Keep a young animal in a cage and he'll get restless. Let him out and he'll run. Jon Sakowsky is proof.
The tiny plumbing supply company he began in 1988 -- eight years after the 36-year-old Monkton resident got out of Poland on a tourist visa and headed for the United States -- now has $3 million in sales to Poland and bordering nations in Eastern Europe.
The U.S. Small Business Administration just named him Maryland's "Exporter of the Year." And Mr. Sakowsky is far from finished.
"Our focus is on [becoming] something like a Hechinger's or a Home Depot," he said. "We're trying to get products that are easy to assemble. People don't make a lot of money, so they want to do it themselves."
It's a long way from where Mr. Sakowsky sits, in the finished-attic ambience of the beat-up McCormick Road house that houses JBAMV Associates Ltd. and its four employees in Hunt Valley, to the zenith of the home supply business. But it may be no farther than he has already come.
The year was 1980. Mr. Sakowsky was dispatching ambulances in Gorzow. At work, Mr. Sakowsky was chafing under a boss who denied him the permission he needed to go to school out of the country.
Solidarity's strikes were putting Eastern Europe's grievances with communism on the table, yet people feared the crackdown that ultimately came when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981. The common thread was repression.
"I finally said I couldn't live like that," Mr. Sakowsky said. "It was a cage for 40 years. You can't live in a cage."
So he did two things: he told the government he and his young family wanted to visit Rome to see the Polish former cardinal who had become pope two years before.
Before he left, he called his other relatives together and told them to help themselves to his things because he wasn't coming back.
"From Vienna, I was supposed to get a train [to Rome], but that was a lot of baloney," Mr. Sakowsky said. "I went with my wife to Austria and applied for a permanent U.S. visa."
A church helped him find his way to Baltimore, he said, where he briefly became a minor celebrity because of journalists' eagerness for local angles on Polish unrest.
"I had a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey," then a reporter at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, he said. "I have the tape, how I came to the U.S., everything."
His first business was fixing cars. There have been four businesses since. He was working on a deal to ship cars to Europe when he sampled the water in a Polish hotel and forgot to flush the pipes first. Hidden in the nasty, rusty mess that emerged was, pardon the pun, the germ of an idea.
"It was like Newton's apple falling on your head," he said. "I was trying to do other things in Eastern Europe, but I found out the first necessity in everyone's life was water. Why not do a simple thing, plastic piping?" . In Poland, as in "The Graduate," the future was plastics. Mr. Sakowsky's chlorinated polyvinyl chloride piping certainly won't rust. He says it lasts much longer than metal and can handle higher pressures and temperatures than metal.
More basically, Mr. Sakowsky figured a lot of Poles felt the way he did as communism melted away. "They want their own homes," he said. And there was going to be a market serving people who were building homes.
But to build the business, he had to navigate the economic wreck that was Poland before and during the government's unpopular but generally successful "shock therapy" program to rid the nation of hyper-inflation. Credit was scarce to nonexistent. He didn't have much capital and his customers had even less.
Creativity was called for, and Mr. Sakowsky's creativity is what made him stand out to the Maryland economic development officials who recommended him for the SBA award.
Mr. Sakowsky whetted the appetite of Polish customers for a product they had never seen before (and which wasn't yet accepted by Polish building code officials) by giving it away to renovators of churches and retirement homes, said Curt Matthews, spokesman for the Maryland International Division, which helped Mr. Sakowsky line up critical bank loans and guarantees.
He also faced the credit risks that are unavoidable in nations with only rudimentary capitalism, Mr. Matthews said. Mr. Sakowsky took the added risk of buying inventory here and shipping it to facilities in Poland that Mr. Matthews said blend Western concepts of a store and a warehouse. That allowed customers who can't get letters of credit for big lots of imported supplies to buy in small lots that they can pay for more easily.
"To have the presence to be able to deal on a smaller basis, to break down the business to smaller transactions, showed a lot of innovation," Mr. Matthews said. "He has shown us some things."
Mr. Sakowsky shrugs. "If I did business in Mexico, China or any place, you have to understand the people and be flexible," he said. "Most American companies and exporters make the mistake of being too stiff. . . . When I come to your country, I have to play your way."
Mr. Sakowsky, who now has seven employees in Poland and travels there often, said he now sells to customers in the Czech Republic, Belarus, Lithuania and the former Yugoslavia as well as his native country. He hopes to sell a more diversified collection of building materials, beginning with hoped-for deals to add vinyl siding and copper plumbing fixtures to the product line.
The bottom line, Mr. Sakowsky knows, is that the old American dream of a nice house isn't just American anymore.
"Our focus is the single-family home. People need more space," Mr. Sakowsky said. "When the cage opened up, people who were fed on water and bread went outside, saw the neighbors, and saw how badly they had lived. Everybody wanted to grab it."