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Old Country entrepreneurs

Many German-speaking immigrants eager to start businesses in Manitoba

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Some German-speaking immigrants bring more than their families when they arrive in southern Manitoba -- they also bring entrepreneurial zeal.

"Obviously they're risk-takers or they'd still be sitting at home in their own country," Cheryl Digby, community development officer for the City of Morden, said in a recent interview.

"But they're also very entrepreneurial in nature. They're often inquiring about starting their own business before they even get here."

Digby doesn't have any data to show how many of the newcomers who have arrived over the last five to 10 years have launched their own businesses. She said they're in the minority, since most either have a job lined up before they get here, or they find one soon after they arrive.

But she rattled off four examples off the top of her head of businesses started by German-speaking newcomers. They include an electronic-waste processing plant, an automotive-repair shop, an automotive and farm-equipment parts store and a European grocery store.

The latter, Kolof's Grocery Store, was launched in November 2008 by Alexander Buchsman and Gennadiy Sharapov. Sharapov and his family immigrated from Kazakhstan in 2004 and Buchsman and his family arrived two years later from Germany.

Both men started out working for businesses in the area. It wasn't until 2008 that they hit upon the idea of opening a European grocery store.

Buchsman couldn't recall in a recent interview who first suggested it.

"We just have this idea to open a store and bring in some specialty foods from Europe for the people here. There are a lot of people here that came from Germany, Russia, Poland and Ukraine."

He said those are the countries where they source the bulk of their specialty products, which include items such as coffee, candies, bread, buns and chocolates. They also sell locally sourced food, including a variety of meat products.

Their venture is very much a family-run business. Sharapov, who worked in the retail sector in Kazakhstan, works full time in the store. He also gets help from his wife, Elena, and their 20-year-old son, Yevgeniy.

Buchsman works there part time; he still has a full-time job as a forklift operator and rip-saw operator at the Decor Cabinets factory in Morden. His wife, Natalia, who is a stay-at-home mom, helps out when she can.

Buchsman said business has been so good that he and Sharapov plan to open a second store later this year in nearby Winkler. However, they're still working out the details, including how they'll staff it.

Digby said most of the entrepreneurial-minded newcomers work for a while in a local factory or business before striking out on their own.

"That's what I recommend they do -- wait and learn about the community and what the needs of the community are," she said. "Also, what the work and business practices are here, because they're usually different" from what they're accustomed to.

That's the approach Viktor Kunz took after he, wife Elizabeth, and their first child arrived from Germany in September 2008. Two more children were born after they moved here.

A mechanic by trade, Kunz said it was his intention from the get-go to open his own garage -- something he wasn't able to do in Germany but was confident he could do here.

But for the first little while, he worked for a local garage operator to get accustomed to the way things are done here.

"It's similar (to Germany), but a little bit different."

He opened Universal Car and Truck Services in April 2010 and now has four people working for him.

"It's been great. It's not that we make lots of money, but at least I can pay all the bills."

Although he leases his space at the moment, his goal is to buy or build his own garage within the next three years.

Digby said that while the City of Morden's main focus is on recruiting skilled workers to fill vacant positions within the local business community, it's also happy to see some newcomers start their own businesses. Not only do these new businesses add to the local tax base, they often create jobs for others in the community.

"It keeps that (economic) growth moving forward," Digby said.

Immigration consultant Irma Maier, owner of Compass Canada, helped bring Kunz and Buchsman to Morden.

Maier estimates her firm has helped more than 1,000 families immigrate to Morden and other communities in the Pembina Valley region since 1999. That includes about 90 last year and upwards of 50 this year.

She said most of her clients are skilled tradespeople -- carpenters, cabinet makers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, etc. Most come from Germany, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia, and most were recruited to fill vacancies at local businesses such as Decor Cabinets, Buhler Industries and 3M.

She hasn't kept track of the number who subsequently started their own businesses.

"But quite a few have done that," she added.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J5

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