Mike Knockwood, from Fort Folly First Nation, has been a machinist since graduating from Community College in 1985. Before starting his own business, Eagle Specialty Machining, Mike worked as a machinist for a company in Connecticut for over 20 years learning how to use many different machines and the different aspects of a machining business. Now the company where he used to be employed contracts work out to him and is one of his biggest customers.
“When I left my job, I gave them a year’s notice out of respect for my employer and because I take pride in my work,” said Mike. “I wanted to allow enough time for them to find my replacement and for me to train them properly to run my machines. Then the company gave me a letter saying that they would support my business. They sent me work and they still send me work now. We have a good relationship. I worked hard for them and was a valued employee. I learned a lot working there.”
Mike has earned business by creating good relationships with his clients and now he has several large contracts on the go. Mike has clients in the US, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba and he does work for Fort Folly First Nation, including on their fishing boats.
“It’s mostly by word of mouth that I get more business,” said Mike. “Just a couple of months ago, two young ladies from Mount A came into the shop and said ‘we heard that you might be able to help us’. The local hardware store in town recommended me to them. I also got another job from a company due to a similar referral situation.”
Mike is building a reputation of performing on time, quality, professional machining work at a reasonable price with a customer focus and a process improvement approach. “I was making two parts for a particular customer, a top unit and a bottom unit that looked identical except for one unit had an extra hole,” said Mike. “I mentioned to them, ‘why don’t I just make the units all with the extra hole and you can use the units for either top or bottom?’. Now I just make one unit instead of two units and it can be used for both. This approach saves machining time and ultimately, the customer money. If I can save the customer money or improve the product or process I try to let the customer know that.”
Mike does general machining at Eagle Specialty Machining. Currently he is a one-man shop. He has two CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machines and he does all of the programs on the machines himself.
“Right now I’m too busy,” said Mike, “for one person, I am too busy. I’m doing 3 projects and last week I would have told you that I was doing 4 projects. I have a customer in the States who deals in antique cars, I make parts for the antique cars because you can’t buy them anymore, they have to be made. He’ll send me a part and I’ll reverse-engineer it. I draw everything out free hand, I can make my own prints so I do a lot of work like this for him and others.”
Owning his own business has been a learning process for Mike. There was a time when he had 3 employees on staff, however, due to money lost on a very large project that went over budget, he had to make some changes and let those staff members go.
“I lost a lot of money on one big project,” said Mike. “At that point it looked like I would have to close up or something drastic had to change. I had too much invested in the business to give up and I didn’t really want to work for someone else so I had to let my 3 staff members go. I was in deep debt because of this project, but because of financial support from my family I was able to stay open.”
Perseverance has paid off for Mike and he is always learning. He recently graduated from the first JEDI Aboriginal Business Accelerator Program. The program covered things like business development, financial management and project management to name a few subjects.
“The Accelerator program showed me that I don’t know exactly what my profit margins are,” said Mike. For my hourly rate, I just go, ‘what’s someone else charging?’ and I’ll charge something like that. Now I know exactly what I should be charging. It will make a big difference and help the bottom line. The program helped me understand business a little bit better because business is not my thing. My family helps with the business aspects of running my machine shop and performs the book work which I am very grateful for. If it wasn’t for my family’s support, I would have failed a long time ago.”
Mike has had his machine shop for over 10 years now and based on that experience he has some words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs.
“I wouldn’t go into business if I didn’t enjoy what I do and have a solid support system from my family,” said Mike. “If anybody wants to go into business, don’t look at the dollar signs, if you are going just for the dollar sign, you aren’t going to succeed. You have to enjoy the business to keep the motivation required for the necessary dedication, long hours, hard work and sacrifices to make the business successful, and then the dollar sign will come. Be persistent and take the good with the bad. If I didn’t have my family behind me as my backer, with both financial and moral support, I wouldn’t have succeeded, but because they were there, it gave me that edge to keep moving and do my best.”