Lifelong learning is the secret to success

by Annelise Ball

Most people know nothing about staircases until they need one. Since staircases are one of the very few products you buy only once in a lifetime, those selling and making them must know how to produce a masterpiece each and every time.

I know one man, Graham, who’s worked in staircases all his life.  He’s edging his way to retirement, after forty-seven years of doing a job he loves.  What can we learn from him?  What’s his secret? How do you stay passionate about something for almost half a century?

According to him, it’s got something to do with staying passionate about learning, keeping up to date with technology and spending your time with the best people in the business.

Worthy advice from someone with forty-seven years of work experience, wouldn’t you say?

A young guy in the 60’s

Graham’s favourite subject at school was woodwork.  So, when the boss’s sister asked him if he wanted a job at her brother’s staircase manufacturing firm, he agreed.  At fifteen years of age, he was ready to ditch school and get stuck into the real world.  It was such a normal thing to do at the time, his parents readily agreed.

Graham recalls there being few different choices for a young guy in the 60’s. If you were rich, you paid the full fees to go to university.  If you were brainy, you got a scholarship.  For everyone else, there was the banks, insurance companies or trades.  Since Graham wasn’t rich, and not brainy enough for a scholarship, a trade apprenticeship was the way to go.

Decision Made

Graham was only fifteen, and far too young to drive.  He caught buses and trains across Melbourne to get to building sites by 730am.  At the time, the new estates in Doncaster and Glen Waverley were booming. There were plenty of staircases needed and lots of opportunities for Graham to learn. Since he couldn’t carry his tools on the train, another tradesman would deliver everything he needed onsite for him.  The tools and timber would be left there overnight, ready for him in the morning. Graham laughs at the memory of leaving such valuables on an unguarded building site … ‘no risk of getting your tools stolen back then, not like today’.

Graham spent the next five years learning the art of staircase making and installation, taught by the guys at work whilst also spending a day a week learning carpentry and joinery at Caulfield Technical School.  He completed his apprenticeship and took out the prize for being the ‘overall best apprentice’ in 1970.  Graham knew early on if you’re going to do something you love, you might as well give it your absolute best.

The company, Slattery & Acquroff, were successful, well-respected and generous.  In those times, people could count on having job security if they worked hard.  So Graham stayed, not just for a few years but for the rest of his career.  Forty-seven years and still counting!

He built and installed staircases for almost twenty years, enjoying the craft of completing a functional piece of furniture built to last.  It was clean, accurate work allowing him to produce unique, design showpieces guaranteed to last for decades.  His work still exists in buildings all across Melbourne.  Graham recently found a staircase he built way back in the 70’s featured in the Herald Sun’s ‘Home’ magazine.  He certainly built them to last.

Despite having a full time job, a wife and three little kids; Graham also studied for his Building Diploma in his spare time.   Why?  Because he enjoyed learning and wanted to know everything he could about building and construction.  He’s still a Qualified Building Inspector today.

From Tradesman to Salesman

By the mid-90’s, the company was growing.  Someone needed to concentrate on sales. Graham was offered the job, even though he’d never sold anything in his life.  ‘I thoroughly enjoyed my time building and installing stairs,” he said, “but I was interested in challenging myself even further in a totally different game.’

‘I now had to sell the stairs first, measure them up, then design and detail them for manufacture.’ Graham recalls. ‘Not only that, I had to build good relationships with all types of people… from owners of big building companies to ordinary homeowners.  I wasn’t just a tradesman anymore, I was a professional.’   He found selling the product the easy part, since few people know anything about stairs, his knowledge and expertise were crucial in allowing people to make informed decisions about what type of stair would best suit their home, their wishes and their budget.

However, the new job also had not-so-easy parts. Graham was now required to make frequent use of a fast growing new technology…  ‘the computer’.

New-Fangled Technology

Graham had never really used computers before, he’d only recently just bought one for his kids to do their homework.  So, he was faced with the task of learning to use a computer from scratch.  Just to make it all a little more challenging, he was forced by necessity to learn a Computer Aided Drawing program at the same time.  Learning complicated design software whilst also mastering computer fundamentals was quite a task.  Not at all daunted, Graham acquired the skills he needed through hard work, persistence and the growing awareness that keeping up to speed with new technology was absolutely crucial.

Graham has spent the last twenty years working as the Sales Manager.  He’s out on building sites, meeting with architects and builders, negotiating pricing and competing to win work so others can keep their jobs.  The tradesman had become a master salesman, no training…  no experience…  just someone willing to learn, accept challenges and move with the times.

Helping Others Learn

Graham is now transitioning again into a mentoring role.  If it’s one thing he values highly, it’s helping people to learn, grow and reach their own potential.  Graham is teaching the sales team at Slattery & Acquroff all about staircase knowledge, pricing and customer service.  His philosophy on customer service?  ‘Listen, ask questions and thoroughly understand your customers needs.  Then, design the product and service to match those needs precisely.’  If you’re interested in a sales career, take note.

He loves his job… always has… in whatever form it’s taken.  For some people, loving their job every single day remains a dream scenario.  For young people, just figuring out where to start is the biggest obstacle.  Everyone needs a little help sometimes to figure out what to do.

So, Graham would like to offer some advice…

‘Never stop learning, especially technology’ he says.  ‘You’ve got to make sure you’re keeping up with everything that’s happening, otherwise you’ll just be left behind.’

‘When I was fifteen, stairs were made only out of simple timber.  Now, sophisticated technology I’d never dreamed of in the 60s can make stairs out of all sorts of materials… like steel, glass and stainless steel.  Technology has allowed us to be so much more creative.  Slattery & Acquroff used to be a bunch of tradesman building stairs, now it’s the number one staircase building firm in Australia with educated teams of designers, marketers and craftsmen’.

Graham’s also just completed the Diploma in Competitive Manufacturing, a testament to his passion to keep learning, growing and moving with the times.  He’s also certain that finding your passion and working with the best of the best is a great way to be happy at work.  He should know… he’s done it now for forty-seven years and counting.

Never one to miss an opportunity for sales, Graham asked me to put in the Slattery & Acquroff website address in for readers.  So, if you need a staircase built by the best in the business… check out