It is December—that time of year when the Toronto Maple Leafs traditionally start to tank heading into the second half of the hockey season. But Emile Pironkov doesn’t care that his beloved team hasn’t been a contender since 1967. That was long before his time, anyway. There’s a huge Maple Leafs emblem hanging high on his office wall. He is almost as passionate about the Leafs as he is about running the family business.
“Four of my closest friends and I share a December birthday, so we usually get together and go watch a game. That’s a lot of fun,” Pironkov says.
It’s not unusual for Pironkov to put in an 80-hour work week overseeing the daily operations of Lovech Ltd. MDF Doors and Custom Products in Concord, Ont. But that’s okay with Emile—to him, he’s not just going to the office every day. He is doing what he loves. It’s a passion that is in the family blood. “It all started with my grandfather,” Pironkov explains. Pironkov’s grandfather had begun a blossoming bicycle-racing career. But that ended when he was injured in a crash. “So he got into the woodworking business,” says Pironkov. “He opened up a small shop in his basement. He had a few small tools, and he started making some tables, chairs and cabinet doors. That was back in Bulgaria about 50 years ago.”
“My dad finished school, and he actually enjoyed helping his dad doing this, and he got into it as well,” Pironkov continues.
FOLLOWING PASSION FOR WOOD
The Pironkov family’s discovered passion for wood craftsmanship would take his father first to Chicago. Then ultimately to Concord, Ont., in the Greater Toronto Area. In 1995, Pironkov’s father, Chris, left his wife and eight-year-old son behind while he went on a pathfinder mission. He emigrated alone to the United States from Bulgaria, landing in Chicago with $500 in his pocket and barely a word of English. But it was his love of carpentry that drove him. Four years later, the elder Pironkov emigrated again. This time along with his wife and son, who had joined him in the U.S. The family moved to Canada in 1999. In Concord, the family patriarch parlayed his love of woodwork into a small business focused on finishing trim work.
“They’d do casings, baseboards, install the doors, trim the whole house. People started asking him for custom cabinetry, and he opened up a shop,” says Pironkov. “My dad hired a few guys. We had a very small shop on Bowes Road. We started off with 1,500 square feet, three guys and a small table saw. It was basically like a home garage, making kitchens out of it,” he laughs. “Eventually it got bigger and he was able to afford more equipment.”
Pironkov was still a young teen when he started to feel his passion for wood. The same passion his father before him had discovered when he too, was fresh out of school in Bulgaria. “I always wanted to be a hockey player,” he laughs. “That was my dream. Me and all my friends, we played hockey. But I started at a very late age, so it wasn’t a realistic dream…as soon as I started working in the woodworking industry, I loved it.”
LEAP OF FAITH
Fresh out of high school, Pironkov knew going on to post-secondary education wasn’t for him. At 17 he had already been working in the family business during the summers. He’d gone to job sites and had done installations with his father. The road ahead was clear. “I found that this was something I was passionate about, and that I enjoyed, and I guess that’s all that mattered because I want to go to work and enjoy it, not get up and be regretting what I do every single day.”
Not long after Pironkov made the decision to carry on in the family tradition, father and son took a giant leap of faith with the business. “About eight years ago, we made our biggest purchase,” he says, “a $24,000 Altendorf saw. That was a very big step. It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but at the time it was scary. We weren’t sure how the business was going to go; it was just getting started.”
And then the 2008-2009 recession hit—but that gamble with the saw paid off big. “The recession was actually the best time for us, Pironkov says. “It was one of the busiest times for us, because all of our clients are pretty well south of Highway 401 and they’re quite wealthy. Once things started dying off, that’s when the really rich people started ordering at a lower cost. So we were very busy during the recession; in fact, we expanded during it.”
TAKING OVER OPERATIONS
Those were still the days when Pironkov was doing a bit of everything. From finishing to cutting on the table saw. About three years ago, however, he took over the day-to-day operations management. He now spends a lot of time in his office and in front of his computer. “I find that it’s tough,” says the 27-year-old. “I miss being in the back. Now that I’m sitting in front of a computer, I go in the back, I touch something, and I know my hands are becoming very soft,” he laughs. “But I have more time to actually promote the business and look for new clients, and more jobs. That’s something I enjoy as well. I have the flexibility to do this, and go in the back when I’m needed.”
He misses being as hands-on in production as he used to be. But it’s not lonely in the front-office area for Pironkov—his fiancée’s office is right next door. They have been working together for the last three years. “Lisa was working for another very big kitchen company,” he says. “She had just finished environmental design at the Ontario College of Art and Design. We got extremely busy and we needed a full-time designer, so I asked her if she was willing to come and work with us. She didn’t even hesitate.”
Pironkov adds, “It has been very easy for us, my dad and my fiancée and I. We’re all easy going. We listen to each other, and we compromise, which is the most important thing.”
DECADE OF EXPERIENCE
Pironkov focuses on the CNC production aspects of the business. Lisa concentrates on managing custom projects, staff management and graphic design of Lovech’s promotional materials including the company website. “We do work on different projects, but we also help each other out on them,” Pironkov says.
He’s just 27. But Pironkov already has a decade of industry knowledge, expertise and experience built up. When the company moved out of manual mode and invested in their first two CNC routers, Pironkov learned how to master them. So he could then train others. “We bought the first one and started doing cabinets,” he says. “Obviously, it’s a learning curve, learning the software. It took me about two years. I started doing the programming and cutting, everything myself. I started training guys myself. Now we have a full-time programmer and I just oversee what he does.”
He has a keen business sense, too. It’s helping to drive the company forward.
“When we started off, we had about 14 guys in the shop, and everything was done manually. The doors, the cabinets, everything. We decided to push into the middle between manufacturing and custom work. We spent $200,000 on CNCs to help us take the business to the next step. What the machine did in one day would have taken three guys one week to do. So that was a very good direction to go, and we have more options for where we want to take the business. Since we bought that first machine four years ago, we’ve bought two other ones; we’ve invested probably $750,000 in just equipment in the last four years. This way, we’ve stayed very competitive. We’re now actually trying to make cabinets and doors for other shops.”
RAMPING UP A NOTCH
About a year after that first CNC purchase, Pironkov took over daily operations management of the family business. At 53, his father has been slowed down by arthritis. But he still manages to put on his tool belt and work out in the shop. He is also still a mentor. “I’m learning from my dad. He was always very hands-on. My dad is older and has more experience, but the great thing is, he listens to me when I explain why I think we should do something a certain way. We discuss it together,” Pironkov says. “I’m very fortunate to be able to work so closely with him. One of our employees who recently started used to have a business with his father, doing the same thing. And they didn’t get along. They closed down the business, the dad retired, and he actually came and started working with us.”
The business has ramped up a notch, and also moved physically. The growing company reached the point where it was bulging at the seams in its original location. In September 2013, Pironkov oversaw Lovech’s move to an industrial park in the Dufferin Street and Highway 407 area of Concord. There, the company is in a prime corner unit. The day we visited, one entire section of the shop area was filled with hundreds of finished cabinet pieces. They were all destined for one, 9,000-square-foot estate home in Markham, Ont.
BUSINESS IS BUILDING
Word-of-mouth, combined with Pironkov proactively pitching Lovech’s capabilities, is seeing the business grow. “We’re getting more business in both scenarios. It’s a lot harder when you have to sell your services, but when we have worked with a client once, we’ve never lost them,” Pironkov says proudly.
Pironkov is still trying to find the sweet spot, however. He wants to be able to maintain a work/life balance while still having a successful business. “I’d say we’re pretty successful, given the circumstances. My dad went to America with $500 and didn’t speak good English, and now we’ve taken the business to $2 million a year in revenue. Do we want to grow bigger? I’m not sure.
“There are some people who want to build a huge company and grow and grow it, and it’s tough. It’s a lot of hours, a lot of work. We have a lot of family friends who do own big woodworking companies, and we see the stresses and what they go through. I’d rather stay smaller and have more time to spend with my fiancée.”
GROWING IN NEW DIRECTION
He’d like to be able to just leave the phone somewhere for a day. It’s always ringing. And both at the office and on weekends, he’s always thinking about the business. He can’t help it. “What has to be done, when it’s due and what’s the next thing we’re going to be doing” is always in the back of my mind,” Pironkov laughs. “I do try to relax once in a while and just forget everything.”
There isn’t a lot of relaxation time at home these days. “My fiancé and I just bought a house, so we’re doing renovations. We’re doing stuff around the house, and around the backyard,” Pironkov laughs. With the business in a good place, Pironkov is ready to grow in an entirely different direction.
He believes he is in a much better place than some of his peers in his generation. “I’m very fortunate that I get up every day and I enjoy what I do. I still have friends who are jumping from job to job. They’ve finished two university degrees but they still don’t know what they want to do. I’m very fortunate that I’ve found what I love.”