Regina innovator Les Hulicsko retiring on his own terms

  • December 1, 2014

Les Hulicsko escaped from Hungary on Dec. 8, 1956, after the revolution he supported was crushed by Soviet forces, forcing him to flee to North America. But the Russians couldn’t crush the engineering student’s revolutionary spirit. In many ways, Hulicsko never stopped being a revolutionary – revolutionizing everything from rock picking and street sweeping to pothole patching and window cleaning. He was always designing, building and marketing new products and starting new businesses from the time he arrived in his adopted country in 1957.

"Think outside of the box. That’s the way we did things," said Hulicsko, on the eve of his last official day at work at Superior-Roads Solutions/Rite Way Manufacturing, the company he founded more than 40 years ago.

"And, of course, they’re going to tell you it cannot be done. But I said a lot of times: ‘Well, watch me!’" Hulicsko said with a laugh.

Of course, serendipity played a role in the 78-yearold serial entrepreneur and inventor’s remarkably eventful life. But his luck was largely of his own making, driven by a relentless desire to find ways of doing things better, faster and more efficiently.

When Hulicsko left Hungary at 20, he went to France, where he stayed in a refugee camp and worked at a manufacturing plant for eight months. But he dreamt of going to the U.S.

"As a young boy, my dream was to go to the Americas. Of course, it was out of the question because of the Iron Curtain. But the opportunity came when the revolution came. And, as it turned out, it was a necessary thing for me to do.’

A few years ago, Hulicsko discovered that Hungary’s infamous death squad – the so-called Pufajkas, named for the large WWII vintage Russian overcoats they wore – had searched his former residence in 1957. "They were looking for me. They raided the place. (His former roommate) was afraid they were going to shoot him if they found my rifle. They didn’t find my rifle … I really didn’t know how lucky I was.’

Another bit of serendipity was his decision to relocate to Regina. "My hope was to get into the U.S. … but the quota (for refugees) was filled. I got tired of waiting, and Canada was open, so I came to Canada."

He chose Regina because it was in the middle of the continent and close to the U.S. where he intended to immigrate. But, once he got here, he never left.

Another bit of luck was aggravating an old wrestling injury while working construction in Regina. "I reinjured the knee … and couldn’t work in construction. So a friend said, ‘why don’t you come and clean windows?’ That was my break. I got into an industry that was very simple, I couldn’t speak the language," and his boss (ironically, a Russian immigrant) was illiterate, but very successful.

"He was telling me how successful the business was, but I saw the inefficiency in the business.’ So after a year or two, Hulicsko started Rite Way, a window cleaning company "because I thought I could do better.’ Soon Rite Way was cleaning windows in the tallest buildings in the city, including the Legislative Building, because of innovations Hulicsko introduced.

For example, Hulicsko noticed that window cleaning was labour intensive, with highly skilled and paid workers doing the labour; so he replaced the laborious process of cleaning windows with a sponge, cheesecloth and chamois with a simple device, known as a squeegee. And he gave his cleaners several sizes of squeegees to clean various sizes of window panes.

He also invested an astronomical $7,000 into a "Sky Climber,’ a motorized scaffold or deck for cleaning windows on skyscrapers. When Hulicsko complained about the cost, saying he could buy two Volkswagens for the same money, the salesman told him: "Les, if you can clean windows with Volkswagens, go ahead and do it." He also learned a valuable lesson. "If you build a tool that is valuable, it doesn’t really matter what it costs."

Hulicsko’s next business venture was rock pickers. As a sideline to his window cleaning business, Hulicsko set up a machine shop to design and custom build one-off pieces of equipment and road signs in the late 1960s. During a slow period, an employee suggested he manufacture rock pickers, which were used for clearing rocks from agricultural land. The problem was you needed two rock pickers: a rotary machine to pick up small rocks and a fork-type machine to pick up large ones.

After considerable thought and experimentation, Hulicsko designed a rock picker that could do both, utilizing hydraulics to increase the power of the machine. "I had the idea of using hydraulics to drive the reel, then we could do both jobs.’ He also simplified the design, reducing the number of bats on the reel, which reduced the incidence of rocks clogging the machines.

His rock pickers were such a runaway success that other manufactures soon copied Hulicsko’s design, making hydraulic-driven rock pickers the standard in the industry. Since 1972, Rite Way has been manufacturing several sizes of rock pickers at its plant in Imperial, north of Regina.

In the late 1970s, Hulicsko stumbled onto another business that needed his talents. As part of his window cleaning business, Hulicsko was doing parking lot maintenance, using street sweepers to clean the lots. "I would (harangue) the engineer who designed these machines because they were always breaking down and if you needed to fix the machines you had to tear them apart."

So he designed a tow-type sweeper that could be pulled behind a tractor, using hydraulics in place of "sprockets and chains’ to reduce the number of moving parts. "We built 75 of these machines. Some of them are still running. So that got me into the sweeper business.’ Sweeprite Manufacturing, as the street sweeper company was called, began in 1978. "Shortly after I built a self-propelled unit – the Sweep-Rite 2400 – and a slightly smaller one called the Sweep-Rite 2200. It was really revolutionary."

Once again, using hydraulics, Hulicsko improved the power, capability and reliability of self-propelled street sweepers. "It revolutionized the street sweeping industry." And just like the rock picking business, all street sweepers use hydraulics today; Hulicsko was just the first.

Of course, not all Les’s inventions caught on like wildfire. Hulicsko designed a combine in the early 2000s, called the Python, which replaced all the pulleys and belts of a conventional combine with – you guessed it – hydraulics. While he did manufacture a number of the machines, the Python faced some pretty tough competition, in the form of the giants of the industry, New Holland, John Deere, to name a few.

The combine project died a natural death, but the name lives on in the Python 5000, a one-person pothole patcher that probably ranks as one of Hulicsko’s most ingenious inventions. It can patch a pothole in two minutes, while the operator sits safely in an air-conditioned cab, reducing both labour costs and workplace injuries. The Python 5000 continues to be built at the Regina plant,

In 2012, Python Manufacturing Inc. was taken over by a Saskatoon-based venture capital fund, Golden Opportunities, and the federal Business Development Bank of Canada, which bought the business from Hulicsko. Earlier this year, the company changed its name from Python Manufacturing to SuperiorRoads Solutions to manufacture and market the pothole patcher and street sweepers, while Rite-Way Manufacturing remains the company’s brand name for rock pickers, harrows, land rollers and other field preparation equipment.

As a businessman, Hulicsko has had his ups and downs, having started, lost and bought back his various businesses several times. "It’s been an interesting, roller-coaster ride, but overall it’s been a very rewarding ride,’ he said, without a trace of bitterness or regret.

While he won’t be coming into the office at 1891 Albert St. N. on a regular basis anymore, Hulicsko isn’t ready to give up working.

"I can’t see myself retiring. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got ideas on many things and, of course, not all of them can be achieved. Some of them may be out of reach, some of the things I’m going to be working on … (will be) on a project by project basis.’ During his long career, Hulicsko has been called many things: a dreamer, an inventor, an entrepreneur, even a genius. Hulicsko prefers to think of himself as an innovator, rather than an inventor.

"I had the image of an inventor – I’ve seen so many of them – they could dream, but they could never really put (their dreams) into practice. I had dreams, but I didn’t try to sell (an idea) until I could build it and produce it. I’m more of a realistic inventor, if there is such a thing.’

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