Mortimer Upholstery and Marine Covers gets help from 83-year-old mentor

Written by: TASHA LEOV (published in June 2016)


Caleb Hill, left, and Ian Mortimer, right, with their business mentor Jacob Klootwyk in their workshop at Mortimer ...

An up-and-coming Richmond upholstery business has been getting a hand from a seasoned professional. Tasha Leov reports.

There's a common misconception that taking on a business is a venture easily done.

Looking at Mortimer Upholstery and Marine Covers it could be simple to see why such an illusion exists. On paper Ian Mortimer and Caleb Hill are running a dream business, they've got a solid partnership and the rise of their portfolio is promising.

Ask either of them and they'll tell you that's not necessarily the case - there was hard work and dedication that went into the success of their business.  

The company specialise in automotive, marine and commercial upholstery, from boats to cars, interior and exterior. Their partnership began in a small space.

Hill likens it to the size of a shed.

"We had just me and Ian. There was no reception, it was just a workshop," he says.

Now they work from a 800sqm warehouse in Richmond on Beach Rd.  

"It was a small workshop, hidden away and now we've got a big workshop with road frontage," Mortimer says.

Just the two of them has morphed into ten of them, they've increased their staff, their range, their reach and they plan to keep on going.

"I was on my own for a few years and then thought the best way forward was a partnership with someone," Mortimer says.

"Caleb came along at just the right time. He had come back from  Aussie and we had a mutual friend who introduced us."

The pair were aware that working together would only work if they got along, so they trialled a partnership.

"When we teamed up, he wanted a business partner and I was looking to get into business so we had about a years trial just working together," Hill says.  

From there the two looked for guidance and found Business Mentors, a branch of Nelson Tasman Business Trust, that brings people with extensive business experience to those that need help.

"I knew that we had weaknesses and one of the weaknesses was around financial planning, around data and budgets and stuff like that so I went into the Nelson Tasman Business Trust," Hill says.

"They team you up with the skill sets that you need."

Enter Jacob Klootwyk, an 83-year-old business mentor who had been there and done that.

Klootwyk moved to New Zealand in 1952 from the Netherlands. He didn't speak English but he had trained as a structural engineer with a certificate in business administration.

From there he owned and sold businesses around the country. He retired at 51 and started lecturing at the Manukau Institute of Technology, fitting in trips overseas to volunteer and mentor.

He's been with Mortimer Upholstery and Marine Covers since 2013 and is highly regarded by everyone there.

"Jacob could definitely see that we needed some help, he asked the right questions and gave us the right tools and since has become a good friend who is interested in the business and someone who has really helped us hugely with our growth," Hill says.

Mortimer agrees.

"He really made us look in the right places, look at figures. We had this idea and he would say 'but how does it look on paper, is it going to make money'. He would pull you back in to look at it the right way," he says.

It seems the feeling is mutual as Klootwyk expresses his appreciation for the team.

"They have been great, they're always prepared to listen - not necessarily always take on board what I say but of course they can do what they like. A mentor is only as good as the people he or she works with," he says.

"These two, we work together very well, we understand each other. I understand them, I've been in business many years myself, I know these sort of problems, especially with job and work so it worked out very well."

Klootwyk says he enjoys imparting knowledge, although mentoring was never anything he specifically set out to do.

"I'm retired, I've nothing else to do so I may as well do something to help people like these guys," Klootwyk says.

"It keeps my brain active."

Together they've shaped a business based on hard work and good service, the only way to do business if you ask Klootwyk.

"One of the first questions I ask when I come in here is 'have you got enough work?' and the second is 'are you getting paid?' Those are the two important things," he says.

"I always feel that if you go into business, it doesn't matter what kind of business it is, you've got to have confidence in your people, make sure they know what they're talking about, make a good job and you can trust them and that is quite important."

Along with Mortimer Upholstery and Marine Covers, the men started another business called Nelson Shade Solutions, a shade sail, awning and blind business to compliment their upholstery work.

They're starting to gain national traction with various projects, as with most businesses word of mouth plays a big part in that.

"We have a few products. We have stone guards on the front of caravans and people see them when people are travelling, we send them around the country," Mortimer says.

They've also created workplace safety barriers called Safe Screens that were released a little over a month ago.   

"This is a non-permanent structure, a physical barrier that you can put up to stop unauthorised people from entering that area," Hill says.

"You go down to a lot of these workshops and people have currently got a chain across, that's fine but it's very ineffective, so we've developed a screen that takes the place of that."

The men are constantly looking forward, they want to be leaders in their trade and want to educate young people. They want to make sure the trade doesn't die, that there is a future in upholstery.

For them the future holds more innovative products, "something that we are manufacturing".

"We've got quite a few ideas, we've got to see if they look good on paper. We've chased a few leads, we've got to work out what it would take money wise and that and something worth building, we don't need it all at this stage. There's lot of ideas," Mortimer says.