Facing considerable obstacles, 35-year-old Victor Shvenke managed to migrate to the United States with his wife and young family in 1988 with a few hundred dollars to his name.
"We came over thanks to a great sponsor, and in two weeks, the sponsor found a job and apartment for us," Shvenke said. It was very tight. "There were no candies, no Pepsi in fridge," he added, his voice still of Russian accent.
In three weeks, Shvenke got a job in a grocery store to package food but could not speak English. Soon, he was offered a potential job in construction. Hoping to impress his potential employer, Shvenke wore a suit to his interview and his 60-year-old employer was in "dirty clothes, dressed like a worker," according to Shvenke. He got the job.
"He gave me very good start," Shvenke continued. "I didn't have in my mind taking advantage of the American government. My new employer would get upset at the idea of welfare. He was hard working, and from the beginning, I learned the best work ethic and attitude; learned all the right skills."
In addition to English, Shvenke had to learn the English system of measurement.
"My fellow workers picked on me because I cut studs and would sometimes cut them too short, always because of inches," Shvenke jokes. "I kept forgetting, what does 3/4 inch mean?"
Many Americans (especially younger ones) seem to forget that this country is comprised of foreigners, other than Native Americans. It has always been immigrants who work harder and longer, typically not pursuing leisure or material possessions as an end. Rather, the welfare of family is the primary concern-and very hard work to achieve the norm.
"After three years at the company, I knew what I was doing and I wanted to work more hours," Shvenke continued. "My employer let me work 50 to 60 hours per week. I still wanted more work and asked if I could work on the side. I worked 75 hours and still had time. My boss gave me another guy to work for.
"People would come by a house where I worked and would remember me, the Russian guy, working late again," he said. "After moonlighting long enough, I had enough clients to start my own drywall business."
After years in drywall, Shvenke Construction Inc., of State College, Pa., now has a second office in Cleveland, Tenn. The company has $3.5 million in projects lined up for this year and expects to almost double that in 2005.
"When I started my jobs here in this area I was cautious, starting with small crews, doing little by little, getting a good reputation, doing a good job," Shvenke said. "I transferred my people from drywall gradually to the EIFS business. At some point, we were all EIFS, around 1995."
Quality craftsmanship, integrity and willingness to do what it takes to satisfy the customer. The age-old recipe for success. Shvenke shared his success. He has provided employment to other immigrants, as well as American workers.
"I've been lucky and blessed all these years. I believe I came here for a higher purpose: to be able to provide work for lots of immigrants who came over from other countries, who did not want to take advantage of the American government. They consider it a privilege to be and work here, and they put all their effort to do a good job, work long hours-some people working 100 hours a week, if we need to have it done."
Shvenke's approach demonstrates what I believe to be the American ethic in its purest form. With the freedom to be your own boss comes the necessity of sacrifice. It's nice to know that success still rewards hard work, commitment and sacrifice.