A “French connection” from SSE Riga to wooden homebuilding in France

Tatjana Cvetkova graduated from SSE Riga in 2007 determined to look for work doing economic research. She had a fascination for the French language on the side. 

Almost 10 years later, Tatjana has her own business building custom wooden houses in France, with a team of seven experienced Latvian builders.  She is fluent not only in French, but also the “language” of building materials and construction techniques.

Yes, it is 2017 and all that, but in some places, construction management is still not the first job one associates with an educated young woman.

How did all this happen? “I was inspired by Morten Hansen, and I thought that macroeconomic research was the best thing in the world one could be doing,” Tatjana says over a mid-afternoon glass of red wine (a French thing) at the Osiris café in Riga, where she still lives despite spending much time in the French-speaking parts of Europe.

“Macroeconomic research for the Bank of Latvia was my first job,” she recalls, but she soon found that sitting at a computer and crunching numbers was not what she really wanted. She left the prestigious institution after a while, went to the private sector and worked with investment funds on where to best invest. Later she worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dealing with economic relations and hoping she could work with the French-speaking world. However, that job also didn’t fit what Tatjana really wanted.

She says that she picked her jobs for the satisfaction they gave her, not the salary. At least in the Baltic countries, SSE Riga graduates could easily demand top salaries, but she was “constantly looking for meaningful work that I liked.”

  

An attempt at social entrepreneurship…  

Tatjana liked the idea of social entrepreneurship and that was what took up most of her time and effort for about four years.  It also, in the end, led her to see herself as a great disappointment. Tatjana started a series of social enterprise projects, among them gathering “seniors” to act as mentors on both business and life for younger people. This was called “Daiļi padomi” (Beautiful Advice) and was assisted by the audit and business company PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Tatjana also got involved in promoting handicrafts made by elderly and handicapped persons.

Tatjana speaks fondly of her efforts: “I sold mittens at various events, they had descriptions of the Latvian ornament patterns used and of the “grannies” who knitted them.” She succeeded in ensuring that the “grannies” and other elderly or disabled craftsmen got all of the money from sales of their work and she also set up an internet shop for these goods. Tatjana hoped to be paid for arranging and hosting the events, but this “business model” turned out to be unsustainable.

 

…led to a radical career change to wooden house building

By then, she had spent all of her money and energy and was disappointed with herself. “All I had left that interested me was French,” a language she had studied privately and kept current by listening to French radio broadcasts and songs. She sent out her CV, indicating her knowledge of French in order to find new work.

“I got contacted by a headhunter and she had recommended me to a construction company looking for an export salesperson. They initially turned down the offer, saying: What? A young woman? No education and no experience in construction?” she recalls. However, the headhunter convinced the construction company to meet Tatjana and set up an interview.

“The construction company did hire me, but I knew nothing of their business. So it was off to the Riga Technical University library to borrow books on construction and to sleep three hours, spending the rest of my time studying the construction industry,” Tatjana says. She also learned that there had been a betting pool at the company that she would not last a week, which ended up with many losers.

Wooden houses manufactured as components in Latvia were sold mostly to the Scandinavian market, where there was both demand and competition. In France, wooden homes comprised only around 6% of the new house market and Tatjana had to find customers by cold-calling prospects in France and other French-speaking countries.

 

Cold-calling French customers with her double-entendre name    

Her first customer taking a delivery of a wooden house was in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, but the market in France opened after that. As Tatjana remembers with some irony and amusement, in some French circles her Slavic-sounding name was synonymous with a woman of ill repute – “an East European Tatjana” from a very old profession.

“You can imagine what it was like to call (with a slight East European accent in French) and saying this is Tatjana from the East European country Latvia,” she says. Adding to that, the potential customer quickly learned that the female voice talking about wooden homebuilding belonged to neither an architect nor an experienced contractor.

Contrary to bets and expectations, Tatjana was a success as an export salesperson for her company and totally immersed herself in the art and craft of wooden house building and design. After a few years at the construction company, Tatjana felt ready to move on and try things out on her own – she started the house building company Maison Koka (Maison = house in French, Koka = wood in Latvian) two years ago, which employs seven experienced Latvian builders and engineers to build houses mainly for private customers in France and Belgium.  Maison Koka builds custom houses and deals with the end customer – the homeowner – directly. Custom building houses makes it easier to take into account the particular climate (France is a large country with climate variations from north to south) and the specific location of the building site (exposed to a lot of sun or shaded by trees, etc.). It also includes unusual touches such as old wood recovered from old houses in Latvia that are being torn down, but she aims to make each house unique and just as the homeowner wishes. All houses meet low-energy standards adopted in France in 2013, and some houses are even passive, ready for 2020 norms.

 

French demand for custom and “self-built” wooden homes

As Tatjana explains, the housebuilding business in France is facing constraints – it is harder to get bank financing and the amounts banks are ready to finance are smaller. For this reason Tatjana offers another product to her clients with lower budgets – ready-made custom elements that can be erected by the homeowner and his/her friends. This reduces the cost of construction, while the client can still have a custom-made house from ecological materials.

“I get a house design or sometimes even make it here in Latvia, I make the components here in Latvia, and the buyer puts it up together with friends, just like the Latvian tradition of friends and neighbours helping, called talka. It is called autoconstruction in France,” she explains.

Toward the end of our conversation, Tatjana remembers that before deciding to go to SSE Riga, she thought of being an architect and considered applying to Riga Technical University.  Now it seems that the earlier path not taken – architecture as building things – and a passion for the French language have merged into her current satisfying and fast-moving career.


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