This is a story about Eric Hawkes.
Eric is the owner of Restored Pianos Pty Ltd, a piano and furniture restoration business in Hobart, Tasmania. At 74 years old and still in business, Eric owns one of the oldest surviving piano businesses in Australia. He’s been in business for over 55 years and I have known him for close to 25 of those. I first met Eric in 1993 when I was still at school. Eric was an old family friend and his piano restoration workshop at 247 Elizabeth Street, Hobart was across the road from my school bus stop; I will come back to this a little later.
Eric is one of eight children. His father worked on the railways, his mother stayed at home to look after the children. Eric grew up in a small house in Warrane, a working-class suburb of greater Hobart, initially making a name for himself as a talented local footballer, he would later go on to represent Tasmania at State level. Between the ages of 16-19, Eric completed a 4 year piano tuning traineeship with Long, Langlois & Johnson, a traditional family owned piano business in Burnett Street, Hobart.
Shortly after completing his training, at around 20 years old, Eric went into business for himself. Recognising he had no name or reputation, he initially bought a local newsagency and ran the piano business out the back. The newspaper delivery van which Eric drove around the streets of North Hobart every morning between 4-7am would then double as the piano delivery van later in the day. After a few years, the piano business became self-sufficient and Eric closed down the newsagency.
When I first met Eric, I had just turned 15 years old and was working at a local butcher before and after school, mainly mixing sausage meat; not an overly glamorous job! Waiting at the bus stop one day, I spoke to Eric, who offered me some weekend work. I started the following week. In those early days, I would meet Eric at the workshop, often at 6am, in the cold and dark. I spent most of my time cleaning up the workshop, sweeping the floor, emptying bins and servicing the tools and workshop equipment. I still remember my pay rate; $7 per hour, $10 on a Saturday. I liked working on Saturdays and remember having long chats with the old cleaner, Gale. Gale would come in for a few hours in the morning, before Eric arrived. We would make a coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich and discuss all aspects of life before I would start my work; she was a good friend.
A few years later, Gale suddenly passed away. She had become a close friend and was the first person I knew who had died. I remember the mental confusion of speaking with her one week and then finding out she had passed away the next. I was really sad about Gale’s passing and it took me months to get over it.
As basic as my work was, Eric would routinely inspect it, particularly my sweeping, it seemed strangely important to him. I remember once sweeping the workshop 4 times over three hours, each time Eric made me do it again, saying “There’s still dust in the corners, do it again”, “You haven’t swept under the bench, have another go”, “There’s dust in the concrete cracks, use the vacuum”. Eric had an old saying that has always stuck with me; “If you can’t sweep the floor, how will you ever run your own business“, a phrase I find myself using on my own apprentice to this day!
I would go on to work for Eric on and off for the next 6 years, completing a piano tuning, repair and restoration traineeship. That old saying; “I fell into it” certainly is true for me. All through my school years, I never imagined that working on pianos would be my career!
In 1999, I decided to register a small business for myself, initially operating a mobile piano tuning and repairs business from the back of my parents’ house called “Mobile Piano Service’. In those days there was no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram, YouTube or WhatsApp. The term ‘social media’ wasn’t invented and I didn’t have a mobile phone. We had an old IBM computer at home and I set about designing my own business cards on it and printing a sheet of them out on our black and white printer. Dad took the printed sheet to work and photocopied more A4 sheets for me. Then, after cutting them out with scissors, I underlined some of the wording on each one with some coloured pens to add some colour, as I didn’t know anybody with a colour printer.
I had always wanted to travel and by then I was old enough, so I decided to kick start my business by travelling around Australia tuning and repairing pianos. I set off from Hobart bound for mainland Australia in January 2000 in my old bright red Ford Falcon station wagon, full to the brim with piano tools and spare parts. My method was simple but effective. As I carried out work in one town, I would advertise in the newspaper of the town I was next headed to and send flyers to schools and churches where pianos might be. I listed my parents’ home phone number in Tasmania as the contact and every few days I would call home for Dad to give me the details of potential customers that had called. I would, in turn, call the customers from a pay phone on the side of the road to book in jobs. I continued this way for the next 12 months, tuning pianos in some amazing places and seeing a lot of Australia at the same time.
It’s amazing how old-fashioned word of mouth worked for me. Despite having no internet, social media or mobile phones, I was never out of work. I ended up seeing some amazing places, the highlight was probably the most unlikely: a stay in Alice Springs for over 4 months, tuning and repairing over 50 pianos and setting up a temporary piano workshop in my Uncle’s garage. It was a great time of my life and I learnt a lot about myself, most importantly how to communicate, be resilient and be self-reliant.
Fast forward 20 years and my wife, Eloise, and I now live in Adelaide with our 6-year-old lad, Hamish, the light of my life. We operate our own Company ‘Leaver Pianos Australia Pty Ltd’. I am the sole director and we have 9 staff members with workshops and offices across Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne and most recently Paris!
When I’m in Hobart, I always drop in and see Eric. We often sneak out for a beer at the Queens Head Hotel in North Hobart, where Eric first took me for a beer when I turned 18 years old. The old piano showroom, the smell of the old workshop, the old push button phones and the paper diary on the old desk; things haven’t changed much at all since I worked there, but that’s kind of nice in a way.
You see, Eric is one of those ‘larger than life’ personalities, he’s had a major influence on my life and I owe him a lot. I can still remember the strange ways he answered the workshop phone, picking up the receiver and shouting “SPEAK!” into it before even knowing who was on the other end. Or the way he greeted people that walked in the front door, saying things like “You look like someone important” or “I hope you’ve got a big wallet”, once I remember actually hearing him greet somebody with “Are you a boy or a girl…“
Right or wrong, and at times totally politically incorrect!, what Eric’s personality did was shape the way I viewed business and, to a large degree, life in general. You don’t need to be ’smart’ ‘conventional’ or ‘by the book’ to succeed. More importantly, you need to be a damn hard worker, have presence, be confident, charismatic and unique. One of Eric’s favourite sayings was “People that go to work in the dark, rule the world”.
Our own company now works closely with the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation at Adelaide University; this relationship is so interesting to me. Young people have so much energy and so many ideas. In the modern world full of tech savvy entrepreneurs, pop up businesses and the like, Eric actually now stands out even more so as one of the true pioneers of real entrepreneurship. He built his business on the back of hard work with no mobile phone, no internet, no computers, no photocopiers, no website, no social media, no email.
This year, as we expand further interstate and now into Europe with the help of Adelaide University, I’m constantly reminded of those early days with Eric in the old workshop in Hobart. It’s a different and really exciting time for business now and, even though I’m still learning, I’m quietly proud that I’ve managed to evolve with all the changes to running a business over the past 20 years.
My working days now routinely involve managing and overseeing website updates, Facebook posts, Instagram posts and more recently a YouTube channel. I routinely travel interstate and overseas and have more business meetings than I care for. If I was totally honest, I’m still the most comfortable in my apron, covered in sawdust and stripping a piano in the workshop.
I routinely find myself at our shop, by myself at 5am in the dark, sweeping the floor and emptying the rubbish bins. Maybe it’s the still air and quiet of that time of day, or maybe it’s me going back to my roots, I’m not quite sure. Either way, it’s those basic early life lessons from Eric that have shaped who I am today as a business owner and person.
I’ll finish on this note; pardon the pun! “Never discount even the smallest of lessons in life, you never know where they might take you”.