Michael and Karen Tomlinson
Business and beaches.
It was early spring and the skies were a dazzling turquoise; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Leading to one of the most expansive beaches on the surf Coast, Karen and Michael Tomlinson’s street couldn’t have looked any more perfect. The Tomlinsons have worked exceptionally hard to get their business where it is today.
You could say it’s been a case of trial and error. After doing a number of different jobs, Michael Tomlinson waited until his 30s to take on a plumbing apprenticeship at a more mature age and has never looked back. But for the Tomlinson's, escaping to the coast to run their own successful plumbing business was a gradual process.
‘Before we ran our own plumbing business, Michael was working as a plumber for other companies,’ said Karen who martials the tight ship of Tomlinson Plumbing as Office Manager. ‘Before that, he had various roles, from a courier driver to working in garden supplies. I always worked in PA roles, so was administration focussed. Between us, we had the perfect formula to strike out on our own. And after living in Sunbury for seven years, the appeal of the coast was so strong. We’ve called Torquay home for four years now and wouldn’t swap it for the world. It’s a great place to bring up the kids.’
‘It wasn’t difficult to make the leap into our own business. We’d started to build up some clientele, with the aim of going out on our own, but Michael then got retrenched, so the decision to jump in was made for us. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” we thought. “If it doesn’t work out we can go back to being employed by someone else.” But it flourished organically – the clientele built up quickly and it just went from there.’ Perhaps the leaps and bounds of success have something to do with Tomlinson Plumbing’s affordable and approachable disposition. You couldn’t ask for nicer people than Karen and Mike. The positive feedback and word of mouth referrals they receive go a long way to repeat business. They have a charismatic approach to marketing and are very active on social media, a great way to activate prospective clients within the digital community – after all, who isn’t online these days?
Their decision to switch from city to the coast has also had a positive impact on their lifestyle. ‘Our favourite thing about living on the coast is the relaxed vibe,’ continues Karen. ‘Being a hop, step and a jump from the water increases the natural inclination to be outside more. Sure, you still need to do all the same day to day things you would need to do living anywhere else, but with the beach so close, all it takes is a walk along the sand and you’re recharged and relaxed all at the same time.’
So is beachside business booming for Karen and her husband? ‘Being specialised maintenance plumbers, work is really varied, but it’s great to report that it’s pretty consistent throughout the year. The super busy periods are the cooler months when we’re doing a lot of gas heater servicing and safety checking. Then of course there’s the crazy lead up to the Christmas period, where everybody seems to want everything done before their friends and family arrive on their doorstep. There’s not much time to go surfing at the moment as we’re bracing ourselves for the influx right now. But it’s much better to be busy, so bring it on we say!’
But is it all sunshine and long walks on the beach at dusk? ‘Of course running a business together as husband and wife has its challenges, especially if it’s been a huge week and we’re both tired. We can get a bit irritated and impatient with each other, but on the whole, because we know each other so well, and each have our own parts of the business that we take care of, it runs along like a well-oiled machine. We do try and switch of the business stuff at the end of the day, but it doesn’t always work and we quite often sit up when the kids have gone to bed and run through ideas with each other. You’ve got to be constantly evolving and trying different approaches, even with a very small business like ours.’
Servicing Geelong, Torquay, Barwon Heads, Ocean Grove and Anglesea, the Tomlinson’s working radius sounds more like the start of your holiday road trip. Specialising in commercial, industrial and building maintenance from toilets
to tanks, burst pipes to blockages, drafting in the help of Karen’s Father and subcontractors where necessary and always making time for a dip in the ocean, Karen and Mike are proof that the Australian Dream is within reach with the right tools at hand and a good attitude.
Across the bay and over the Peninsula, the weather wasn’t very forgiving on our way to Sorrento the following week. Grey clouds gathered menacingly on the freeway leading out of Melbourne which turned to ominous spitting followed by sideways rain. Driving parallel to the deep blue along the coast road, you couldn’t help but laugh at the fickle mistress that is Victoria’s weather. But of course, the show must go on – it’s a good job plumbers are a hardy bunch!
John Riley is no exception. Riley Plumbing was started by his father Leon in the sixties and has been a stalwart saviour of the Sorrento region’s plumbing problems ever since. Going from strength to strength across the decades, it’s always been a family affair.
‘We’ve always been based by the coast, servicing the southern Peninsula region. My Father started his own business around the time I was born. He had to borrow his father’s truck to get his tools and materials to the job, then return the truck and walk or ride his bicycle back to the job. He had a few apprentices over the years and then took me on in 1979. Almost forty years later and I am still in the game.
Dad retired in 2000 and I took over the business from him with exactly the same principles. We have a lot of clients whose families who have dealt with us over two or three generations. To this day, it’s our priority to always provide a personal service to our clients, most of whom are holiday home owners.’
For a true plumber, the satisfaction of solving people’s issues never loses its appeal.
‘People come to us with so many emergencies. When someone’s hot water service has burst and flooded the house, or they have sewerage over owing everywhere, or the roof is leaking badly and they don’t know where to turn and you have the skills and equipment to get them out of trouble and resolve the situation, it’s tremendously satisfying,’ says John, always willing to lend a helping hand.
Riley Plumbing operates across Blairgowrie, Sorrento and Portsea. With holiday homes and short term rentals by the coast needing constant attention, there is a steady flow of work at all times. The Rileys’ long and proud association with the area and local knowledge extends as far back as plumbing works on the historic Pepper’s Delgany Hotel in Portsea in the days before it operated as a hotel. ‘We enjoy working on local homes with history behind them, and have a passion for the area we work in,’ says John. ‘Our long-term clients come from local, commercial businesses including Sorrento Cinemas and Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club. We love helping our community, and we love providing locals with the solutions to all plumbing problems.’
There’s no wonder John wouldn’t want to be anything else. ‘My favourite thing about living on the coast is being by the water. I grew up down here surfing and sailing which to me was paradise. Who would want to sit in city traffic when you can be in the water ten minutes after knock o time? I travelled a bit when I was younger but never saw the need to move away from here, it is such a beautiful area, why move away?’
Father and son duo Richard and Sam joined John from Leicester in the UK. ‘Richard came out here for a relative’s wedding and fell in love with the place and now lives in Mornington with his wife Jo.’ It’s easy to imagine why living by the sea would be preferable to British Midlands, rainy days or otherwise.
It’s important that the team stays small to retain the personal attention to detail that has always been at the core of Riley Plumbing’s personalized service.
‘We have just recently joined the Laser Plumbing network and will soon be known as Laser Plumbing Blairgowrie. Although we will still operate by the same standards that we have set for ourselves,
I am very excited to be taking the business to the next level.’ I had a few more plumbers on a couple of years ago but I scaled things back to a smaller team despite the high volume of work. As we are a local business, it’s all about having the right people for the job.’ It seems like John Riley has got the winning formula for work/life balance down to a tee.