I started out cleaning toilets at McDonalds as a high school dropout

As a 16-year-old, in a rush to make money. My dad reluctantly agreed to let me leave school only if I got a full-time job. So, I hit up the local McDonalds.

They jumped at the chance to hire someone with full-time availability and was hired as a “daily cleaner.” At 6:00 every morning, I would scrub the toilets, spray down the carpark, and complete a weekly cleaning list of really fun jobs, such as filtering the fry vats.

As I was keen to make money, I said yes to any extra shifts that were offered. I very quickly learned and mastered different areas (or stations as they were called) of the business and gained a reputation of being keen and reliable. Before long, they offered me my first management course, MDP1.

I continued to work hard and take any management courses offered. Just before my 20th birthday, I was put in charge of a store overseeing 70 staff and a multimillion-dollar budget. This was an amazing business experience for me and one that you could not get in a classroom. Early on, one of my bosses noticed my interest in business and asked me to stay, run the McDonald’s business for my Franchisee, and “earn while I learn.” The real-world experience I gained during my 5 years at Maccas was invaluable, and looking back, I am so thankful for the foundation it gave me.

Maccas was also where I met the love of my life, Katie. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing at first; we would hang out for a bit and get annoyed at each other. After a few times of Katie deleting my number (because she wanted the satisfaction of saying “who’s this” when she answered), she eventually learned my number by heart From then on, it was history.Those traits that initially annoyed us – things like being straight=up, candid, and determined – came to be the things we loved about each other. At the ripe old age of 21, we married, and 12 years down the road, it has been nothing short of amazing.

Owning a cafe or restaurant had been a goal. So after 2 years of running the Upper Hutt store, I quit to work for free in a couple of local cafes. I eventually wound up running a local fine dining restaurant called the Silverspoon.

The best way to describe my time in the local cafes was that it was like leaving the army and joining the freedom fighters. At McDonalds, everything had a system, a process, and following the rules was imperative. There was a checklist for everything. On the other extreme, you have the local café – no stock counts, no checklists, no head office telling them what they can and can’t do. Yet somehow, they were making it work, Operators virtually making it up with the business revolving around them but still managing to do well.

The Silverspoon was owned by a group of local retirees, but run by a committee. It was painful! A year into running the Spoon, we put in an offer to buy the place. We set a price limit in our minds, prayed about it, and told ourselves, “If it’s meant to be, this price will be met.” After a tough negotiation, we were stuck in a stalemate over $5,000. In the scheme of things, it seemed crazy to walk away over $5,000 we but decided this was the answer to our prayer, and now was not the time to purchase the business. The owners were pretty annoyed because 2 weeks later, they made my role “redundant,” deciding they would share responsibility as a group of owners.

We decided that was another sign to take some time and travel overseas, sold all our belongings and booked one way tickets to the USA. We landed in LA and drove all the way up the coast to Seattle and worked at a summer camp for 3 months. After that we headed over to Ottawa, Canada where Katie had previously lived for 3 years.

Within 3 days of arriving, I was on the roof labouring for an old school Bulgarian roofer. He taught me to lay shingles, and worked hard until the snow came and we could no longer work outside. I got a restaurant job downtown and survived my first Canadian winter which just so happened to have a 2-month-long bus strike. I would walk for an hour in the snow just to get to work –that is, until I had the bright idea to hitchhike to downtown each morning. The snow eventually melted; spring came around, and I joined another roofing crew. Again we worked hard, sometimes doing 2 whole roofs in a day, helping us save a pile of cash to continue travelling.

We spent another 2 months travelling through the states, again on one-way tickets, before deciding to come back to Upper Hutt and settle down. After arriving back, I decided to take on a building apprenticeship with a local builder. I loved being on a building site, using my hands, and being taught to use all these tools that previously seemed scary. Seeing your work unfold before your eyes and everyday turning up to add to yesterday’s work was immensely satisfying. I also learned heaps about taking on big projects that require thousands of hours as well as extensive planning. I have found that these planning skills are applicable in other aspects of life and business, as well.

We had been home for almost a year when I bumped into one of the owners of the Silverspoon. They wanted to get out and practically told me they would take any half-decent offer. They had lost a serious amount of sales in the GFC and were about to close the doors. We managed to pick it up for less than half of what we had originally offered.

However, I was torn; I had just started this building apprenticeship which I loved, yet I was drawn to the opportunity to put my business skills to use in the restaurant. Initially, I thought I could only do one or the other. However, I stood back and looked at the restaurant as a business we would own and not necessarily a job.

So, I decided to both run the spoon and continue my building apprenticeship. At first, I was only building a couple of days a week, but I was determined to continue with the apprenticeship, knowing that if I stopped now, I would most likely never take it up again. I was very fortunate to have a very patient building boss whom I now consider a friend and mentor to help shape me.

Back to the Silverspoon, we needed to fix the restaurant and grow sales, but we also needed to get a control on costs. When we took over, the place had more outgoing costs than incoming. It would have been less stress just to close the doors and put a pile of free money outside.

However, we charged ahead. On a big sheet of paper, we wrote down every single food item you could buy, about 80 of them. I drilled down on what dishes were actually selling, when they were selling, and how much they cost to make. Gradually, we removed about 35 items, almost halving the menu which had the effect of halving the chefs’ workload. We looked at the trading hours and closed Mondays as well as afternoons. We then worked on the process of clarifying what the brand offered and where it sat in the market.

As much as we loved the restaurant, we knew that we wouldn’t do it forever. Once the place was “fixed” and starting to run well, we developed a plan to move on. Again, drawing on my McDonalds, knowledge we put in place an operations manual which described the system of how the restaurant made money. Every item on the menu had a recipe and a food-costing. There were checklists and training guides.

About 3 years in, the place was making a decent profit which meant it was now worth a fair amount more than what we initially paid for it. We worked towards a sale, and in mid-2017, we sold it to friend we had both worked at McDonalds with.

In that time, Katie gave birth to our sons Jacob and Levi; we travelled to the States and Canada a few more times, and I finished the building apprenticeship. We purchased a house and proceed to undertake a major renovation on it, clocking up to about 1000 hours of personal work on the home. It’s an older house, but we love the character along with its quick 5-minute walk to the school and cafes. Also, the place is now mortgage free.

In early 2016, the opportunity to get involved in a local housing company called Kiwi Homes came up. It was a pretty loose arrangement, at first, and I didn’t exactly know where it might lead; but I decided to get involved. 2 ½ years later I have now sold and overseen construction of 27 homes for the company and am a co-owner of the business.

One of my roles with the company has been to implement a system. Again, drawing on my McDonalds training, I have started to document the different roles and processes to collect this information in an operations manual. We are growing with the aim of being a main player in the Wellington region. We have a great business model, and we also have our sights set on getting into other areas of the country.

These are some of the highlights of my journey, so far, but, ultimately, I am just an everyday guy from New Zealand, making the most of the opportunities in front of me. There have been many ups and downs along the way. I want to use this blog as a platform to share some of those highs and lows as well as the lessons I have learned from them.

Josh from NZ