When Tom Rolfe couldn’t find a job he picked up his trowel and hawk, created his own business and achieved his ambition. He’s 20. Chris Owen talked to him
Tom Rolfe recalls the occasion clearly.
He was at junior school, sitting outside on a gloriously hot summer’s day.
‘I remember thinking at that moment that I would never work in an office. I wanted my own business, doing something outdoors in the sun.
‘I told my friends I was going to have my own business, but I don’t think they really understood what I meant. I suppose I was about 10.’
That was just a decade ago.
In the past six months Tom has realised his boyhood dream and turned around his life.
He says: ‘When I was a young teenager I had no idea where I was going. I was just drifting.’
Now, driven by that playground ambition at Corpus Christi Primary School, North End, the 20-year-old of Strode Road, Stamshaw, Portsmouth, has set up his own business, launched a website, bought branded clothing and has secured a string of clients.
He has also overcome nerves and given presentations to business club gatherings to sell himself.
He had never done any public speaking before. Work has come from those events. In the middle of a double dip recession.Crazy?
‘It’s not the best time, but I’m absolutely determined to make it a success. If it doesn’t work I’m young enough to try something else. But it isn’t going to fail.’
He is inspirational in a world where many youngsters are derided for their lack of ambition, especially in these financially-straitened times.
By his own admission Tom was no academic achiever. His secondary education was at St Edmund’s School.
‘I enjoyed school because I could see my mates. I used to chat a lot, was a bit of joker who tried to make the teachers laugh. But I just couldn’t see the point of most of it.’
But beneath it all, he knew what he wanted to do.
‘My parents broke up when I was 10 and I started to do little things around the house, bits of DIY, painting, that sort of thing.
‘I really enjoyed making things look good especially the painting. Then a friend of my mum’s saw what I’d done and asked me to do some painting for her because she’d just had an extension built.
‘So I went round, did all the painting and built all the furniture for them. I was 14 and it was the first time I was paid for my work.’
We wander into the family’s immaculate kitchen, recently completely plastered and painted by Tom.
‘St Edmund’s sent me on a pre-16 course at Highbury College, North Harbour. I went one afternoon a week to get a taste of what I really wanted to do. You got a choice of construction, mechanics and hairdressing.
‘I went for construction and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. They gave you a taster for everything – bricklaying, tiling, painting, rendering and plastering.
‘I discovered I had a knack for plastering. A lot of people say it’s an art and that it’s difficult, but it just seemed to come naturally.’
When he left St Edmund’s he studied the ‘art’ at Highbury and left with two diplomas.
But jobs in his chosen trade were hard to come by. ‘It was the middle of the credit crunch when I started sending off job applications.
‘I wrote to just about every firm that employed plasterers in the Portsmouth area but never got anything back, not even acknowledgments. A couple of months later I did it all again and the same thing happened. Nothing at all.
‘That was when I realised that if I wanted to do what I knew I was good at I’d have to do what I’d always wanted, run my own business. Why work for someone else?’
But to tide him over he took a job on the breakfast shift working for the Holiday Inn at Pembroke Road, Old Portsmouth.
‘That’s where I was working until just before last Christmas,’ add Tom.
‘It was okay, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, so I just decided to go for it.’
So he set up Rolfe Interior Finishes, invested in branded polo shirts and fleeces, had a website designed and headed for the Havant, Fareham and Portsmouth Business Contacts Club.
‘The first time I went I had to speak for 60 seconds to sell myself. My heart was pounding. I’d never done anything like that before, but I got through it and I guess I didn’t do too badly because afterwards five people came up and asked for my card.
‘I’ve been several times now and I’ve learned how to network with people, all of them a lot older than me.’
Out of that initial experience Tom was put in touch with a woman who wanted her flat painted.
He continues: ‘The landlord came round, liked what he saw and gave me more work. It’s snowballed from there.’