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NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Hard lessons and savvy gambles -- both based on an open mind, confidence and quality -- have taken Rory McCreesh from electrical engineering in Northern Ireland to head of Duce Construction, a high-end residential renovation firm with 44 full-time employees and partnerships with hundreds of subcontractors.
In 1985, he was a tourist in New York, a city he fell for while watching old episodes of Kojak. A background in electrical engineering helped him land a construction gig, where he quickly realized he needed to ramp up on roofing, masonry and plumbing. "It was amazing going from electrical engineering, where that's all I did, to becoming a jack of all trades," McCreesh says.
McCreesh managed to garner a steady stream of work by joining the local carpenters' union, and soaked up knowledge by keeping an eye on the industry veterans. (He recalls breaking a huge sweat trying to jam an ill-fitting door into a door frame, then noticing a man who was decades older calmly performing the same job by using a piece of drywall as a wedge.)"Watching old-timers is how most of my trades were learned," McCreesh says. "They would achieve such difficult tasks with ease." In 1990, he married an American woman he had met at a Halloween party, affording him U.S. citizenship. The couple returned from their honeymoon only to find McCreesh's main employer had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and had no more work for him. "I thought, my goodness, I have no control over my destiny; everyone else is controlling my destiny," he says. "And that kind of freaked me out." McCreesh had some savings, and his wife had a steady job. So he decided to buy a truck and make a go of it himself, persuading some former work pals to go into the apartment renovation business with him. Duce was born. Initial advertising consisted of sticking fliers into letterboxes in apartment buildings. Initial market analysis consisted of realizing that the swankier the building, the more money residents could spend on renovations. The firm's big break came when designer Eric Cohler hired Duce for a high-end renovation project that involved moving the wood floor from an old Thom McAn shoe showroom in Long Island and installing it in a swanky Manhattan home. McCreesh decided to invest thousands of his own dollars into the project, knowing that if he did a stellar job, he'd have a good shot at a long-term partnership with a renowned designer -- winning a stable gig and good publicity that would lead to other gigs.