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MELTING POT : L.A.'s Russian (Appliance Repair) Mafia

October 16, 1994|Idelle Davidson

When Alex Uchitel, a young immigrant from Kiev, bought a North Hollywood-based appliance-repair company 10 years ago, his biggest hope was to turn it into a successful one-person operation. He did but quickly found that his company, Around the Clock, was in fact keeping him up around the clock.

Desperate for rest, Uchitel realized he needed to farm out some of the work and sent out an SOS throughout the Russian community of West Hollywood, where he lives. "We Russians all know each other," says Uchitel. "When they come to America, they're looking for work, and they ask around."

The result of his plea is an unusual group of handymen: Most of Uchitel's 10 subcontractors, from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, have advanced degrees in avionics, electronic, radio and computer engineering.

Why would someone who worked on a MIG settle for fixing a Maytag? It's the economy, glupetz. Says Vitali Leonov, who holds a doctorate in aircraft engineering: "I didn't even try to look for a job in my field. I didn't speak English and the economy was so bad." Leonov contacted Uchitel the moment he arrived from Kiev. That was four years ago.

Leonov recalls one homeowner--also an engineer--who grilled him about his knowledge of microwave oven repair. "I drew him an electrical schematic explaining how his oven worked and what was wrong with it," he recalls. "I passed his test."

Uchitel, who does not have a college degree, says he encourages his friends back home to look him up. Many of them have had dreams about the United States since they were kids. But when they arrive there is usually a language barrier, and they must wait several years to become citizens. "So I help them," he says. "You might say, I'm a little like their godfather."

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