Call Me Shon
Nebojsa "Shon" Vukomanovic is a native of Sarajevo, Bosnia, who relocated to St. Louis about 12 years ago.
He arrived in St. Louis with $200 in his pocket and a heart full of hope.
The nonprofit International Institute set him up with a small studio apartment for three months and three months'' worth of food stamps.
He soon found work as a laborer in a wire factory.
"I didn''t know anything and nobody could understand me because I spoke no English, but I was the happiest guy in the world," Vukomanovic said.
Vukomanovic studied English at St. Louis Community College part-time for a year.
"I had learned the language, but I was no longer happy working in the wire factory," he stated. "I realized that the moment you start speaking in English, you start thinking in English. I wanted to operate my own business and achieve the American Dream. I was determined to make it."
Wise, old Bosnian businessmen, including a retired accountant that Vukomanovic drank coffee with at a bakery in his Bosnian neighborhood, told him to consider the building maintenance services industry.
Vukomanovic was told that buildings will always need to be cleaned.
Vukomanovic figured he could do well in that business — even though he was middle-aged, did not have an advanced education and did not have connections in the St. Louis business community — because he was passionate about becoming successful and, more importantly, is an extremely hard worker.
About six years ago, Vukomanovic met Pete Frese, president and co-founder of a brand new company in St. Louis called Stratus Building Solutions that wanted to open building maintenance franchises.
Both men liked one another and Vukomanovic trusted Frese.
Frese believed in Vukomanovic and helped him establish a unit franchise for the company — one of the company''s very first in St. Louis.
Today, Vukomanovic owns and manages his own unit franchise with five full-time employees and eight part-time employees.
Most of his employees are former Bosnian refugees.
Vukomanovic, a now successful businessman who is widely respected in St. Louis'' Bosnian community, has helped scores of Bosnian immigrants who were displaced following the Bosnian War of the mid 1990s find jobs.
His business is growing, and he hopes to soon hire five more full-time employees.
But, the bigger story is that Vukomanovic, who is always smiling and has a very positive attitude, has become a mentor, trainer and cultural touchstone for Stratus.
Vukomanovic''s referrals in St. Louis'' Eastern European community have helped Stratus establish more than 50 new local unit franchises in the last five years, many of them owned and operated by Bosnian immigrants who hire other Eastern European refugees as employees.
Stratus routinely sends Vukomanovic to other U.S. cities where the company has operations, such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati, to work as a mentor, trainer and cultural liaison.
Stratus Building Solutions'' Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dennis Jarrett proclaimed, "There are a lot of things we are proud of at Stratus, but there is nothing we are more proud of than our friendship and relationship with Shon. He has been an integral part of Stratus and our growth since the very beginning. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Shon''s countrymen and other refugees who have come to America with virtually nothing, leaving behind their homeland and their way of living, their property and often their family members to start a new life."
"We have found that, thanks to passionate, hardworking people like Shon, trust, integrity, ambition and hard work translates across all cultural, religious and business boundaries," Jarrett concluded.
When not busy managing his business, Vukomanovic plays soccer with about 40 former immigrants from Italy, Germany, Bosnia and other European nations at a soccer park outside St. Louis.