challenging that. It upholds a structure and there is a reasoning behind it.”

But those not elected or appointed as leaders at school believe they are not leadership material. They understand leadership as “commanding”, uniting people towards a common cause.

“In entrepreneurial leadership it’s your cause. You didn’t buy into it, you created it. Nobody tells you what to do or where to go so you have to work it out for yourself.”

Geyer, who is researching for a Doctorate of Professional Practice through Capable NZ Otago, part of Otago Polytechnic, has designed an online digital course called Leadership Literacy for Life that will be trialled on Year 9 pupils in South Africa and New Zealand this year.

The trial will be held in several schools at different decile levels and she is still looking for a decile 3 or 4 New Zealand secondary school to participate. Using the programme she hopes to “reframe failure”, to encourage resilience and a try-again attitude.

“Unfortunately we come through a system where we are terrified to get something wrong.”

Parents, in trying to protect their children from making mistakes, sometimes stop children from giving something a go.

Entrepreneurship is often about problem-solving first and then creating a product to market and sell, she says. The product creation happens from the problem solving, not the other way round.

“What you envisage as what’s going to be your product when you start is very seldom your product when you’ve finished.”

Keeping track of dementia patients

The problem Sean Gibbs and two mates from Glendowie College, Matthew Bilby and Adam Jonkers, wanted to solve back in 2019 was how to track dementia sufferers if they wandered off.

The three students got the idea when one of their teachers told them how she had to step back from a semi-professional basketball career in India to care for her father who was diagnosed with dementia. And they heard many family stories involving grandparents with dementia.

The group is now in the final development stages of CloudMass Ara, a tracking device that can be encased in a watch-style bracelet, on a lanyard or attached to a belt buckle, and is paired with an app.

The user can set up “geo fences” so if a dementia patient strays beyond those boundaries an alert will sound on the phone. Caregivers or relatives can see in real time the whereabouts of the patient.

Because GPS is not as effective indoors, CloudMass will offer an option to use Bluetooth beacon technology that will accurately transmit the whereabouts of a dementia patient within each room.

Gibbs and his friends started the project through the Young Enterprise Scheme as 16-year-olds, initially developing the technology themselves. But developing a miniature GPS tracking system with accompanying app was more complicated than they first envisaged.

“We wanted it (the tracker) to be miniature but that didn’t work. We had a product and it could track but it was pretty big,” Gibbs says.

They applied successfully for various grants, including one through the Ministry of Youth Development, to help fund the next development stage which involved outsourcing.

Mentors through the Auckland Business Chamber helped find connections in New Zealand and overseas to help with unexpected challenges.

“Even the casing is difficult to produce. With tech businesses there is so much more development initially than we thought.”

Gibbs, 18, says CloudMass would not have progressed successfully without the Young Enterprise Scheme. The experience has changed his life and his future plans at the University of Auckland after a trip with Young Enterprise to Argentina to study business in 2019.

He plans to join the university’s entrepreneurship programme, Velocity, and is working part-time teaching the Young Enterprise Scheme in schools to the next generation of budding entrepreneurs.

Previously in the junior-preneurs series
• Junior-preneurs: Why youngsters are natural entrepreneurs
• Junior-preneur series: Why children can be taught entrepreneurship

Coming up
• Finding the right mentors: Young jeweller Twilight Edwards’ earrings are worn by the Prime Minister and we meet a teenager who is making natural pot-plant fertiliser from cafe waste.
• Why social enterprise is important: we look at some of the community projects young entrepreneurs have got behind.

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