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Richard’s Story:

Against the current

By Peter Severinson

Reprinted with permission from
Published: February 1 1,2009

When we talk about business, it’s easy to fixate on the giants and overlook the little guys. But that’s a shame, especially in B.C., where 18.5 per cent of all workers are self-employed -the highest proportion in Canada. The drive to be your own boss, to live off ingenuity and to overcome adversity is part of B.C.’s pioneer culture.

For some entrepreneurs, however, that struggle against the odds is greater than others. The ability to overcome obstacles, whether it’s a harrowing climb out of poverty, addiction, injury, personal disaster or family tragedy, demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit.

A single small business with a handful of employees may not have much impact on B.C.’s economy, but these stories illustrate the transformative nature of business success – showing how it’s sometimes not just about making money, but also about changing lives.

Richard Lorenzen claims, half seriously, to have worked 500 jobs in his life. The First Nations man, who looks older than his 51 years, has a gentle, intelligent voice. “When you’re a drunk, you’re always bouncing from job to job to job,” he explains, sipping a root beer at a cafe in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Back in 2004, Lorenzen was homeless, he recalls, either couch surfing with friends or sleeping on the streets. He says he used to hang out at the Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS) office – a non-profit employment services agency on East Render Street -where he could sit and have a cup of coffee. Eventually, Lorenzen started working for a makeshift pest control business started by another couple of EMBERS clients, also “drunks.” It was a shabby affair, he explains with a chuckle. “They had a vehicle, but nobody could find it. This is how they ran things.” Soon creditors were at the door, looking for anything of value; they seized everything except the chemicals.

Lorenzen, however, had an itch to keep working – and so, at age 46, he decided to start his own business. Embarking on a one-man pest-control enterprise in the Downtown Eastside – a neighbourhood peppered with rundown hotels infested with bedbugs, cockroaches and rodents – might not sound like anybody’s ideal career, but Lorenzen says the downtown crawlies never bothered him. He jokingly refers to himself as a “small-game trapper.” He wasn’t making a lot of money, he says, but there was always plenty of work. And as he got busy, he had a pivotal moment. “I was standing in a bar at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, on my second pint of beer, when suddenly I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t drink today because I’ve got a lot of work tomorrow,’” he recalls. “It’s not that I hit bottom – I had money in my pocket, I had a place to stay, I could work – but I could see it all disappearing if I continued to drink . . . and this job I didn’t want to lose.” He decided to stop drinking for the Christmas holidays and, he says, he’s been on holidays ever since, but only from drinking.

These days his waking hours are filled to capacity hunting bugs for organizations such as Vancouver Coastal Health and the Portland Hotel Society, as well as for myriad developers, condo owners, churches and organizations in the Downtown Eastside. Lorenzen says that he pays himself $499 a month (any more and he’d begin losing his disability support for his bipolar condition), with all earnings above that amount going back into the company. Soon, he says, he hopes to buy a new car for the business and hire his first employee.

Looking back, Lorenzen credits his success to the people who helped him out: the Union Gospel Mission, for giving him some of his first big jobs; Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, for granting him a first, high-risk business loan; and EMBERS, for giving him somewhere to warm up. “If they’d just kicked me out the door that first day,” he says of EMBERS, “I wouldn’t be here.”

Update July 2009
RichardEMBERS continues to work closely with Richard as his business grows. Over the past four years, Richard has benefited from EMBERS’ business training and financial literacy classes as well as the matched equity savings program CA$H Plan. Currently, EMBERS helps him with his bookkeeping and provides ongoing business advisory support.

Since 2004, the Vancouver Agreement has provided funding to EMBERS for business development support, entrepreneurship training and the Micro-enterprise Development Program.

Richard Lorenzen, DTES Pest Control Ltd.
Photo: Hubert Kang

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