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The apprentice

Photography: Josh Hogan Photography

The apprentice

Photography: Josh Hogan Photography
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Winner of HIA’s Australian Apprentice of the Year award in 2008, Scott Mouthaan has achieved much more than he ever expected.

Ian Bushnell

Author

It took a little longer than anticipated but Hunter Valley builder Scott Mouthaan has achieved the goal he set when he was named the 2008 HIA Australian Jim Brookes Apprentice of the Year. He’s five years into setting up his company, SKM Built, and still setting goals.

That penchant for continual improvement, cultivated by his teacher parents, is one of the attributes that won Scott HIA's top award for apprentices.

Back in 2008, he planned to complete his studies, subcontract for a year or two and go out under his own name. But instead, he served ‘a second apprenticeship’ as a supervisor with long-time Hunter firm, R.T. Simpson & Sons, which specialises in high-end custom homes and renovations. Staying there for nine years was the best preparation for Scott, who went into business with his wife Katie in 2018.

At R.T. Simpson, he took charge of all construction operations, including onsite project management, client liaison and running the team. 'I thought of it as a builder's apprenticeship, learning about the business and onsite work,' Scott says.

HIA member Scott Mouthaan of SKM Built with his wife Katie and their three children

Before long, he was ready to go solo, starting with small renovations. Since he already had a name in the industry, it wasn’t long before his reputation for quality and attention to detail brought customers to his door.

After starting off with just an offsider, Scott built up from small renovations to bigger projects and new custom homes. He now has five employees, including two apprentices, and uses three or four contractors as needed.

Scott says he is now looking to take the firm into the high-end sector, which he hopes will not just be lucrative but test his and his employees' skills. 'We're always looking for jobs that are challenging. We can walk away with satisfaction at the end,' he says.

Project highlights include a restoration of a 130-year-old cottage for a guesthouse property at Pokolbin and a Hamptons-style home in Newcastle’s suburb of New Lambton. The home had specific design challenges, such as curved walls in the stairwell, that the clients requested. After completing this project, Scott plans to enter this in the next HIA custom home awards.

He loves that his firm can turn clients' dreams, such as these projects, into reality. 'We use all the knowledge we've developed over the years and come up with ways to achieve what they want in an aesthetic and practical way,' he says.

‘We’re always looking for jobs that are challenging,’ says Scott Mouthaan
It wasn’t long before Scott’s reputation for quality brought customers to his door.

He attributes his determination and drive for success to his father – a bricklayer-turned-TAFE-teacher – and his principal mother. It was working on weekends with his dad – the son of an immigrant Dutch block layer – that piqued his interest in the building industry.

He took his father's advice to go into carpentry and took on his values of achieving as much as you can and making sure you do the best possible job. These are values that he's now instilling in his apprentices, encouraging them to take their off-site studies seriously.

'When they started their journey with TAFE, I was up-front about what my expectations are,' Scott says. 'I wanted them to knuckle down and strive to be as good as they could be; to have opportunities down the line.'

Onsite, Scott has experienced tradies who can pass on their knowledge. He recalls how important it was as an apprentice to have diverse sources to draw from so he could decide what systems worked best for him. But it’s that striving for quality that is paramount.

'You're only as good as the work you're putting out and the work people see,' Scott says. 'You can do 100 good jobs and one bad one, and that’s what people talk about.' Scott is a hands-on manager but as the company grows, he knows he will have to step back. Developing his apprentices into skilled tradespeople who can share that burden is important.

'In our business, we're looking for our apprentices to take hold of the baton when we're ready to step back,' he says.

Scott's current apprentices had already connected with a training organisation when they started. However, he's keen to run his next apprentices through HIA Apprentices, HIA's Group Training Organisation, given his long association with the industry body.

Scott is thrilled that his building business can turn clients’ dreams into reality
When he launched the business, clients drew confidence from the fact that he was a HIA member

Scott wants to have apprentices under SKM's wing from start to finish. 'We need to grow the next crop that come through,' he says. 'Apprentices will always be the future of what we're doing.'

Scott says HIA has been with him all the way since winning his award. Recently he completed a HIA builder's coaching course and he values the support and services the Association offers.

'It's a great thing,' he says. 'You can always contact someone to ask a question or nut something out. I always recommend membership and I'll always be a part of it.'

When he launched the business, clients drew confidence from the fact that he was a HIA member. His advice to young apprentices and future builders is to find your niche. 'You need to find the market that fits the work you want to do,' he explains.

Communicating clearly with clients, managing expectations and making their experience as enjoyable as possible is crucial. 'Our clients know exactly where we're up to and what work they're going to get,' Scott says.

Above all, he says it's important to be passionate about your career. 'That's half the battle. It's also important to surround yourself with great colleagues. They push you to be better as well. It's hard being in the building game without having a laugh and enjoy the work that you're doing.'

It would be a fitting reward if this award-winning apprentice graduated to being an award-winning builder. Something that should not be too far away.

First published on 19 May 2023

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