Attorney. Candy machine inventor. Business strategist. Landlord. Embroidery specialist. You name it, and Chris Farmakis has either done it or plans to do it. Life is too short to do otherwise. His father taught him that.
When Farmakis was in high school, his dad was let go from Westinghouse after 36 years of hard work. So he told his sons, Chris and Jason: “Don’t ever let a company dictate what you do with your life.”
The words stuck. Today, in addition to being a renowned business attorney at Pittsburgh’s Babst, Calland, Clements and Zomnir, Farmakis, 39, manages apartment buildings and an embroidery business with his brother. He also runs a document-management company, Solvaire Technologies, which is affiliated with the law firm. He thought of Solvaire seven years ago while in charge of due diligence for a $900 million acquisition, a deal made complex and costly by the dizzying amount of documents involved. Farmakis soon learned this is a universal challenge in the world of business.
“Companies struggle with their hard-copy documents,” he says. “They can’t find them or they lose them or they can’t access them. And it’s not just during deals. I see companies putting out fires every day looking for stuff that should be easy to find.” His solution: develop a proprietary, digital database to process information. As a result, efficiency reigns.
Now, for example, reports that would have taken 15 people three weeks to complete require only three people and are done in three days.
Speaking of efficiency, Solvaire’s CIO, Chuck Rile, likes to joke that Farmakis equally divides his time between the firm and Solvaire: 75-75. “Chris is one of the hardest-working people I have ever seen,” Rile says. “It would drive me nuts—I need more down time—but Chris is very driven and at the same time very down-to-earth.”
Why does Farmakis push himself so hard? Easy. “I like controlling my own destiny,” he says.
Farmakis started at the firm 15 years ago as a summer associate. His mentor, Ted Wesolowski, chairman of the firm’s business services group, came to him one day with a challenge: Identify all the potential issues arising from a new case. He didn’t call it a test, but it was. “There wasn’t a lot of information to work with, which is how it often is in the real world,” Wesolowski says. “It was a huge reach for somebody in his position and Chris just nailed it. You can just see some people have it and some people don’t, and Chris had it.”
It was a watershed moment. “Walking in, I had fear—a trepidation,” Farmakis says. “I was new to the game. But when I saw that smile on his face I knew I could do this.”
Since then he has cultivated enough clients to keep himself, and others at the firm, busy. “I am extremely proud of that,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without senior management and the folks who have encouraged us. The firm has always fostered an environment of wanting us to think like entrepreneurs.”
That’s never been a problem for Farmakis. As a youngster he delivered the Youngstown Vindicator to more than 150 homes. He got so busy he brought his brother Jason into the business—at a 40 percent share. (He later upped that to 50 percent, but only after giving him increased responsibilities.)
Jason, now director of the remodel division for Tri River Design & Construction and president of its embroidery company, says Chris’ ability to work long hours was evident even then. “When he was in law school, he and I lived together,” he says. “I liked to have fun and would be out a lot so I’d be waking up at like 11 at the earliest. But Chris would be up at 6 or 7 a.m., and on these beautiful summer days he would take the card table outside and have all his books out there and would literally study all day. It was so funny to see him trying to still enjoy the summer but studying at the same time.”
In college, the two brothers and their father built a machine that made three-dimensional solid molded chocolates—the Wonka-esque contraption could produce up to 600 pounds per hour. It worked well except for one thing: manufacturers wanted machines that could make hollow chocolates. Great machine, bad timing.
“It was my first real solid business lesson,” Chris says. “We got this thing off the ground, hooked up vendors and suppliers, learned about marketing and sales, developed business relationships and learned a lot. We failed because I missed one important ingredient: You need a market for a product.”
The two brothers have done better in real estate, partly because they’re not afraid to work up a sweat. They carry sheetrock, bang nails, measure and hang trim, lay tile. They bought their first building, a three-unit apartment in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1995 when Chris was 26. “A real dump,” he says. They remodeled the building while living in one of the apartments.
“The rent from the other two apartments covered our mortgage and most of our expenses,” says Chris. “Essentially, we lived for free and the money we saved fueled the purchase of other buildings.”
They now own five buildings, commercial and residential, all in the Pittsburgh area. They also remodeled and flipped a single-family house between November 2006 and January 2007.
“Renting and remodeling is still fun,” he says. “Slow-paying tenants are not so fun, but all in all, it has been a great experience.”
The embroidery business, Waterfront Embroidery, has also been a great experience. It was conceived at a Halloween party in 2001 when Chris and his brother met a guy in the business of selling and repairing embroidery machines. The brothers agreed to rent space to him and help with start-up capital, “and the next thing you know we were in the embroidery business,” Jason says. As is their way, they don’t manage from a distance. When demand exceeds capacity, neither is afraid to roll up his sleeves and man a machine. With a big new order recently in the door, “Chris has been down there relearning things and pitching in too.”
Somehow, Farmakis has a life outside all of this. He and his wife of three years, Becky, a registered nurse, have a son, Jackson, who is 2. “He is a handful and comes to work with me often,” he says. “He helped me negotiate a purchase agreement one night.”
Aside from that, time is too scarce to indulge many hobbies. Not that he’s complaining.
“Work is like my skiing or mountain biking,” he says. “I enjoy it. It’s a different lifestyle but all I can say is that it is fun.”
These days, only one thing is missing: his father, who died on
July 4, 2001. But clearly, his wisdom lives on.
“I do have my dad in me,” he says. “After all, I’ve been at the law firm 15 years …”