What’s a recent business degree graduate doing staining wood for a new desk, making oversized doors from reclaimed barn siding, and fashioning six-foot props for Lakeshore Mall?

Don’t business majors usually ply their business acumen in the corporate world?

Phil Fillie looks over a desk under refurbishment in his shop.

Phil Fillie looks over a desk under refurbishment in his shop.

Phil Fillie, a graduate South Florida State College’s of Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management (BAS-SM) program, opted to forgo managing someone else’s firm. But Fillie hasn’t shunted aside what he learned about start-ups, finance, and marketing, he’s putting his business studies to use–his own use.

Fillie is the proprietor of The Carpenter’s Apprentice, a one-man woodworking shop that produces custom-made furniture, an assortment of woodworking for family homes, and a larger-than-life book for the children’s play area of Lakeshore Mall.

“The slogan for my business is ‘Creating Masterpieces’,” Fillie said, after taking a break from staining wood planks in his shop. “I don’t strive to make the most innovative piece but the right piece for my customers—one that will make them smile.”

One of Fillie’s recent projects called for the reclamation of wood from a century-old barn. Refinishing the wood to give it a new look, Fillie reassembled the pieces into a large sliding door that, he said, overjoyed the homeowner.

But the 40-year-old doesn’t see his business as means to “just pay the bills,” he said he hopes it will give him an opportunity to serve his neighbors.

Fillie launched his woodworking business last year, shortly after walking off the stage with his business diploma at SFSC’s 2015 spring Commencement ceremony.

Before enrolling at SFSC, the Sebring native was working as a detention deputy for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

“I always had a drive within me to serve my community, and I volunteered with the West Sebring Fire Department,” Fillie said. “Then in 2003, Polk County said you can fight fires for free or come work for us, so I signed up with them.”

Midway through his 11-year career watching over inmates at the jail, Fillie had what he called a moment that “redirected” him. One afternoon, as Fillie was with his wife, Nichole, and two young daughters in the backyard of his Orange Blossom Estates home, a bolt of lightning struck him.

A door Phil Fillie fashioned from reclaimed century-old barn siding.

A door Phil Fillie fashioned from reclaimed century-old barn siding.

“I woke up on the ground to look up at my family frantically calling out for help,” Fillie remembered. “Once I had a go at death, I rededicated myself to what’s important.”

Describing himself as a typical guy, one who grew up in a home where faith was important, Fillie said his brush with death awakened him to a deep, almost single-minded devotion to the three “F’s,” or “faith, family, and finances.”

Fillie’s life is centered on his faith and church, his wife, and home schooling his two daughters. “It’s not just my faith and family that’s key,” Fillie said. “If I can lend a hand to a neighbor, then I’ll reach out to help.” Even though he puts in long hours in his shop, Fillie finds time to volunteer when local organizations put out a call for help or a neighbor is in need.

One outcome of his redirection was a renewed interest in an education that would lead to career advancement with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. “I had started working toward my associate degree at SFSC as far back as 1997 by taking a class now and then,” Fillie said. “But after I was injured, I found time to wrap up my studies so that I could move ahead for my wife and kids.”

In 2011, Fillie earned his associate degree from SFSC.

Fillie had residual injuries that required surgery and time at home to recuperate. “I knew I would have to retire early from my detention job because of the stress and physical demands,” Fillie explained. “But I also knew for my family’s sake I couldn’t stop working.”

With an eye on his future, Fillie joined a cohort of more than two dozen students at the SFSC Highlands Campus in fall 2013. They comprised the second class to start SFSC’s bachelor-level business program with a concentration in supervision and management—the first bachelor’s degree offered by the college.

“The SFSC BAS-SM program was an awesome experience,” Fillie said. “We students all came in as a single group, taking the same classes together, and found great professors who made the program rewarding for us.”

The cohort approach appealed to Fillie. “Moving through the program together, we developed relationships among ourselves and made some good friends,” he said. Now one year post-graduation, Fillie said his classmates still keep up with each other.

“Mr. Martin, an instructor who taught us principles of marketing, demonstrated marketing techniques we could use in everyday settings,” Fillie said, referring to Adam Martin, one of SFSC’s business instructors in its BAS-SM program.

A six-foot wooden recreation of a book constructed by Phil Fillie in the new children’s play area of Lakeshore Mall.

A six-foot wooden recreation of a book constructed by Phil Fillie in the new children’s play area of Lakeshore Mall.

One class would prove to be especially important for Fillie: project management. “What I learned from Jeff Roth in the project management course prepared me for starting my own business,” said Fillie, mentioning Roth, the former administrator of the Children’s Advocacy Center who served as an adjunct instructor in the BAS-SM program.

Knowing how to put out bids, navigating around potential legal pitfalls, and managing workflows were all subjects Fillie said he learned at SFSC and that had a part to play in the successful launch of his business.

“I’m not making a lot of money, but that’s not why I started my business,” Fillie noted. “But I’m paying the bills, taking care of my family, and enjoying my work.”

The first year, Fillie said, involved a lot of growing pains. “It surely wasn’t easy,” he said. “Many weeks I put in 60 or 70 hours of work to keep it going, but it has paid off for me.”

Fillie didn’t take up woodworking on a fluke after his studies at SFSC. He said he grew up around tools and wood, fixing objects, and working in construction.

He said he plans to use The Carpenter’s Apprentice as means to fulfill his drive to serve others. “I am working out the details on how to bring high school kids on board during the summers as a way to introduce them to carpentry and learn skills they can use in life,” Fillie said.

Fillie’s said he was the odd one among the graduates of SFSC’s BAS-SM program. He chose the solo route. Others, he said, opted for more traditional roles in small- and medium-sized companies.

Regardless of what career path one takes, Fillie said graduates of SFSC’s business program will finish the program with the skills and knowledge they need to make a go at a rewarding career.

“What struck me about the SFSC business program was the feeling that the professors cared about us, that we succeeded,” Fillie said. “I always had a sense that I was at a college that really cared.”