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May 24, 2018

Building a Foundation

From swinging a hammer to putting out fires, Johnathan Brewer II is building a unique career.

David M. Gutiérrez
  • OWN
  • OWN
  • OWN
  • OWN
  • OWN

Johnathan Brewer II found his calling early in life.

The Oakland contractor/firefighter received a mentorship in construction from a family friend. He also discovered the long-running PBS show This Old House, a program focusing on home renovation and remodeling.

After becoming a firefighter and starting his own construction business, Brewer was approached to appear as an on-air carpenter on HGTV's Super Scapes, and later on the DIY Network's House Crashers and HGTV's Curb Appeal: The Block and Elbow Room. Recently, Brewer II has joined the Oprah Winfrey Network's Home Made Simple, where he assists with home improvement projects and decorating solutions.

During his free time, Brewer II devotes his energies towards educating children about the benefits of the construction trade and entrepreneurship.

What was it about construction that appealed to you?

Being able to see a transformation happening from conception to completion. I consider myself to be creative and was drawn to it when I was growing up.

When did firefighting come into the picture?

Around 2007. I was working for the city of Oakland when I was approached by a fire chief who asked if would be interested in working as a firefighter. I was always athletic, and coming from the trades, I developed that skill set. I just thought, "Why not? I'll give it a try."

Was it contracting that led you to form your own business?

When in my 20s, I was doing odd jobs and construction-related projects for family members and friends when people started asking me to work on much larger projects. I thought if I'm going to get involved in doing larger projects, I might want to get serious about getting my business license. It's actually 10 years this year I've been licensed.

How did you get your start on television as an on-camera contractor?

I was working as a contractor when I received an ad about a Northern California production company looking for on-air talent for a TV show. I auditioned. I didn't [get the job], but they called me several months later and asked if I was still interested in working in television. I said, "Sure, why not?" I ended up working around five episodes on the second season of HGTV's Super Scapes. The show wasn't picked up for a third season, so that fizzled.

Then, I appeared on House Crashers on the DIY Network. Once you're in that pool [of on-air talent], your name starts getting thrown around. That led to Curb Appeal: The Block on HGTV, where I met [on-air carpenter] Chip Wade. Home Made Simple, on the OWN Network, was looking for on-air talent for their new host, Laila Ali. They had a relationship with Chip who said he knew someone. He sent them my information and here I am.

What was it like for you going from working as a contractor to someone doing the same job, but in a television production environment?

Looking back at the earlier footage of me, it was definitely weird. Working as a contractor in "real life," you have certain ways to do things, where it's regimented.

When you're dealing with a production company, you're stopping what you're doing during the process. It was definitely an adjustment. As I looked back, there were some awkward moments where the editing was definitely to my advantage. But I probably have 20 or so episodes under my belt, so I feel a little bit more accomplished at this point. I'm still new at it, but I'm having fun.

I had a background in music, so I'd performed onstage many times before, so a fear of working on-camera wasn't really there. Being a contractor, I'm always dealing with clients, so that aspect of it was pretty familiar to me. The stopping and going throughout the day working when working on a project, while interacting on-camera, and making it seem natural took a little bit of getting used to. You're not acting, but I guess it's like improv, so to speak.

You've said in earlier interviews that you have noticed a trend in education and moving away from learning trades and what's considered "blue collar work" and are trying to bring students into becoming builders and contractors. How are you making this work look appealing a younger generation?

I'm trying to make it appealing to the youth. It's why I went out and got a bunch of tattoos. I'm just kidding. I'm just trying to get them to see the value in learning the trade because they've taken a lot of the vocational classes out of the high schools.

A lot of kids are more focused on social media and gaming, which is cool, but I think there's something to be said about learning a trade and having a skill that is transferable in terms of developing a generational wealth, something they can pass down. For me, the emphasis is in getting the kids to see the value in learning to do something with your hands while being creative, and also earning a good living while doing it.

What's the biggest obstacle that you're coming across in trying to do this?

I think kids nowadays are being groomed to not want to be active. I guess cell phones or social media may be to blame for that. When you tell them to take a hammer or use a saw, to get out there and be a little bit more active, they don't necessarily see the creative aspects. They see it more as labor. The biggest obstacle is getting them to see the transformation process and using their minds and hands. It's an art form, actually.

Are you making progress in bringing this back into schools?

Definitely. I've done some work with Habitat for Humanity here in the Bay Area and also partnered with Habitat for Humanity L.A. We're trying to develop some vocational training boot camps for youth. They're trying to reintroduce some programs back into the high schools because they're seeing the need for it out in the field, especially here [in Oakland] with the housing crisis.

They see the need to build because we have an influx of residents here and housing prices are through the roof. I think that's aided the youth seeing the value [in the trade] because they see it costs a lot to live here and all the stuff being built around them. I also want to instill in them entrepreneurship. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn't necessarily want to work for someone. I enjoy working for myself and being a free thinker.

You're also working on a 10-home build site in Culver City for the Builder's Ball in September.

It's a Habitat for Humanity project that's going to be a pretty great build. When they approached me, I was definitely more than willing to be a part of it. I'm lending my hand and trying to do what I can for the limited time that I'll be out there.

There's a surge of celebrities like yourself, Mike Rowe, and Adam Carolla who champion learning contracting and building.

I think there's going to always be a need for construction, for someone who knows how to repair homes or renovate. One of the best things I've done for myself was get my contractor's license. I didn't realize how lucrative it can be.

These remodels, we're not talking about just swapping out a cabinet or two. Most of the remodels we're doing in the Bay Area are in excess of $100,000 dollars. For the average homeowner in the bay area, looking to remodel is a luxury item.

Do you have a dream remodel or dream project?

Actually, I like to build a boutique hotel. I think that'd be pretty awesome and it's something I've toyed with in my head. I think there's a need for it [in Oakland] and I wouldn't mind building a high end, modern boutique hotel.

What is it about Oakland that speaks to you that makes you stay there and do the majority of your work there?

Oakland is so rich in diversity in terms of people and topography. There's much history here. I grew up here. At one point in time, I ran the streets and all that good stuff, and then found my way. I think that there's definitely a need for role models for the youth here.

Being a firefighter, or being a business owner, or being on television, I think there's definitely a need for youth here to see that and [for me to] be present. Just this past week I was talking to some kids considered to be at risk youth about different possibilities. I try to do that at least several times a year.

I know a lot, a lot of people who are in the industry are not often available because they're busy working. But I think it's definitely important to take the time and be present for the youth here because it's needed. Not everyone is fortunate enough to earn a good living and have that example for their own children. In some instances, some of them are growing up in pretty bad situations.

Where can people expect to see you this year?

I did something with This Old House, which was full circle for me. I watched it as a child. I just did a segment with them called "Fix and Finish" that should be coming soon.

The next season of Home Made Simple I'm looking forward to. This is my first time working with The Oprah Winfrey Network. But, now that I know the ropes so to speak, it will be interesting to see what happens on this next season. I think I'll be a lot more relaxed.

You're working with Laila Ali on Home Made Simple, who's part of an athletic dynasty.

When [the show producers] told me, "you'll be doing this and that with Laila" a couple of times, I said, "Laila Ali? As Muhammad Ali's daughter?" That was such a "wow" moment for me. Muhammad Ali is such an icon, and to be a part of that legacy by working with one of his children - who happened to establish her own career in her own right - is pretty amazing.

I definitely had some moments where I told myself, "Shut up. Stop asking questions [about Muhammad Ali]." You kind of want to get the inside scoop. Laila was very gracious and definitely down to Earth.

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