Alex Ugorets years ago looked at a glass table and thought it would be easy to make. But it wasn’t, so he started building giant windows instead.
Ugorets in 1985 started Midland Glass and has grown it steadily into a construction supplier with around $12 million in annual revenue and a client list that includes some of the Twin Cities’ biggest names.
In addition to its work as subcontractor on some well-known projects, Midland Glass plays an important role for a community of Twin Cities-based immigrants from a place that no longer exists. Most of its 70 employees, including Ugorets, come from the old Soviet Union.
“My people in the workshop are mostly middle aged or older,’’ Ugorets said, adding that one of them is nearly 80. “They don’t know English well, so they feel comfortable in my company. There are engineers, welders, other talented people.”
He didn’t plan it that way. Ugorets found that after hiring one Russian-speaking employee, others showed up.
“They find out about me,” he said. “Some of them come from the Baptist church community. Some just learn word of mouth.”
Ugorets’ own family moved to the U.S. in 1977 during a first wave of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. He graduated from the University of Minnesota, became an engineer and started his career working at a food company in Plymouth.
But he argued with his boss and left the job. Then he tried to make glass furniture and discovered it was hard to sell cheaper than big manufacturers. That led him to work at a small commercial glass-glazing firm, a job that also ended when Ugorets argued with the boss.
“I have quite a character,” he said. “I like to argue.”
He started Midland Glass by making doors for showers. Today, it makes glass panels for large windows, doors and curtain walls in all types of buildings. It has built glass for boutiques and shops in the Mall of America, for the entrance at the Radisson Red Hotel in Minneapolis and the soaring entry of Eagle Brook Church in Woodbury.
“Actually, we do all kind of work,” Ugorets said. “One of our big clients, the Life Time Fitness chain, is building a three-floor complex in Minnesota with our help. We made projects for them in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.
One of the oldest employees is Pyotr Semyonovich, who will turn 70 next year. He came to Midland Glass in 2001, a year after he arrived in the United States as a refugee.
“My duty is to observe what kind of tools and supplies will be needed on the project next morning and to ship it into a truck,” he said. “It is a good work, and Alex is a good man.”
Another worker, Boris Lukovnikov, who is in his late 60s, moved to the U.S. in 2006 and learned of the company through the Russian-speaking diaspora. “Three years ago, I helped one guy from Belarus to get a job here,” Lukovnikov said. “My teacher from the English language courses for immigrants called me and asked if we need a good person to work in the shop.”
Last year, Ugorets gave day-to-day control of the company to his 24-year-old son, Aaron.
Unlike many contractors, the company prefers to buy huge quantities of glass, aluminum and other materials before they are needed. The Ugorets say that is cheaper and faster than buying a specific amount of each material after winning a contract.
“We can pick work that suits us, something we are best in,” Aaron Ugorets said. “But at the same time we like to have some challenges and do some unique projects like the entrance for the Radisson Hotel. We have very talented people in our shop. They have a lot of knowledge and experience.”
His goal is to grow the company further without getting overcommitted or tripped up by big projects.
“I’m 100 percent focused on steady growth rather than ridiculous exponential growth,” Aaron said. “We are a 32-year-old company, and we are very good where we are. But if Alex took it from zero to here, I should take it pretty far. If I don’t, I feel like I’m failing myself.”
His father is still around the shop and eager to dispense advice. But Alex Ugorets’ new passion is commercial real estate.
Around 25 years ago, Ugorets bought the building where his company’s office was located and started to rent out space the company wasn’t using. He has done that with two other buildings since then.
Now, his company Ugorets Properties owns about 750, 000 square feet of property, chiefly storage warehouses and office buildings. He bought a former Cargill Inc. building near Lake Minnetonka last year and has succeeded in renting most of it out.
“The real estate business is more interesting for me now, and my son has strong ambitions,” Ugorets said. “Of course, I often tell him what to do and he respects my advices. But he also likes to argue, like me in my 20s.”
Daria Cherkudinova, an editor at Secretmag.ru, a Russian online news site, worked at the Star Tribune last month under a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists in Washington.