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Crafting futures

Crafting futures

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HIA member Dale Healy remembers what it was like to be given an opportunity in the early days of his career. Today, he’s committed to doing the same for Australia’s next generation of cabinet makers.

Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

As the owner of a highly regarded, award-winning cabinetry company, and trusted mentor to many apprentices over the years, it’s hard to imagine Dale Healy ever feeling overwhelmed or out of his depth. But that’s exactly how he felt as a 24-year-old tradie who suddenly found himself in charge of H&H Cabinets, only to discover that building kitchens and running a business are two quite different skills. 

He was unprepared for the rapid escalation in responsibility. ‘All of a sudden you are now in charge of remembering to order the next pack of board or ordering the hinges in,’ he says. He also ‘had no concept of the financial side of it’. After a week, his previous boss – Gary Howell, who he’d bought the business from – took him aside. ‘He said, “you cannot operate a business like you have been this week. You can't keep pushing issues to the back burner. You need to deal with them, get them out of the way, move on”.’ 

Dale heeded the advice, but the learning curve was steep. ‘In hindsight, I probably should have gone into partnership with Gary for a year or two, instead of just buying the business outright,’ he says. But it seems that Gary knew Dale was the right man for the job: under his leadership, H&H Cabinets has grown from a small shed-based operation into a full-scale design-and-construct company that specialises in high-end projects. 

Gary Howell
Dale and Gary in the early days

Dale grew up in Stawell, a rural town located about 230km west of Melbourne, Victoria. He discovered his affinity for timber during woodworking classes in high school. ‘My first project was a bedhead and end for Mum and Dad…I built them out of solid timber,’ he remembers. ‘That was probably 35 years ago. And you walk into Mum and Dad's bedroom now, they’re still there.’ For Dale, this is what the craft of joinery is all about – creating something of beauty that will last and be loved year after year. 

‘No one except you knows how long you sanded that bit of wood…how difficult it was to get into that little corner,’ he says. ‘No one can appreciate that like you do.’ He says it's that finesse to detail  and love of the craft which he tries to instil in his team. ’No matter what they're doing – [I say] stand back and look at it, and make sure you get job satisfaction out of it.’ 

After completing his HSC in 1991, Dale was selected from a group of 85 applicants to do a carpentry and cabinetmaking apprenticeship at CSIRO in Clayton, Melbourne. Over the next four years, he learnt his craft with the onsite carpentry team, converting laboratories to meet the requirements of various research projects. ‘It involved demolition works, building some offices or walls, bit of carpentry work, and then fit out with joinery. I was exposed to lots of different materials and machinery.’ (Fun fact: he never built an actual kitchen!)

He remembers the early days of his apprenticeship as fairly challenging – living away from home, earning a low wage. ‘It was tough for the first 12 months to two years,’ he says. ‘It was just a matter of working, knowing that it was an apprenticeship and I would eventually get there.’ One of the things that helped Dale through this time was sport. ‘I love my sport, so I got into cricket and football down here.  You meet good people through those things.’ To this day, sport is a huge part of his life. Time on the field helps him manage the stress levels: ‘You’ve got to have downtime, so when you are at work you can focus.’ But he also believes that skills learnt on-field carry through to the workplace, making him a more confident and capable team player, mentor and leader. 

Towards the end of his apprenticeship, Dale was offered a month’s work at H&H Cabinets. Established in 1968 by Brian Helding and Gary Howell, the company had a good reputation and ran on word-of-mouth referrals. The pair were impressed with Dale’s work, and one month turned into three. 

A brief stint with a construction company followed, helping to build the stadium and the pits for Melbourne’s first Grand Prix. While ‘the attention to detail wasn’t so great’, Dale says it was still satisfying work: ‘I can stand back and look at the completed grandstand and know that I was part of it.’ 

After that, he found his way back to H&H Cabinets. Brian had retired, and Gary brought Dale on to help. ‘Around that two- or three-year mark, Gary was in his early sixties, and he said, “Look, what are you thinking about for your future? I want to get out of this in the next few years. It’s an opportunity here for you to take it over”.’ 

Mitch working on solid timber joins
Dale in 1997

Dale took the opportunity and ran with it.

Partly in recognition of all those who helped him get a foothold in the Kitchens and Bathrooms industry (and partly because he’s a good bloke), Dale has dedicated much time and effort over the past two decades to nurturing the next generation of cabinetmakers. So far, he’s hosted 17 apprentices, and he says that seeing them learn new skills and knowledge is incredibly rewarding. ‘I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching that lightbulb turn on for the first time for them, for whatever it may be.’

One of Dale’s early apprentices, Mitch de Krester, is now production manager and recently clocked up 20 years with H&H Cabinets. Supervisor Josh Hawkins began as an apprentice more than 10 years ago. And Reed McLean, who Dale describes as ‘naturally skilled’, won 2022 HIA Victorian Apprentice of the Year. He’s now a qualified cabinetmaker and a valued member of the H&H team. 

A breakfast treat for the team
One of Dale's designs

‘It's not somewhere you work for a while and then move on,’ Mitch says. ‘Dale is the kind of boss that puts time into teaching you, then lets you offer ideas and make things your own. We are all committed here, to the customers and the standard of work, and also to each other.’

H&H’s reputation is built on quality and impeccable workmanship. So, the one thing Dale is not interested in is turning out mediocre workers. There’s no room for compromise. ‘If you've been trained as an apprentice at H&H Cabinets, no one needs to question your quality or your ability to do the job…they would know you've been trained correctly.

As a self-confessed ‘people pleaser’, Dale wears his integrity on his sleeve: ‘I always like to please people, number one. Number two, if I offer or promise anything, I always hold up my end of the bargain.’ This approach informs every aspect of how he runs his business. ‘You know, Mr and Mrs Jones are investing a fair amount of trust and their money into us. It's a big thing and we want to reward them for doing that.’ 

Something of a ‘forever learner’ himself, Dale doesn’t shy away from asking for help when it’s needed – seeking advice from business coaches on everything from managing growth sustainably to social media. And he relies on his HIA membership to stay up to date with changes and happenings within the industry. 

So, after 23 years in the business, what is Dale most proud of? There have been plenty of awards, including HIA Victorian Kitchen of the Year. Dale credits the win to his talented crew and teamwork. But while awards are a tangible marker of success, for Dale it’s also about the smaller things: ‘In the early days, when I got involved with HIA...I hoped one day we could produce that sort of work. And hopefully one day I can talk to a kid the way this fellow's talking to me. I think we’re able to do that.

‘I'm proud of the fact that I took a business over…and that I’ve improved and grown that business,’ he says. 'The customers that I took over are still involved …and we’re still doing work for some of the builders that I first started with. And Gary, who I bought the business off, still calls in for a cup of tea every now and again.’

First published on 5 July 2023

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