From the Iron Curtain to Clevest: A CEO’s Journey from Communism to Freedom

People who start companies and grow them into successful businesses often are described as leaders, innovators and risk-takers. This is certainly true of Thomas “Tom” Ligocki, founder, president and CEO of Clevest. When it comes to risk taking, it’s hard to say whether that’s a trait he learned or one that’s imprinted in his DNA.

Either way, it’s a trait likely passed down from his parents.

Ligocki

When I interviewed Ligocki for this article, I wasn’t surprised by what he told me about his start in the industry. His path was fairly typical to that of many others who work in the power industry. Ligocki’s childhood and teenage years, however, were anything but typical. I suspect the challenges and experiences of his childhood prepared him as much or more than his education for the responsibilities and duties that go along with running a successful business.

Ligocki spent his first 12 years living with his parents and younger sister in Czechoslovakia when the country was still under communist rule. His mother was a librarian and his father was a software development manager. He describes his early years as “pretty good.” (See 1985 photo of Ligocki’s family at the bottom of this story).

“I had lived a pretty good life in Czechoslovakia. We had a house, a car and I went to school,” Ligocki said.

Pretty good, however, was not good enough for Ligocki’s parents, who were not satisfied with life in a communist country.

“My parents had a passion for freedom. They wanted to live in freedom and they wanted that for my sister and me,” he said.

Ligocki said his parents saw that there was no transparency in the government and they had a level of mistrust for it.

“Our family listened to the “ËœVoice of America’ on the radio to learn what was really happening in the world. All other news was censored by the government,” Ligocki said. “We listened to the program with the radio in the center of the house with all the doors and windows closed so that no one could hear it.”

When Ligocki was 11, his parents decided to escape the communist country and find a way to settle in a country that offered them, and more importantly their children, the opportunity to prosper and live in freedom. They crafted a plan that after one failed attempt, eventually led them to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Unsuccessful, but Lucky Nonetheless

It isn’t unusual for people on vacation to dread coming home and maybe even dream of staying on indefinitely, but few leave home with a plan to never return. That, however, is exactly what Ligocki’s family did.

Families in Czechoslovakia were allowed to vacation, but only in other communist countries and only after they applied for and were granted approval from the government, Ligocki explained. Unfortunately, most of the communist countries in which vacations were allowed, except for Yugoslavia, had landmines planted throughout the countryside. Therefore, Ligocki’s parents chose to make their escape through Yugoslavia after receiving permission to vacation there.

Ligocki recalled that his parents told no one of their plan, not even their closest family members.

“I remember my mother crying because she couldn’t tell her family good-bye. But, my parents knew if the escape was successful, the authorities would question the family and they did not want them to know anything for their own safety,” Ligocki said.

Before the family was allowed to leave for vacation, the police inspected the house, looking in closets and drawers to make sure their belongings were there. Authorities checked his parents’ bank accounts to make sure they hadn’t withdrawn large amounts of money.

The family left for vacation with only a few belongings in their backpacks and the clothes they were wearing. They left their house, car and all their belongings without telling a soul of their plan.

Once in Yugoslavia, the family hiked two days in the Alps trying to get to Austria. They slept in the woods and had only one more mountain to cross to reach the Austrian border when they walked up on a military training exercise and were arrested.

They were taken to military jail, Ligocki recalled. Ligocki was separated from his parents, who were separated from each other and interrogated separately. The military police allowed one of his parents to remain with his sister, who was too young to be questioned.

His parents had coached him on what to say if they were caught. First, he was to insist the family was hiking and camping and got lost. If that didn’t work, then he would tell them his father was the one who planned the escape and had forced his mother and the children to come along. If the authorities bought this second story, his father would have gone to jail, but his mother would have been allowed to stay with the children.

“Fortunately, I didn’t have to move to the second excuse.” Ligocki said.

The family was eventually turned over to the civilian authorities and put in civilian jail. There they encountered a “sympathizer” who didn’t file a report, let them go, and told Ligocki’s parents if they would leave the country and never come back, he would not report them.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again

Despite the sympathizer’s warning, Ligocki’s parents filed to vacation in Yugoslavia the next year and were approved to do so because there was no record of their attempt to cross the border.

They made a few different attempts to reach and cross the border on this second visit to Yugoslavia, Ligocki said. Eventually, the family made it to Venice, Italy, by way of boat. They boarded the boat under the pretenses that they were traveling to another Yugoslavian port. When they reached that port, however, they did not leave the boat. They avoided passport check by staying on the boat and moving from one area to another as the passport agents came through, Ligocki said.

When they arrived in Venice, however, they were faced with another passport check when trying to leave the boat. They noticed that the authorities were not checking each passport closely and instead were quickly glancing at the handfuls of passports provided by the many large families. The agents then would simple wave through the entire family. Ligocki and his family, therefore, decided to split up and attempt to sneak through with random, large families, posing as one of the family members.

Escaping Didn’t Mean Immediate Freedom

The family spent their first year away from Czechoslovakia in an Italian refugee camp.

“They camp was rough for me. There was no privacy and it was very basic,” Ligocki said. “There was no school in the refugee camp.”

The family relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, after one year because his parents had skills that fit those the country wanted. Because his father’s English was not perfect, Ligocki said, he never attained the level of manager in Canada. He was a computer developer in Canada for the remainder of his career.

Ligocki’s life in Canada also was challenging in the beginning.

“I studied English from a book while I was in the refugee camp in Italy, but I didn’t have an English teacher,” he said. “I knew little English when I moved to Canada and really learned it once I got to British Columbia.

“I was in fifth grade when we left Czechoslovakia and I never went to sixth and seventh grade. I was 14 when I enrolled in school in Canada and I started in the eighth grade,” he said.

After completing high school, Ligocki received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in software technology from University of Alberta.

“I am blessed to be here. I’m proud to be a Canadian. I think the U.S. and Canada are very similar, but I think generally people in the U.S. are more patriotic than most people in Canada. But not more than me, I love Canada because the country allowed my family and me to come here,” Ligocki said.

Taking Another Risk

Ligocki began his career in the utility industry working for MDSI, which was acquired by Ventyx and then ABB. He then worked for eMobile Data, which was acquired by Itron in 2002. Not long after Itron he started his own company, Clevest, in 2006.

Clevest develops mobile workforce automation and smart grid operations solutions for electric, water and gas utilities.

“I saw that the industry was transforming and I thought it was time to take a transformational leap in technology,” Ligocki said. “I knew the mobile transformation would need to be part of the smart grid. I knew field workers needed to be included.”

As a side project, Ligocki created a company called YummyWeb.com, which he sold to Just Eat, a global online food ordering service, in 2011.

Clevest began in Ligocki’s basement with seven software developers. Most of those developers were people he had worked with at MDSI and eMobile Data.

“I went to them and asked them how much they were making, then I offered them half that much. I offered the other half as shares in the company. So, in addition to me and my partner, all the early employees helped fund the company,” he said.

Ligocki had to convince these early employees that it was worth taking a leap of faith and putting their trust in him. He knew that they and their families were depending on him.

Clevest’s early customers put the same faith in him as his early employees did.

“We got our first customer in 2007. In 2008, we doubled our first-year performance, by acquiring two customers,” Ligocki said.

One-and-a-half years after Clevest began, it had 15 employees and they moved out of Ligocki’s basement.

In 2016, Clevest signed up 45 customers, most of them co-ops, bringing its total number of customers to 200. Some 35 of those customers are investor-owned utilities and the others are co-ops and municipalities.

It’s notable to mention that more than 30 years after defecting from Czechoslovakia, Ligocki is doing business in the Czech Republic.

 

Management Style

Ligocki believes a one-on-one connection between managers and employees is important. He has, therefore, developed a culture at Clevest that keeps him connected to the company’s 110 employees and ensures that he understands not just what they can offer Clevest, but what Clevest can offer them.

One of the ways he connects with employees is to take the conversations out of the office. He regularly takes employees out to a function or for a drink after work to talk one-on-one not only about the company and its culture, but about each of them.

“Employees are more likely to open up when they are in this type of setting as opposed to meeting in the office,” he said. “These activities keep me connected. I’m especially interested in getting to know the millennials and their views. They are our future.”

Ligocki also has introduced some things into the Vancouver office to create a work environment that satisfies employees and keeps them motivated.

The office includes:

·         Foosball table

·         Ping pong table

·         Nap room. (Ligocki believes a quick nap is better than a cup of coffee.)

·         Beer and wine fridge (open only on Friday at end of day). The idea is to encourage employees to discuss their ideas and thoughts with other employees.

·         Social committee. This began with Ligocki, but has now been handed off to employees. They are required to plan two cross-department activities each month. The activities have ranged from hiking and bowling to raising money for the SPCA and United Way with many other events in between.

Ligocki pointed out the company continues to invest back into the industry. About half of the staff works in research and development (R&D). And, the company’s R&D employees understand it is OK to fail. He encourages them to determine quickly if something works and then move on the next innovation. It is also as important, however, for them to determine quickly if something doesn’t work and do the same. In addition, Ligocki encourages his employees not to ignore new technologies and to consider incorporating such technology into their efforts.

“This excites people. It doesn’t all have to be marketable to be valuable,” Ligocki said.

“I’ve worked for quite a few people in my career. Some you can tell are climbing over you to get ahead and they don’t care about your success or failure,” said Carol Johnston, Clevest’s vice president of product marketing. “Tom is not that kind of person. He wants everyone to succeed.”

In addition to the office in Vancouver, Clevest also has an office in Plano, Texas.

“We are fully incorporated in the U.S. In fact, I had to get a U.S. work visa because I travel to the U.S. office so often,” he said.

Ligocki believes it is important to have a close relationship not only with his employees, but with his customers, too. During presentation to customers, it’s common for Ligocki to sit at the table with them, while other Clevest executives conduct the formal presentations.

“It is not unusual to see him serving coffee or drinks to our customers,” said Johnston. “He is very approachable. He values long-term relationships with his employees and customers and the company’s success is built on that.”

Ligocki with his sister and parents in 1985. They are in Italy shortly after escaping from Czechoslovakia.

 

 

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