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How did you start your business?
I got out of the United States military service and I went to work for the Texaco refinery, and they paid good at the time, but I was always thinking that a business of my own would be better for my future. So, I was looking for a liquor store, but I had no skills and even less assets. I went to a broker to help me find a business for sale while I was still working. We looked for months, and the location wasn’t the best, but it was priced right. I looked all over Southern California.
I found this location, and there was a shack on the corner with an old gas pump located in front of the shack. The owner wanted to get rid of the business and we bought it.
My whole family worked here: my dad, my brothers and my wife. I worked 14 hours a day with no days off.
At that time the gas pump wasn’t centralized so we couldn’t control the pumps from the inside and a lot of people would pull up, put gas in their car and leave without paying. It was really bad at that time. So I decided to take the gas pump out.
I didn’t know there were a lot of environment regulations to remove a gas pump. They did soil samples, and I had to open up the entire area, five feet deep because the State of California told me that the land was contaminated. It took one year. To take one sample takes three weeks to get results. That was the hardest time in my life. It was a nightmare. They put up a big chain linked fence, and took away all of my parking area. The dairy was still open, but they made it impossible for customer’s to get here, they couldn’t park. It was just a really bad time in my life. To be totally honest with you, I was considering suicide. Luckily they only found contamination on only the top five feet. It was only about 10 drums, but those 10 drums cost me almost $5,000. Finally we got the permission from the County. Then we could open our very small business out of that little shack. I never missed that gas pump.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
Well I only had $20,000 at the time, and I bought the business for $100,000. The owner carried the $80,000. We worked hard to work down the loan to $60,000. So I offered to pay the guy $30,000 cash and he took it. After we paid that off, I made an offer to buy the land on the corner. Again the landlord offered to carry the paper, and we started to pay off the land too. Because we had a big parking lot that was just going to waste, I decided to open a U-Haul lot. We had 10 trucks, but we made enough to pay off the loan on the land too. Then we built the shopping center.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I made a lot of mistakes, and learned by trial and error. Back then, a lot of people ripped me off, but I learned how to deal with people. Time goes by and eventually you become very good at your business. I learned it all the hard way. Then the area was really bad. There were a lot of gangs. Sometimes I had to close up the store because of gang fights in front of my store. One night during the riots, I stood out in the front of my store with a shotgun. It was really bad back then, and I had to protect the business because it was all I had. Now the area is so much better.
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Who was your first customer?
There was a high school kid buying soda and chips in the morning. It’s the same customers I have now.
What’s the biggest mistake for the first year?
The biggest mistake was not being aware that another guy was leasing the gas pumps to a petroleum company. Cleaning up the land where the gas pumps were wasn’t my responsibility. I could have avoided the entire cost of cleaning up the land by just walking away from the gas station, and letting the other guy pay for the clean up. But I was very naive back then.
What’s the smartest thing you did for the first year?
The smartest thing I did was never give up. I built this from nothing. Now I have 10 stores on this corner. This was my life so I really had no choice but to continue on, but still when I look back there were so many times I wanted to cash out of this place. But look at it now! It’s really amazing how important perseverance is.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
Well, I raised my family on this business, and that’s very rewarding to me. Now I have two sons who graduated from private universities back east – Colombia and Yale. Now they’re both working on Wall Street. That’s pretty rewarding, yes? In fact, that is the only thing I ever achieved in my life that really mattered, and this business made it possible.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
The customers. We have to deal with a lot of low life customers. Sometimes they can be very, very disrespectful. It’s very, very hard sometimes to see how rude people can be.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
It still surprises me that even with the rude and disrespectful customers, we have more good customers than bad ones. That surprises me. I used to think everybody was rude, but now I have learned that there are more good people in the world than bad ones, and that’s a big surprise to me.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
Steve Winn, the Las Vegas developer. He has guts. He owns Las Vegas now. He built a kingdom.
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What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
Well, I wish I had learned to be a chef while I was running this business. I love French and Italian food and I think I should have learned to do something that I really love while building this. I was so impatient, but now I have nothing to do because all the work is done.
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
Stick with it. You have your supplies and you have your customers, and pretty soon it will grow. You have to really stick with it no matter how hard it gets. I would also tell myself to find a good location. Now I found a good location, but I was lucky. I am on a small street. I always thought that being on a big boulevard would be better because there was a lot of traffic. But the problem is that nobody can park. So find a place that has traffic, but not necessarily on the busiest street.
About the Author — Vincent Aviani has been a professional observer of life for nearly 30 years. Starting out his career as a reporter, and then as a community banking communications officer and public relations executive, Vincent has spent his career listening to personal stories and conveying the histories and wisdom within each story to his receptive audience. For the past four years, he has been running his own small business as a professional communications consultant and storyteller.