Of the many Polish immigrants successfully carving out a career in the UK construction industry, Jacob Lorek may have the most intriguing past.
Born in northeastern Poland in the small industrial town of Suwalki, close to the Lithuanian border, Lorek was encouraged by his artist father and actress mother to indulge his talent for the piano. He began playing age five; by 13 he was entertaining large audiences and well on his way to becoming a professional pianist.
A concert pianist, he wasn’t to be. Walking home from school one afternoon, Lorek was ambushed by a group of local youths who hadn’t taken kindly to news of his musical talents. The gang members grabbed him while their leader slashed the piano player’s palms with a knife, severing the central tendons. The attack left him with limited movement in his fingers and ended any hope of a top-level musical career.
Without an obvious plan B, Lorek finished high school before accepting an offer to play the piano in a restaurant in Germany, a role that also saw him wait tables while enjoying the party lifestyle. Fun as it was, he knew that the role, and Germany, would not be enough to satisfy his ambitious streak.
“What I quickly realised was that people buy into people not ideas.”
The lure of London was always there at the back of his mind. “At school back in Poland, we saw London as this kind of promised land,” says Lorek. “There was a sense that it was the kind of place, where, if you were willing to work hard, success would follow.”
Though it didn’t at first. His savings fast depleting, Lorek took a job working the night shift at a food processing plant in South London. With work beginning at 10.30pm, the aspiring entrepreneur slept by day and spent his evenings circling networking events.
A chance meeting at one gathering put him in the path of a distant relative from Poland who was running a small construction firm in Aldershot. Lorek persuaded the relative to bring him on board in a business development capacity.
“It was the break I needed,” says Lorek. “I knew relatively little about construction or the property industry, but I was determined to make a success of myself. I’ve always been expressive – I knew that if I was able to get in front of clients I’d be able to make an impact.”
And so began a frenzied period of graft for Lorek. From his £400-a-month bedsit in Aldershot, Lorek would take the 6am train to London, often not returning until 10 at night. In his Tesco suit, he filled his days with meetings he’d set up with wealthy prospects, pitching the company’s services for extensions and home renovations.
“What I quickly realised was that people buy into people not ideas,” says Lorek.
A steady flow of lucrative new contracts followed. From bread-and-butter construction work, Lorek and his relative suddenly found themselves catering to London’s élan, employing large teams of builders and engineers in some of the capital’s most well-heeled neighbourhoods. His knack for business development now the company’s biggest asset, he was made a partner in the rebranded business.
With Lorek driving it forward, the company began to carve out a name for itself in high-net-worth circles. The firm’s Aldershot base was exchanged for a Richmond postcode. In its first year operating as Finch Lockerbie the company’s turnover topped £2.7 million.
The company now has around 10 to 12 projects under management and 90 to 100 contractors and subcontractors on the books at any one time. The firm’s client portfolio is currently around £13 million, and earnings have been growing at over 100 per cent a year.
“The construction industry often suffers a reputation for cutting corners and for poor quality control,” Lorek explains. “We’ve never tried to compete on price; from day one our focus has always been on quality of service. Our clients are busy people, they want to know that their project is being managed to the highest standards; that it’s going to be completed on time and within budget.”
Indeed, everything about Finch Lockerbie is reassuring. The company’s director has 35 years of experience in construction; the project managers have Masters degrees in civil engineering from Eastern Europe’s leading universities. Contracts are rigorously adhered to; issues and complaints – when they do occur – are dealt with swiftly and amicably.
Lorek’s plans are ambitious – “Our revenue target is £100 million within 10 years” – and with Brexit on the horizon, there are certain to be obstacles ahead for the young entrepreneur. Nothing he believes he can’t navigate.