"If you have to make a decision in fear, then do it in fear."
William de Martrin Donos
William was the first born what became a family of five boys and a girl. He had an unsettled, even difficult, childhood in many ways. His French mother was in Australia for a working holiday, and decided she would have William here, in Taree, NSW, where she and her husband had started a French restaurant, rather than returning to France.
Staying for less than two years before her marriage split up, William’s mother took her young children back to the South of France, near Toulouse. “Those were by far my best years, as a child, gave me a great education and morals and we played lots of rugby.”
Reminiscing about those years, Williams recalls, “I’ve always been attracted to wood. Timber was my material. I was it, and it was me. Mum bought me my first carving tools when I was 7 years old, and I tried making anything I could. I remember I made a plane and put it top of the garage; put my younger brother in it, and pushed him off, and of course it didn’t fly and I got into trouble.”
During those years, “We made lots of cubby houses and tunnels and had lots of fun. It was a fantastic time with my brothers and sister. My brothers are my best mates and confidantes,” William adds.
At his strict Roman Catholic school, William’s strong values and morals were established while he studied. Especially enjoying literature and writing, he was an average student, and despite always working hard, the results were not always there.
Having completed the equivalent of Year 10, “I was ‘half-half’ in carpentry and at school. I signed up to a master carpentry course and left home at fifteen years and seven months. I jumped on my bike, cried in my helmet, and went to Toulouse. I changed cities every six months, travelling all around France to learn and understand the different ways of building and construction, working on church roofs, bridges, windmills; anything that was available at the time.”
Reflecting on that time Williams says, “It was hard moving away from home so young. I wouldn’t do it to my kids, but I really wanted to do it. At the time you think you know it all, but you certainly don’t. I should have listened and stayed, but I didn’t. It forced me to grow up extremely quickly.”
During those years, “I made no money at all, my rent was more than my pay. For the first two years of apprenticeship it was financially terrible. It was extremely tough, working all day and then at night doing the theory. Saturday was spent practising and then catching up on Sundays. You lived and breathed your work.”
At that early age, William joined a craftsman’s guild called “Les Compagnons du Devoir” with 60 other boys. It was tough and boys dropped out all the time. William proudly relates, with a strong sense of belonging, the history of the “Les Compagnons du Devoir”, which goes back to the Tower of Babel. “The guild is two thousand years old, and it’s very special to be a member. There are rules about membership; you’re never forced to stay and you’re never forced to leave. You can’t get married, for example, it’s expected that you would leave if you did.”
Australia came back into William’s life at the age of 20. “Having been born in Australia I’d always wanted to check it out. I came here for work, met my wife, Laura who then followed me back to France a couple of months later. We lived there for six years where I had my own business, and we did well. We were living a hundred kilometres north of Nice on the Cote d’Azur, which was fantastic. I was working in heavy carpentry on huge structures which was very hard work.”
It was soon time to start a family, and as Laura was Australian, they decided they should return to be closer to her family. William was 28 and they’ve now been here for seven years. The young couple arrived just before Christmas of 2008, with William not knowing much English, making work hard to find. “I got some work eventually, doing small jobs like decks and bits and pieces for a couple of months.”
William’s language skills were initially a challenge. “My wife was helping me learn English and it wasn’t easy. I’ve learned a lot thanks to her great patience and sometimes frustration.” William also learned English by watching TV series ‘Friends’, which was a great help!
Once here, people could see William had limited English language, but also “that I was very keen to work. People saw that. I met some great people along the way, including meeting a builder at a barbeque who was about to get approval to build a new granny flat. I was curious, did some more research into the granny flat concept, and thought it had a lot of merit.” William presented his case to the builder, and got the job.
“Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I jumped in – saying yes and thinking about it later,” he recalls.
For two years William continued working with that builder who was finding the projects for him to build. It was going well and he had consistent work coming though. But, as with many partnerships, friction started appearing between the two. William decided he would start his own business, creating a website to replace the sourcing of jobs done by his former partner. “When you do the right thing by people, the right thing will happen to you. The people you surround yourself with is important, and I should have chosen more carefully initially.”
Blue Gum Granny Flats was born. William reflects that going out on his own was a risk. “From that point onward I couldn’t afford to be scared financially. I had to make it work. I went to work for the French school for three years and built the gym there. We won awards for that. I’m very proud of it.”
As part of his research, William has identified an eight year cycle in the market. “It’s very sensitive to the movements of the economy, but we were lucky enough to get into a niche market that nobody had identified. It’s maintaining the driving force that’s the hardest element to keep going.”
Business has continued to build over time. “We’ve doubled our revenue numbers every year which has been fantastic.”
William believes the business has never been in a better position. His current partner Chris offers a complementary style, favouring the office and paperwork, whereas William relishes being out on sites.
As the business has grown, William has taken on more sub-contractors, and a full time book-keeper has been employed; all good people he can trust. “It takes time to build up that trust with people.”
When asked if he has a five year plan, William is very pragmatic. “I’m a builder and it’s all about managing the projects as quickly as we can in the direction we think is right at the time. If something stops working, we will reassess and check.”
It’s clear there is a great deal of gratitude about the journey to date. “For me it’s about never forgetting where you come from, so I’m always thinking look how lucky I’ve been already. Whatever happens from here onwards, it’s just a plus.”
William admits he used to be quite negative. “My wife had to stop me; I was always being a whinger, with no internal peace and she made me realise that I should stop. It was pulling me down. Now I realise how lucky we are, and I realise that the transformation from that 6 year old kid, to now, has been massive.”
Does he worry about failure now? “Yes, I always have concerns about my decisions, which is a good thing because I’m never sure of something until I do it. You gain confidence from that. If you have to make a decision in fear, then do it in fear.”
As is the case with so many businesspeople, “I’ve had so many failures and people I trusted that I shouldn’t have. There are hundreds of things I’ve tried that didn’t work. Many more bad things than good.”
What sort of bad things? “I renovated a very large home in France, and at the end there were some money troubles – that money was meant to get us to Australia. That knocked me over. Everything happens for a reason so maybe we weren’t supposed to go at the time. But still, it was a big blow. They didn’t pay the last bill and the last bill is the profit.”
Not long after that William lost another customer who had been a good friend, even saving William’s life when they’d been canoeing. “We’d been very close, as close as brothers, but he sent me an email – of all things – saying he didn’t feel he could pay us and that really hurt me. It was a 1.5 million Euro project and I made nothing out of it, not a dime, and that broke my heart. I was 21. It was a massive lesson for me.”
Until recently William didn’t have any formal mentors. “My wife was my offload. She’s a mentally strong lady, a great Christian who gives me good advice and she helped me a lot. The saying in France is that the man is the head and the woman is the neck. She signed me up for a business roadshow in the city, which I thought would be a complete waste of time, but I went, and it was great. I met my business coach there and he’s opened my mind to many things I’ve had in me all the time, but was never open enough to address.”
When asked for his definition of success, William says, “I think it’s hard to pinpoint, you only realise you were successful afterwards. I don’t feel I’m successful yet. If your business is not driving you insane and you have enough time for family & friends and enough time to build good memories, then for me, you have success, regardless if your business is a million, or a hundred million.”
William admits to being a workaholic. “I’ve learned in the last year or so to try to pull back from that, to learn how to pace myself. Time management is the key. People used to have a joke around the office, saying I didn’t like holidays. Time outside work is so beneficial to you and also to the people around you. I’ve learned you need to take some time off.”
William’s passions outside work include “golf, even though it’s time consuming, and also skiing, even in Australia. We, of course, snow-skied from a very young age. It’s like walking for us. I love adrenalin, but now with kids you have to be more reasonable and stay alive. I love boats, it’s almost an obsession; I’ve built three boats for other people and one for myself, all back in France.”
In order to reclaim his own time William has implemented some new rules; “I’m getting phone calls from 5.30am, but I try to leave the office by 6.15pm. I make sure I get home to see the kids, play games and read them a book. After that it’s an important time for my wife and me to exchange details of our day. My day is usually an average of seventy phone calls, dealing with up to thirty subbies, and very busy.”
Does he love his job? “Like every job, you love part of your job, but other parts, like going to the office, I don’t like. Going to the site is my reward, and I love that. It’s an unbeatable force that’s in you and if for some odd reason you lose that, you should stop doing what you’re doing, and do something else. Because it will kill you.”
The legacy of buildings is another driver for William. “You get a buzz when you know what you’ve built is going to be there for another two hundred years. Back in France I’d installed frames in the roof of old churches and someone will see that again in hundreds of years. I’ve taken down stairs from three or four hundred years ago and there’s been a bottle of wine rolled up in the old plans. It’s a message from the old tradesman; it’s like a brotherhood, and you get a real buzz out of that. Not so much in Australia, but in Europe you get that a lot”.
Blue Gum Granny Flats built about six granny flats in their first year. “Our Year 1 turnover was just over half a million, but we’re now turning over $4 million and around 45-50 projects per year. That’s been a big jump and a big learning curve. I’m hoping to employ more people this year, perhaps doubling the numbers of people employed.”
The business specialises in the construction of secondary dwellings or granny flats. “We have now built 160 flats and they are all different, never the same. It’s a six to twelve week relationship, and you have to like the people you’re dealing with, and we want the clients to like us too of course.”
It’s clearly a growing market with plenty of upside for clients. “People like granny flats. Where else can you take $100,000 and make $350-400 per week return. It’s great. In some cases, with such a great rent return, people pay it off in only 4-5 years. It’s using home equity to make money and better than the high-risk stock-market.”
What makes William’s business so special? “We have a constant will to be the leader in our market and we nurture our customers. We spend a lot of time with them to learn exactly what they want, plus they get the boss actually working in their yard, on their job.”
As a further value-add, “We’re building up quite a Blue Gum Family where people get free advice about planning, councils and architects. We offer that at no charge, to help people feel comfortable that we want to help them through the process.”
Referrals are important and when a project is completed, clients often refer new people to William. Some have done this up to 3 or 4 times, which makes him think he’s doing something right. “We value those people very highly because it’s so important to our ongoing business.”
My advice for someone starting out is a question: “how badly do you want it? Ask yourself that question. Is it so important that it stops you from breathing and thinking? You have to want it that much. Lots of people go 99% of the way, but then find a way NOT to do it.”
“If you’re scared, that’s normal, just do it anyway.” William concludes.
- “Going to the site is my reward, and I love that.”
- “Timber was my material. I was it, and it was me.”
- “If you have to make a decision in fear, then do it in fear.”
- “It’s using home equity to make money, it’s better than the high-risk stock-market.”
- “It’s an unbeatable force that’s in you and if for some odd reason you lose that, you should stop doing what you’re doing.”
Born in Australia and raised in France, William De Martrin Donos is the epitome of the journeyman. His passion for timber has taken him around the world and now back to his birthplace. His hard work and vision have opened the door to a world of opportunity in helping people best accommodate their changing circumstances.