The expression “The American Dream” has a very special meaning for me.
I was born in Iran and educated in Switzerland and France. After both of my parents passed away, before I was 18, I completed my education at the University of Bordeaux in France, majoring in economics. Despite having no immediate family members at that point, I was very close to my large extended family living in the United States. I spent several summers visiting a cousin who was studying for his Ph.D. in Cincinnati, and decided to move to Cincinnati in 1987 when I was 22 years old.
It was the beginning of a great adventure, but I was naive and inexperienced in the American business world. Plus, I didn’t speak a word of English, fluent only in Farsi and French.
Fortunately, another cousin had a successful window treatment business in Florida. I decided to learn how to sell and install window treatments from my cousin and I spent several weeks learning the business and developing a marketing plan to launch my own venture. Armed with this knowledge and the willingness to work hard, I returned to Cincinnati with a simple plan: I distributed flyers offering a 50% discount on mini-blinds (very fashionable at the time!) at new multi-family housing locations in the thriving Northern Kentucky area. Then, I hurried home and waited by my telephone. Nearly every day, the phone rang and one or two orders would trickle in.
From Windows to Flooring
Was I on my way to becoming the Mini-Blind King of Cincinnati? Not necessarily! When I look back at my career, there were a series of “significant events” along the way which impacted my plans and, in most cases, set me in a new and positive direction.
In 1988, two significant events occurred. First, I received a mini-blind order from a building developer decorating his home. After observing my work ethic, he encouraged me to consider broadening the scope of my customer base by doing commercial installations. Also at the same time, I started diversifying my blinds business to flooring, much like the Color Tile chain stores that were my major competitor in Cincinnati. I wanted to grow my business, but didn’t even know what carpet tile was.
Then, Significant Event #2! While waiting for an automotive repair at a garage in 1988, I met Sam Sharif, an engineer who had strong technical knowledge and understood more than I did about the commercial building and contracting business. We became friends and, together, we decided to tackle the flooring business. Through a series of trial and error, we slowly expanded the size of our flooring projects, all in the commercial market. Our early projects were small and not complicated; and, over time, they became more technically challenging.
Significant Event #3 occurred when we joined the union in 1990 and tapped into the skilled labor pool necessary to support our business. As a business, we were being noticed in the market, building the good reputation we needed to sustain our growth.
Significant Event #4 was winning our first big project, Jewish Hospital in Kenwood, Ohio, in 1994. A major healthcare institution with Turner Construction Co., this project required technical installations such as heat-welding, flash coving, etc., which is typical in medical facilities. Our team delivered, and our reputation grew.
By the mid-90s, Axis Interior Systems was in its third office location, starting in a 640-square-foot small office in downtown Cincinnati and moving farther north to increasingly larger buildings. In 2005, we moved to our current building of 26,000 square feet in Hamilton, Ohio, between Cincinnati and Dayton.
Throughout all these moves and the continued growth of the business, I have been very blessed to have a strong and loyal team supporting the business. Sam Sharif, the first person who worked on the business with me, has stayed with Axis Interior Systems for 29 years. Other members of the team have long-service with Axis Interiors, many with 15-20 years of service.
Challenging Times Lead to Growth
Of course, no story of a growing business is without struggle and challenging times, and not all significant events are happy! For Axis Interior Systems, the tough times came in 2004 and again in 2010. In both cases, the challenges we faced drove my team and me to face new realities and, happily, we emerged stronger.
In 2004, after a strong alliance with the union, our business was challenged to grow without the ability to offer non-union labor. I was committed to revenue growth and fought to create a separate non-union company which allowed my company to maximize its potential. Of course, this effort was met with resistance from the local union and my company endured a full year of negotiations, strikes and lockouts. My employees stayed with me and, after a year, we settled with the union. This was Significant Event #5.
Then, Significant Event #6 occurred in 2010, and this event was the most difficult event I have ever experienced. The recession was still impacting the market in Cincinnati. Then, to place further pressure on the business, my CFO embezzled $552,000 from the business. Further, we had a significant claim with a major public end user involving our bonding company, the financial impact of which was overwhelming. At that point, I was exhausted and very discouraged.
One day, during a meeting with my employees, Phil Buda, one of our project managers, turned to me and said, “If something happens to the business, what happens to us?” Like a lightning bolt, I realized that my most important mission was to create an enduring livelihood for my employees and that my personal issues and financial future were incidental to that important mission. At that point, everything changed! I realized that I needed to create a structure which protected my employees and provided a future for the team, far beyond my involvement in Axis Interior Systems and personal benefit from the business.
A Future for the Team
Toward my mission to create a future for our employees, we are working on an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) structure which allows each employee to have an ownership position in the company. To me, this plan makes the most sense and I am excited to complete the work involved. My employees make all the difference in the business and I am committed to insuring their futures.
On the business front, my focus now is on profitable growth. While revenue is essential, an increase in profit is critical to establishing a strong foundation for our future. Since the shift to a profit focus, we have grown our business profitability at increasing levels while delivering revenues which exceed prior years.
In terms of our base of business in our market, the strength is mega structure public spaces, such as stadiums, airports, convention centers, casinos, etc., and then by education segment, both K-12 and higher education, followed closely by assisted living and health care. We have a strong presence in government work, including state, city and university work. The corporate segment and tenant finish market historically has been smaller for us, but definitely a growth opportunity for the future.
Axis Interior Systems has a clear strategy for the business. Equally important, we are committed to a training and development plan for our more than 100 employees including the emerging management team. Our training program is divided into two segments, starting with technical training which targets office as well as field people. In addition, we have six individuals called “Club 30” who receive leadership and business training designed to prepare them for future senior management roles. I believe in training and I believe in investing in our people. And I believe this commitment has resulted in employee loyalty to Axis.
For Axis Interior Systems, Significant Event #7 was joining Starnet back in 2005. Starnet has been invaluable for us in many ways. We have made terrific connections within the membership and learned a great deal from them, both personally and professionally. In fact, I believe that if I have made 10 good decisions since starting this business, joining Starnet is certainly one of those decisions. As a leader of an organization, I have gained incredible insight into guiding a team and making the business choices necessary for success. In addition, I have enjoyed strong relationships with the Preferred Vendor Partner network and feel that my access to them is a huge benefit in my business. We have tapped into training opportunities, also, sending employees to the “live” seminars and participating in both the monthly webinars and in Starnet University. I currently serve as the chairman of Starnet’s Membership Committee, and I truly enjoy working with my excellent fellow members in that capacity.
Another Significant Event #8 was in 2016 when a leader of a major competitor joined Axis. Today, Doug Lyon holds the position of chief operating officer of the company and works closely with our team focusing on sales, relationship development and business growth. The results have been positive.
Indeed, I am a person who has experienced the American Dream. I arrived in the United States with nothing other than a college education. Since then, I have enjoyed a long and interesting journey. I haven’t lost sight of the many gifts I have been given and the many people who have helped me along the way. I am always very grateful for what I have received, and it is my responsibility to give back; therefore, I am now focused on solidifying my business for my family and my team members and the community we serve for years to come.