From Russia with love Part 3: Getting off the tools
"I decided, I will either have to put in screws or answer the phone and run the business. It was a no-brainer. I hung up my tool belt."
By Robert Koci
From Russia with Love is the story of Sept/Oct 2019 cover contractor Andrei Sosnovsky’s journey from a law degree in Belarus to contracting success in Canada. In Part 1, Sosnovsky comes to Canada via Timmins, ON in 1996 to discover a country very different from what was expected. Part 2 told us how Sosnovsky found himself doing residential work. In Part 3, Andrei gets off the tools.
When did Sosna start?
Sosna started in 2001. Initially, I did both commercial and residential work. Then there was a point I noticed I was not getting any commercial work. In commercial you have to be very good at doing the backdoor thing. Facility managers like to get kickbacks from the contractors. The bidding process is not really fair. I got a chance to look behind the curtain a little bit and did not like it at all. I can’t give these envelopes, you know, I don’t have it in me. I can’t give these bribes. It doesn’t feel good and I don’t respect myself with that. I found when I was dealing honestly I would not get a job because my price was always higher. I thought what am I going to do? I thought I would have to be the cheapest contractor or I would have to be a crook, so, I figured, you know what, I don’t want either. I don’t want to be known as the cheapest and I have no talent for being a crook. That’s when I decided to focus on residential.
Slowly but surely, with my designer Olga, we grew on the residential side and I turned down commercial. Initially I thought I will never make money in residential but I was wrong! I am very happy I made the switch.
Talk about some of the decisions you had to make to grow and be successful.
When I started focusing on residential, I was still doing a lot of the work myself. I remember I was trying to put a screw though drywall when my phone rang. Okay, I put down the screwdriver and answer the phone and then as soon as I finish talking on the phone I pick up the screwdriver and I am trying to put the screw in again and my phone rings again. And it’s back and forth and back and forth and I realize I can’t put screws in drywall anymore because my phone is ringing off the hook. And I also notice that I am not answering the phone very well because I am thinking of something else or I have a screwdriver in my hand or I am on a ladder and I am not doing anything well. So, I decided, I will either have to put in screws or answer the phone and run the business. It was a no-brainer. I hung up my toolbelt.
Did you take a financial hit to make that decision?
I don’t remember it being extremely difficult in terms of financials. It was definitely a financial hit but I wouldn’t say it was a dramatic change.
What other moments were key to growing your company?
What helped me very much, I was actively looking to learn about how to run a business in Canada. I knew construction from my Polish guys and Bob and Caesar but, how to run a business? I was looking actively for information. CMHC had lots of good information for contractors and homeowners at that time. I was reading something, I don’t remember where, that said if the owner of a construction company has no knowledge of construction, that he was more likely to have success! This blew me away. I went to all of the courses—air quality control and building science, carpentry, everything I could do. I’ve got a Red Seal carpenter’s license and I read all the books on carpentry because that is what I thought I needed to be successful. And then I am reading this and it says to me, “It’s not true buddy! You don’t need any of this stuff!” That really blew me away. Really, wow. I was doing it all wrong.
So I stopped reading construction books. I completely abandoned them and started reading books on business. I realized if I want to be successful I don’t need to know all these things. And it was true. 100 per cent. To me a whole new world opened up. I read the book, “E-Myth.” You need to work on the business, not in the business. And now you’ve got to find the people who do the work so you can build them. It was intriguing.
How was the transition off the tools?
At first, I was hungry for the feeling of accomplishment that I got from the tools. You know, I would do a very difficult project and it might be the last day, and I have a difficult issue, like how to install trim around an obstacle or a bulkhead and I would work the whole day and I would find the solution and, oh my gosh it looks so beautiful and the client is so happy and you are so tired and exhausted but you know your client is happy and you got money in your pocket and sit down to dinner that night and life is so good. I was hungry for this feeling—this feeling of fulfilment—that you have accomplished something, completed something to everyone’s satisfaction. That feeling was very good, but the feeling was gone because I was no longer doing construction. I felt hungry for it. Even lonely! I was doing all this business stuff and the only results was money in the bank. Yeah, it’s good but okay, move on. Only in the last few years that I started see it differently. I am building a company. Yes, I am not building walls and stuff but I am building my company. It is also a creative process and I am finding that old satisfaction again.
Now I realize that I have unique opportunity to influence people in other ways. Do I still miss that sense of accomplishment? Yes. I think sometimes if I had the option for someone else to run my company, and me just working on the tools, I would rather do that, because I loved it.
In the final chapter of “From Russia with Love” Andrei Sosnovsky provides guidance on how to make a company great.