No fear: Bold action sustains a man, his family and a business
Stan Szeremeta, owner and founder of Polwood Cabinets in Kitchener, Ont., has made some bold moves in life. From emigrating to Canada from Poland in the ‘90s, to going on his own in the wood industry a few years later, risk taking has been a large part of Szeremata’s history. His son, and current co-owner, Raf, is asked how his father makes such difficult choices. He quickly replies, “He has no fear.”
This fearlessness was put severely to the test when Stan, now 61-years-old, suffered a heart attack a few months ago. For a man and family that pride themselves on courage and bold action, the event is not easily discussed. Says Szeremeta, “I thought I was healthy. But it happened. That’s how it goes sometimes.” But he is now well and recovering and, much like the rest of his life, Szeremeta has kept forging ahead, thanks in large part to another bold decision made a few years earlier — not just by Stan, but by his son, Raf, too.
Raf, who is now 37 years old, was an accounting student at community college back when the father was confronted with a crisis. Stan’s partner at the time, who was mostly responsible for sales and new business, had left. Facing the prospect of no new business coming in, Stan, the father, asked Raf, the son, to become the new partner. In a day and age when you’re not supposed to make career decisions based on parental wishes, Raf says the decision was easy.
According to Raf, “I told my dad that I’d absolutely do it. No questions asked. My parents made so many sacrifices for us, it was the least I could do in return. It was absolutely the right decision. I have never looked back since.” And that decision, which established a succession plan, helped the business and the family pull through Stan’s recent health issues.
According to Raf, “My father has been under doctor’s orders to pull back from the business. However, by now, both myself and my brother, Martin — as well as our mother, Bougslawa — are capable of running things ourselves. It’s not easy. My father knew every inch of this company — literally. When he came back on the shop floor after leaving the hospital, he knew exactly what pieces of wood and machinery were moved around. This will always be his.”
If Raf’s initial decision to become a partner in the family business seems fearless, he learned from the best. As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In this case, Stan, the father, is the tree, and he has made a lifelong habit of adhering to another saying: Just do it. Raf says, “My dad is the kind of guy where you just don’t know what he’s going to do from one day to the next.”
An example of such spontaneous action is drawn from the story of how the family first came to Canada. “When we were still in Poland,” Raf says, “Dad went on vacation to Greece. The whole family eventually followed. While there, Dad asked us, out of the blue, if we wanted to move to Canada. It was the last year that Poland would allow easier immigration between the two countries. What were we going to say to our dad? No?”
Stan Szeremeta explains his decision to immigrate. He says, “You know, back then, everybody in Europe kept saying ‘America! America!’ Everyone wanted to come to America! So, when we had the chance to come to Canada, because we knew some people here who could sponsor us, I said why not? It was just like coming to America. If you worked hard, you could make it.”
Stan describes what it was like when he first came over. He says, “I worked in various jobs. But, to me, working for someone else wasn’t an example of living the Canadian dream. Just having a job didn’t justify coming to Canada. I needed to do something more with my life. I needed to make something more out of myself.”
As a result, Szeremeta decided to go on his own in the wood industry. Until then, he had worked in other people’s shops. He says, “It was after a few years of being on my own that I could finally say to myself that I was making it. It wasn’t easy. But I wanted to work hard. I wanted to learn. I think it has worked out well.”
Indeed, although Stan has reluctantly pulled back from Polwood’s current operations, he still frequently visits the shop, which has been the source of generational differences since the sons came in. Says Raf, “My dad is still a bit old school. Martin and I, not so much. It can be a challenge, but it can also be a productive arrangement, too.”
Raf points to the addition of a CNC machine in the shop as an example. He says, “My dad was very reluctant at first. He insisted that he could cut wood better and faster than the machine. Well, we bought the machine, and even dad now admits it was a good investment.” Stan, the father, adds, “What can I say? It’s a good machine. There is no denying it.”
The sons have often acted as a generational and cultural buffer between Stan and the employees, who are often young, green and straight out of school. “Dad once came to me and said one of the workers walked by and didn’t say good morning,” Raf says. “That’s not the kind of workplace my dad wants. I sometimes have to explain to him that kids here today aren’t like they were when we were back in Poland.”
Like most shops in Canada’s wood industry, Polwood has gone though its share of employee turnover. Yet everyone in the shop is in agreement that the current staffing situation is just about right. Of the seven on staff, four are family: Stan, Raf, Martin and Bougslawa. Two of the workers, Giannis and Panagiotis, are brothers from Greece, and the other, Tommy, is a former co-op student and now fulltime employee.
Raf describes the current atmosphere at Polwood: “Although only four of us are direct family, we’re all just like family. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Like my father wants, we say good morning to each other every day. We care about each other. We visit each other’s homes. If somebody wants a half-day off, it’s no problem. They make it up with
out even being told. It’s worked out better than we could have hoped.”
This closeness among workers, family and friends has led to a well-oiled machine that has prospered during good times and bad. The main focus of the business is restoration and insurance-related work, which often becomes even more prosperous during tough economic times as people can’t afford to maintain their homes, appliances and equipment. As a result, accidents occur, and replacement kitchens are needed.
However, Raf points to more than just the business model as a reason for Polwood’s continued success. “We used to share this 17,000-sqaure foot facility with another woodworking company,” he says. “Their business was institutional: banks, hotels and such. They’re now out of business. Why? I’d walk over there, and they’d be throwing paper balls at each other. They once had a major order. Nobody was supervising the workers loading the truck. They didn’t do it properly. The shipment was ruined. They lost the client, and eventually the entire business. You’d never see that happening with us. We would have all been out there making sure the job was being done right. You can maybe afford to be that laid back during the good times. But it eventually catches up to you.”
Being laid back is not the way the Szeremetas do business. If a machine is down, you help a co-worker, pick up a broom — something. If there is no job, you make one. If business is slow, you find it somewhere. Raf says, “That’s the kind of approach my dad always took. It’s how I have approached life. It’s how our entire staff does work. We just do it.”
The family certainly has a history of just doing it. Polwood can also run a tight ship because everyone in the company is just like family. The Szeremetas have also experienced the sacrifices needed to succeed. When asked about what he now thinks of the business looking back, Stan, the father, says, “You know, I was able to provide a living for myself, my family, my sons and their families. I think it turned out pretty well. There’s no question it was the right thing to do to come to Canada.”