Our CEO: An Open Letter…

Form1 CEO Steve Shirlaw opens up about the highs and lows of starting your own business and why it's the people you meet along the way who make the whole journey worthwhile. 

When I started work in this industry I spent 13 years at Fire Fighting Enterprises – four as an apprentice, six as a tradesman and three as a supervisor. During my time there the business was bought and sold many times so I saw the culture change. Over the years there was less focus on the clients and working together as a team and it became more about politics and divisions that were out for themselves. I guess that happens a lot in business.

I learnt a lot and worked with some amazing people at FFE and I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity I had to be trained and work beside some of the best technicians and management in the industry. One of which was Warwick Armstrong who’s now our Branch Manager at Form1 in Newcastle.

I was 29 when I decided it was time to start a business where I could create the outcomes I believed in. I wanted not to be the biggest company in the industry, I wanted to be the best. I wanted to create a business where our staff looked after each other and genuinely cared about our clients. A place with a strong network of subcontractors and suppliers and ultimately, I wanted to make a real difference to people’s lives. I wanted to do it differently than other businesses and not be mainstream.

Taking A Risk

The business started in the front room of my house in Newcastle. I had a wife, a child and a mortgage. I’d resigned from FFE, with long service and holidays, and had three month’s wages in the bank. I put it all on the line and started my dream.

The early days were very tough. It didn’t take long before the money was gone and I was ringing the bank on a weekly basis regarding our mortgage. Every cheque that came to the postbox was a relief, no matter how big or small. I was working six days a week and spent Sundays in the office doing paperwork.

One day I received a call from Carl Price to do some work at Richmond RAAF Base in Sydney. The job was installing systems in accommodation blocks on the base and they moved the residents out while the buildings were done. We had no money at the time so I used to take a sleeping bag and pillow with me and pick a room to sleep in each night. I’d wake up early to shower and pack up my stuff and start work before anyone arrived. After two weeks I asked Carl how long before I’d get paid. Carl went to the back of his car, pulled out his cheque book and wrote me a cheque. It’s still one of those days I will never forget. Even though the money didn’t last long it was the greatest relief at the time.

My first employee was Andrew McMurtrie. He was originally hired through another contractor and then employed as a Trades Assistant for two weeks. A year later Andy was still working with me and I offered him an apprenticeship. We spent plenty of time working together at Richmond RAAF and Merrylands Shopping Centre. We usually worked Monday to Thursday away, then Friday and Saturday back in Newcastle. Andy never complained – he was a great apprentice – and now, 19 years on, he’s still in the business and my best mate.

Humble beginnings

When I started I had no idea the business would become the size it is today. Andy asked me in the early days, “How big do you want it to get?” to which I replied, “You and I, maybe one other guy and a girl to run the office”.

Finally we moved the office from inside the house to a shed I built in the backyard, then to a little office at Gateshead. I remember going to tender interviews in the early days with just Andy and I in the field and being asked how big the company was.

From the beginning I was taught to do jobs the right way, not to cut corners and always do my best. My good mate, and tradesmen, “Hilly” taught me so much about doing things right. We lost him to cancer in 2011 and miss him every day. He was a champion guy and a great tradesman and that’s what I want the business to be about.

I’ve always had high expectations of people and Andy, being my first apprentice, found that out more than anyone. I tried to encourage him to be the best he could be in everything he did and that’s never changed. 

One of the most important things for me is getting the best out of people and helping them achieve their goals. Sometimes that can come across the wrong way. I think you deserve praise when it’s due and to be told when performance is down. I remember Andy and I having a fallout because he felt I was always pushing him when he was a supervisor. My brother, Darren, is the same with me and the day I realised he wanted the best for me was the day I started learning more. I do the same with my kids and now two of them, Paige and Kyle, play a big part in the business.

Growing Pains

As the business has grown plenty of challenges have come up. Growing pains are great but knowing the answers to solve them is sometimes not so easy. One thing I do know is that you can learn a lot from those around you if you’re willing to listen. There’s so many people I’ve learnt from, internally and externally. I’ve made many mistakes and have lots of lessons to share. One thing you learn as an entrepreneur is that you’ll make plenty of mistakes. The important thing is to keep believing in what you are setting out to achieve.

Call it luck or fate but the most amazing coach I’ve had along the way has been my brother. He’s my biggest supporter and has taught me so much about business and life. The business started with myself and now we have almost 70 staff, another business in Canberra and we’ve expanded to Air Conditioning and Electrical. Yes, there’s definitely been times I’ve wanted to sell up and get out. Times when I’ve felt overwhelmed, frustrated and oozing with self-doubt. There’s been times when my personal life has been a complete mess and getting out of bed was a struggle. What’s always kept me going is the people around me – the ones who care and the ones I care about, including friends, family and clients. 

One day I got up at our team Toolbox Talk to speak about how low I’d been and the fact I was getting help – it was one of my toughest moments. It’s hard when you’re supposed to be the leader and you feel like you’ve failed. The response and support I had, once I opened up, was something I cannot describe. It was so humbling and it’s that support that got me through. Going through that reminded me why I’m so passionate about helping others.

We all have stories untold and we all face hard times. But when we have people around who care, we are all able to keep making steps forward.

My Passion Is People

It’s been so important to me over the years that the business has a strong culture and I’m proud people on the team are interested in building the culture of our business. The input from our team makes it stronger each year.

Form1’s success relies on a strong team culture and in return we invest money in wellness programs for our staff, like kinesiology and counselling. We’ve spent thousands of dollars on programs to support our staff and when we hear it’s helping individuals it makes it all worth it. We’re also involved in a number of charities, including the Variety Bash for the Children’s Charity. It feels amazing to be able to raise money and help others in need.

My passion is people. Whether it be staff, clients, subcontractors or suppliers I always surround myself with like-minded people and support people at work and in their personal life. Everyone deserves a chance to shine.

I’ll always be grateful to the people that have been part of my journey and I’ve met many of my best friends through this business. Many have made a real impact on my life and in return I hope I’ve done the same for them.

My legacy is to be a positive influence to everyone I meet, even in the smallest ways. It’s November 2017 and I’ve had 20 apprentices thus far. Being able to give them a strong start in life and watch them grow and succeed is one of my greatest pleasures. It’s not without its challenges but it’s so rewarding to see them become a tradesman.

You know what, I still feel the same about the dream but I’ve realised I care most about people. Who would have thought a small fire protection company could do so much to help change people’s lives.

Read all about our Culture Team here.