Starting from the bottom, Armenian man always reached for very top

The Toronto Star
August 15, 2004 Sunday

Starting from the bottom, Armenian man always reached for very top

You know what would be nice? Having a big building named after you.

Imagine it: The (Your Name Here) Building.

Sounds good, eh? But how do you get there? What path can you follow
to someday see your name carved over the door?

Well, it helps to be war hero, prominent politician or arts icon.

But there is another road. A long, hard route paved with ingenuity,
perseverance and generosity. You might call it the Kololian Way.
Here’s how it goes …

We begin in a North York factory office in the summer of 1963, where
Kev Kololian is cooling his heels in the waiting room.

For two months now, he’s been knocking on 10 doors a day, trying to
persuade manufacturers to give him work for the small precision tool
shop he’s set up in a vacant Weston garage.

But, even when he manages to get an audience with the boss, it’s
always the same story. “Nothing right now,” they say. “But we’ll keep
you in mind. We’ll call you …”

Frustrating. But if there’s one thing Kev has learned in his 34
years, it’s to never give up.

Even as a kid in Cairo, this child of refugees from the 1915 Armenian
genocide in Turkey was developing a will to succeed, to reach for the
good things in life.

“I looked around at successful people,” he recalls, “and I asked
myself: ‘Why shouldn’t I do well, too?'”

Bold words for a dollar-a-day shop assistant forced to quit school at
14 to help support his parents, sister and extended family.

But it wasn’t just talk. When the store closed for the day, Kev’s
work continued. Seven hours a night he laboured over his
correspondence school books, hoping to become a radio engineer.

Not that he was a total goody-goody. Like any hot-blooded teen, he’d
get into scraps, try to settle disputes with his fists. Seeing the
wounds and bruises, his father, a school caretaker, had a suggestion:

“Kevork,” he said. “This is not the way. Better you should persuade
people with your words. Win them over with love, patience and
forgiveness.” Kev never forgot that advice.

But he forgot about radio engineering when he took a trip to Germany
at age 20. There, he saw something they didn’t have in Egypt: an
automatic lathe that could transform blocks of metal into precision
machine parts.

Which got him thinking … about his parents’ kitchen cooker. Like
nearly everyone in that part of the world, they had a Swedish-made
Primus gas stove.

And, like everyone else, they needed to replace the burned-out fuel
jet every two or three weeks.

What if Kev could get his own lathe, learn to manufacture the jets at
home and sell them far more cheaply than the imported parts?

Starting with his meagre $1,000 in savings, many 12-hour days and an
overload of enthusiasm, that’s just what he did. By the mid-1950s, he
was happily married, living well and employing 28 staff to operate 20
precision lathes.

A dream fulfilled. What could possibly go wrong?

Remember the Suez crises? Political revolution, coupled with street
riots and overt hostility to Christian Armenians in Cairo forcefully
reminded Kev of the 1915 terrors that had claimed the lives of both
his grandfathers and perhaps 1.5 million of his people.

Which explains how, after giving up his Egyptian home and business at
sacrifice prices, the ex-tycoon finds himself trying to make ends
meet in the summer of 1962 in a $115-per-month apartment at Lawrence
and Dufferin in North York. Pretty rough, eh?

“Not at all,” he laughs. “It was a wonderful time. No money, but no
worries. We were just so happy to be here, to be secure and free.
‘God has blessed this country,’ I said. ‘And we are going to share in
these blessings.'”

Alas, not everyone was willing to share.

Making the rounds to sell his services, Kev got the brush-off from
many secretaries put off by his “foreign” looks and accent.

Buzzing the boss, they’d say: “There’s a guy with a funny name here,
says he makes machine parts.” Which brings us to that waiting room at
Motorola Canada Ltd., where the receptionist is telling Kev: “Mr.
King, our purchasing agent, will see you now.”

So here we go, same old story. Mr. King listens patiently, nods
sympathetically then begins to deliver a familiar message: “We’ll
keep you in mind …”

In that moment, something snaps in Kev. Before he can stop himself,
he demands: “Whazza matter, Mr. King? You don’t have the guts to give
a man like me a chance?”

Gord King looks ready to explode. “Sit down!” he growls, and stomps
from the room.

Minutes later, he’s back with specifications for appliance
components. “Make me 100 of these, 200 of these. We’ll see if you’re
as good as you say you are.”

Kev dashes to his Pellatt Ave. shop and works through the night. Next
day, he’s back at Motorola with the cadmium-plated components. King
can hardly believe it, especially after his quality inspectors
declare the parts perfect.

“Mr. Kololian,” he smiles. “I believe we can do some business.”

Weeks later, Kev tries a new wrinkle. Instead of going hat-in-hand to
the purchasing agent’s office at de Havilland Aircraft, he calls
company president Phil Garrett directly.

Though friendly and courteous, Garrett suggests Kev really should see
one of his mid-management people.

“Okay if I tell him you referred me?” asks Kev.

“Of course,” replies Garrett.

The executive in question, thinking this cheery, energetic fellow is
somehow connected with the boss, gives him an opportunity that leads
to a lucrative contract.

Boom! Kev is on his way.

Over the next decade, as his business and family expand, he leaves
that Dufferin-Lawrence apartment and tiny workshop far behind. Still,
he feels things are not quite right.

Sure, he’s delighted with his financial success.

But what about some payback to this wonderful country that made it

For starters, he’d like to employ more Canadians in his growing

But where are the home-grown tool-and-die makers and machinists? Why
must so much skilled labour be imported from Europe?

Just as he did at de Havilland, he goes right to the top. Overtures
are made in the 1970s to provincial and federal leaders, including
federal Labour Minister Robert Andras and Ontario Premier Bill Davis.

In time, the seeds Kev plants with the politicians blossom into an
extensive apprenticeship program, which he helps set up in community
colleges such as Seneca, George Brown and Humber, sending hundreds of
skilled, well-paid machinists into the workforce.

Yes, creating jobs is a nice way to salute your country. But after
impulsively buying a handmade Armenian wall rug embroidered with the
lyrics to “O Canada,” Kev finds another.

Why not give it to the nation as a symbolic gift from his people, he
wonders. But who should receive it? Why not go to the top?

Sure enough, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau agrees to meet with Kev
and a delegation from Toronto’s Armenian community. Their
get-together, scheduled for 10 minutes, stretches to nearly an hour.
Long way from that dollar-a-day job in Cairo.

Today, from his handsome home bordering the 11th hole of a
prestigious golf course, the one-time shop assistant oversees a
thriving family and 125 employees supplying sophisticated components
to the aerospace industry.

Still, when you get to be 76, wealth is no longer a goal. “I’d like
to be remembered,” he muses. “Not as a businessman, but as a

But who will remember? For more than a quarter-century now, thousands
of children have passed through the portals of a building at the
Armenian Community Centre, which was envisioned, substantially funded
and inspired by a never-say-die guy forced to quit school in Grade 6.

As long as they live, wherever they go, and whatever they do, those
generations will never forget their first school. And the name is
right up there on the wall for all to see:


No! It can’t be. But it IS: 50 years since Marilyn Bell, Toronto’s
swimming sweetheart, conquered Lake Ontario.

What was happening in your life on Sept. 9, 1954? And how did
Marilyn’s feat touch you? Send your stories to MARILYN, c/o
Gamester’s People, George Gamester, Toronto Star, One Yonge St.,
Toronto, Ont. M5E 1E6. Fax: 869-4322. E-mail: ggamest @,
or call 416-869-4874 anytime.

‘God has blessed this country. And we are going to share

in these blessings.’

GRAPHIC: Refugee Kev Kolonian, far left, rose from dollar-a-day shop
assistant to a great businessman and leader in T.O.’s Armenian
community. He presents former prime minister Pierre Trudeau with a
handmade Armenian wall rug embroidered with the lyrics to “O Canada.”