– Words by Tess Van Straaten Photography by Lia Crowe
Buying not just one, but two businesses, and moving countries during a pandemic might seem like a lot to take on, but for Peter and Lori Stofko, it’s a dream come true.
The couple, who lived in Denver with their two young children and ran a successful real estate business, fell in love with Victoria on a visit several years ago.
“We came back from that first trip and we booked our flights to come back, and we were coming here on basically every break that we got,” laughs Peter, who’s originally from Slovakia. “We couldn’t get enough!”
After deciding to move to Victoria so they could have a better life for their family, Peter and Lori started looking for a business to buy. Pacific Rollshutters was for sale and when they came to see it for the first time, they didn’t realize it shared a showroom with Ruffell & Brown—but that turned out to be a selling feature.
“I walked in and saw Ruffell & Brown and Hunter Douglas blinds everywhere and Lori had been working for Hunter Douglas for six years at that point,” Peter explains. “It just seemed like a sign.”
They’d done their due diligence, agreed on a price, and were about to move ahead with the purchase when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Early on, it was scary because people didn’t know if a business was still going to exist, so we kind of put everything on hold and everyone was locked at home,” Peter says. “But they were busy and they were able to work through it. Customers kept calling and basically, the business grew because of the pandemic and that’s really been the trend the last two years. It’s just been continuous.”
In addition to the pandemic bump, they’ve successfully grown the business by expanding product lines and set down roots, so when Debra Ruffell and Nigel Brown recently approached them to see if they’d be interested in buying their well-known Victoria business so that they could retire, it was a no-brainer.
“It was one of those ‘aha moments,’” says Lori, who was an IT director for Hunter Douglas until this year and consulted for Ruffell & Brown after moving to Victoria. “Not only was it Hunter Douglas, and I have a lot of familiarity with the products and customers, but the whole process flow is very similar and complementary in many ways.”
“Lori’s background really drove part of the interest from Debra and Nigel,” adds Peter. “She’s very experienced in process improvements and technology implementation, and that’s one of the aspects where Ruffell & Brown has been really struggling in, so it was meant to be and a perfect fit.”
But taking over two businesses during a pandemic hasn’t been easy. In addition to the supply chain issues plaguing companies everywhere, COVID restrictions have made it harder to bond with staff.
“When we bought Pacific, we couldn’t even get the employees together for a lunch,” Lori points out.
“The human connection and building relationships is really important and it helps make it more enjoyable for people to come to work,” Peter adds. “When it’s always work, I think it strains the relationship.”
Recognizing employees are their biggest asset, Peter and Lori say they’re always open to hearing about opportunities for improvement.
“We very much encourage that,” says Lori. “We can’t fix things we don’t know about and it might take us time to even realize what’s going on, so someone coming and telling us is so important. We’ve spent a lot of time just learning a great deal from everybody.”
“If you treat people right, they will do a good job for you,” adds Peter. “We also believe in paying people [well]. If you offer a higher wage, people will show up. It’s what you have to do (in this tight labour market), but I also feel like it’s the right thing to do. We believe in sharing the success.”
The couple isn’t afraid of hard work but when you work with your spouse, Lori and Peter agree, finding the right work-life balance can be the biggest challenge.
“We basically talk about the business 24 hours a day,” Peter says, only half-jokingly. “You could be having breakfast on Sunday morning and you think of something and you can basically have a senior management meeting and make a decision. But at the same time, the kids look at us and ask, ‘Do you ever not talk about work?’ so we’re very conscious of that and it’s something we’re going to work on. We want to have our business, we want to do well, but we don’t want to work around the clock. Work-life balance is what it’s all about.”
For Lori, the best advice she’s received is to not sweat the small things.
“There will always be problems and you have to kind of put things in perspective and prioritize,” she says. “You’re not going to solve all the problems in a day or in a week or even in a year. You just have to keep working towards a goal and chipping away at what you need to do to get to that place. It’s never perfect—that’s just not the way it is.”
As long-time entrepreneurs, they also see mistakes as learning experiences and try to break down what went wrong so they can fix it going forward.
“Our first real estate property was a giant failure, but instead of scaring us, and making us decide not to do it anymore, we learned from it, moved forward and we were very successful. Looking back, if we’d given up at step one, we wouldn’t have seen the success that came afterwards.”
“I think that’s something that’s really important in entrepreneurship—you don’t just give up,” adds Lori. “You try different things to make it work. There’s always a different way to do it.”
It’s clear what they’re doing is working and even taking on a home reno at the same time hasn’t fazed this busy couple.
“I think people look at us and think we’re crazy!” Lori laughs. “But this has been our goal for so long. This is where we want to be and everything just fell into place.”