Tales of four Minnesota entrepreneurs from India, Nicaragua, Laos and Nigeria — and a visit with the head of global minnesota
Whether they come to Minnesota seeking higher education or a refuge from a war-torn homeland, a number of immigrants arrive here with the perfect makings of an entrepreneur: determination and aspiration. From their diverse origins around the world, in the Twin Cities their paths have converged as builders of our regional economy.
From U of M grad student to hospitality industry magnate
Mahendra Nath prides himself on being able to spot an undervalued asset, then being fearless enough to pounce. But the founder of Nath Companies, a Bloomington-based real estate, restaurant and hotel business with $70 million in revenue, is too modest to boast about his phenomenal intuition.
“I say I can see the opportunities,” says Nath, 77, whose company employs about a thousand workers. He was seeking value when he came to the University of Minnesota in 1964. After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Delhi in his native India, he chose to attend the Twin Cities campus to earn his graduate degree because the U made him the best offer.
“Minnesota gave me a scholarship and an assistantship,” he recalls. “When I came here, I had $800 in my pocket, $400 of it borrowed from my dad.” Eager to get earning, he completed his master’s in nine months and began his career as an industrial engineer. Soon he and his wife Asha began brainstorming about how to start their own business. “I wanted to be my own boss,” he says.
The young couple used $5,000 in savings to buy what they perceived as an undervalued duplex; within a year, they resold it at $20,000 profit. They reinvested the money in additional properties, then went on to line up investors to purchase multiple commercial and residential buildings. In 1989, Nath was approached to buy two Burger King franchises and added them to his expanding portfolio. A year later, he heard about a teetering franchisee and stepped in to buy 21 Burger King outlets at a discounted price. That was followed by a chance to buy out all the Burger Kings in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Leadership: Mahendra Nath, President and CEO
Revenue: $70 million
Description: A community bank consultancy providing strategic planning, enterprise risk managament, and talent management.
Ultimately, he owned 156 Burger Kings in six states. At the same time, he was buying Denny’s restaurants and hotels. “I look at a lot of properties before I select one. To be successful you need a good instinct, the skills to analyze a deal, and then you have to hire the right personnel and get out of their way.”
In 2006, he began selling the fast food outlets and moved to a renewed focus in real estate; Nath Companies’ holdings now include apartments, retail space and a medical building. In addition, the company owns the Axel’s and Bonfire Wood Fire Cooking restaurant chains. Today, Nath’s partners are his son and daughter and their spouses, who all have management responsibilities in varying divisions in the family business.
“They are building their own equity in the company,” he says. “My wife and I are lucky that it works for all of us.” Active on boards of nonprofits and a longtime member of the Normandale Community College Foundation Board, he endowed the Mahendra Nath Advising Center at the Bloomington community college.
“Many times, people derive motivation from the experiences of others. I tell the students, whether they’re born here or come here, put in the hard work and set goals. This is the country of opportunity for those who dream.”
"WHEN I CAME HERE, I HAD $800 IN MY POCKET, $400 OF IT BORROWED FROM MY DAD."
Nath is still dreaming. Nath Companies currently own three hotels, including the Roseville Radisson. Nath has set a goal of expanding to 28 hotel properties in the next five years years. “I set ambitious goals for my employees, my kids and my staff,” he says.
Nath, who identifies as a Republican, insists his American rags-to-riches story could be written today by another young newcomer who shares his gifts and drive.
“People like myself, we come in as immigrants and we create economic uplift and jobs for ourselves and the country,” he says. “I’ve been a citizen for 40 years, my kids were born here. This is my country now.”
A refugee who discovered the joys of banking
Growing up in Nicaragua, Marcia Malzahn’s favorite game was Monopoly. “I was always the banker; I loved arranging the money,” she laughs. “If my siblings were nice to me, I would give them money but if they were being mean, they had to pay me.”
Now 51, Malzahn links her girlhood interest in play money to a long career in banking, where she worked her way up from teller to the executive level.
In 2005, she was the first employee hired as CFO and vice president of operations for a community bank startup in Edina. She was later promoted to executive vice president/CFO, COO and eventually Chief Risk Officer at the bank, which grew to $325 million in assets. Three years ago, she founded Malzahn Strategic, a community bank consultancy that offers her expertise in strategic planning, enterprise risk management and talent management. She’s worked with a number of Minnesota financial institutions and has recently begun working for an East Coast client.
“My target is a community bank with assets from $500 million to a billion,” she says. “Every community needs a bank.”
Understanding risk and preparing for it is woven into Malzahn’s immigrant DNA. When she was six, a devastating earthquake that killed 6,000 destroyed her family home in Managua. By the time she was 13, the Nicaraguan revolution created mass upheaval and bloodshed in her homeland.
“Every night when I went to bed I would listen to the helicopters and machine guns and I couldn’t sleep. There was no food to buy and the electricity and water would come and go,” she recalls.
She and her family escaped on a Red Cross cargo plane, bringing along only a few suitcases. The family left a gracious life with servants and English lessons to the Dominican Republic, where they doubled up in an aunt’s home; Malzahn and her siblings slept in a windowless garage.
“It was June in the Caribbean, so hot, with mosquitoes and bugs, but there’s a picture of us and we’re all smiling,” she says. Four months after arriving, a massive hurricane slammed into the island nation and again they lived for months without water or electricity.
“From a risk management perspective, I learned to be risk-aware so I don’t live in fear,” she explains. “I’m very planful. When I was CFO at a bank, they used to call me Budget Queen.”
HEADQUARTERS: Maple Grove
LEADERSHIP: Marcia Malzahn, President
DESCRIPTION: A community bank consultancy providing strategic planning, enterprise risk managament, and talent management.
Her family’s resilience gave her the chance to see business startups in action as both of her parents became entrepreneurs out of necessity. Her father, an attorney and composer, could not practice in the Dominican Republic, so he began selling insurance. Meanwhile, her mother became a jeweler. “It takes so much work and sacrifice to build a business. It takes failure to help you find the right decisions,” she says. The family became acquainted with a Minnesota couple who offered to help them move to the states. When Malzahn arrived in January 1986 at age 19, she had three semesters of college studying systems engineering and computer science.
She found work at a bank. “I liked working with money, working with people and working with computers,” she says. “We never asked for help; we came here to work. This country is still the land of opportunity and we don’t take it for granted.” A citizen since 1997, Malzahn today is the married mother of two adult children. She’s also written three inspirational books, and is writing four more. In addition to her consulting work, today Malzahn offers educational webinars to bankers and is a frequent keynote speaker at events for financial institutions.
When she speaks to groups, she often weaves her personal story into her message. “In our family, we have psychological trauma but we also have faith,” she says.
From refugee camp to the "Hmong Mall of America"
Located in a former lumber yard on the east side of St. Paul, the Hmongtown Marketplace is a jumble of exotic scents, sights and sounds. With 200 indoor vendors and 100 open-air spots, it features locally grown produce, a food court and stalls jammed with imported goods familiar to Hmong shoppers — herbs and spices, native garb, CDs and DVDs from Southeast Asia.
“This is the Hmong Mall of America,” says Hmongtown Marketplace founder Toua Xiong with a smile. When Xiong, 49, gazes at the sprawling retail hub he’s cultivated for the past 14 years, he sees a small business incubator where he’s the chief coach, consultant and motivator to the 600 people who work there.
HEADQUARTERS: Maple Grove
LEADERSHIP: Marcia Malzahn, President
DESCRIPTION: A community bank consultancy providing strategic planning, enterprise risk managament, and talent management.
“In Laos, Hmong people were farmers in the mountains. They didn’t have a tradition of business,” he says. “This is the place where my vendors can get started and find income for their families, even if their English isn’t good. They bring their kids to help and then they learn how it works.”
Xiong was born in Laos, where his father fought for the U.S. in the CIA’s Secret War. He was seven when the Americans withdrew and Xiong and his family retreated to the jungle.
It was a harrowing four years on the run from the Communists. Xiong recalls using a bow and arrow to kill squirrels and rats and trapping pigeons to help his family survive. The family ultimately walked for 45 days, with Xiong carrying his baby brother on his back, to a refugee camp in Thailand. They languished there for seven years.
“We were behind barbed wire, with no schooling, no opportunity,” he recalls. It was there Xiong met and married his sweetheart Nou Vang when they were 16. They had two children when their break came in the form of a ticket to the US. They arrived in St Paul with a wave of Hmong refugees in 1986.
“Right after I got here, someone said, ‘Go back to your country.’ I said, ‘I don’t have a country to go back to,’” Xiong says.
Although he spoke “super-broken English,” Xiong enrolled in college, carrying Hmong, Lao, Thai and English dictionaries for his studies in business. He completed a four-year degree in less than three years.
After graduating, he took a weekend seminar on buying property and got loans from “my uncles” in the Hmong community for his first foray into real estate. By then the father of five, Xiong leveraged home equity loans on his properties to purchase more houses. He upgraded and managed them while working full-time at a downtown bank as an accounting assistant. Xiong used his credit card for a down payment on a small neighborhood market on University Avenue, and soon it was profitable enough that his wife quit her job at a dental office to work alongside him.
“We didn’t have money to hire, so we swept the floors,” he says. In a year, they traded up to the 30,000 square foot FoodSmart grocery in the heart of the Hmong neighborhood.
In 2003, Xiong heard about the six-acre property, a former lumber yard, that has become the Hmongtown Marketplace. Certain that the Hmong community of 80,000 would be eager to shop at a place where they could find authentic Asian products, he signed a contract to lease the land with an option to buy. He was unprepared for the obstacles that came with his vision.
“I was required to make a lot of changes I wasn’t expecting,” he recalls. “I had to put in a sprinkler system, more toilets, a big sewer pipe from Como Avenue. The restaurants needed hoods and exhaust fans — so many regulations! I almost wanted to run away.”
Though on several occasions he came perilously close to losing the market, he stayed put. He went from being a tenant to an owner when he bought the marketplace from Shaw Stewart Lumber Co. in 2009, with financing through the neighborhood credit union.
Today, Xiong has a waiting list of vendors, and some are clamoring to build out larger spots than the standard 12 X 12 stall.
He’s busy planning an expansion, adding on-site housing, underground parking and a new 4- to 6-story building that would offer commercial offices.
“Right now we’re utilizing only about 50% of the property,” Xiong says. “We need to be ready for the next wave.”
"I TOLD MY CHILDREN, 'I'M DOING THIS SO YOU CAN SEE THAT IT IS POSSIBLE TO COME FROM NOTHING TO SOMETHING IF YOU DREAM AND YOU'RE PREPARED.'"
From a Nigerian brewery worker to Minnesota factory owner
Twenty-two years ago, Manny Efiong took a temp job on the production floor at Daro Industries (which later merged with All-American Engineering & Manufacturing) in White Bear Lake. Earlier this year, the Nigerian immigrant bought All-American and sister company Daro Hinges and is now the company’s president and CEO.
“My dream came true, this is what I always wanted,” says Efiong, 54. “What I was preparing for.” In his career at the company, Efiong earned promotions that allowed him to rise through the ranks; after taking over as product manager of the hinge division production line, sales and gross profit margins tripled.
“The owners of the company realized I was an asset. It didn’t matter to them where I was from,” he says. “But one day I could see the path in front of me was stalling out. I had gotten as high as I could go. I knew I had to take a risk to progress.”
That’s when he began negotiating to make his move to pivot into ownership. With the backing of a minority partner and support and guidance from MEDA, (the Metropolitan Economic Development Association) Efiong closed on the company in February, purchasing the operation and the 31,500 square foot factory for $3.2 million. Much of his cash down payment came from his personal savings.
When Efiong was 13 years old, his father died, pushing his family into economic uncertainty. But Efiong, his mother and four siblings were able to survive because his father, a teacher, had been disciplined with putting money aside.
That impressed the importance of accumulating savings on Efiong. For many years, after working a 40-hour week at the manufacturing company, he plugged away at two other jobs (selling suits at Men’s Wearhouse and preparing taxes at H & R Block) to augment his savings.
“When we signed the deal, the broker told me, ‘Now you have an opportunity to build wealth for yourself and your family,’” Efiong says. “He said, ‘You created the opportunity by stepping forward.’”
Efiong finds the most satisfying part of rising to the top is the autonomy of being the boss. “I wanted the freedom to make decisions without asking for permission,” he says. “The other day, a customer from California called about industrial hinges that didn’t work out for them. They were out of warranty, but I could say, ‘We’ll exchange them for you at no cost. We want you to be satisfied.’”
Today, Efiong’s strategic plan involves expansion; he anticipates annual revenues will grow by 6-7%. He’s streamlining production, expanding global distribution channels and adding to his 22-person workforce. Efiong’s American journey began in 1989, when he arrived on a student visa at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where a beloved uncle was an economics professor. At the time, Efiong had been working at a brewery in his homeland, helping to support his mother and siblings. He was reluctant to leave, but his uncle persuaded him to take the step.
“He insisted. He said, ‘You will do well and once you achieve things here, you will be able to give them true security,’” he recalls. Those words were prophetic. Efiong bought a home where his wife and their children now live.
Married to a fellow African immigrant and father to three young children, Efiong thinks his son’s suburban bedroom is the size of the mud house that his entire nuclear family inhabited when he was the boy’s age.
“When we purchased the company, I told my children, ‘I’m doing this for you,’” he says. “’I’m laying this as a template for you to see that it is possible to come from nothing to something like this if you dream and you’re prepared.’"
The go-to place to learn about the world and to meet people from everywhere
Carol Engebretson Byrne has been the president of Global Minnesota for more than 20 years — back when it was still called the Minnesota International Center. It was founded in 1953 as a way to serve the big influx of international students at the University of Minnesota after WWII. Since then it has developed a broader mission, including hosting international leaders via the State Department and presenting a variety of programs and discussions on world affairs. Find more here: globalminnesota.org
MNBIZ: Why do we need Global Minnesota?
Carol: I think that we live in complicated times, and the world doesn’t always make sense. We take on some difficult topics.
MNBIZ: For example?
Carol: We’ve discussed pollution, climate change, human trafficking, religion and extremism as part of our Great Decisions program. Coming up, we have programs on nuclear security and the geo-politics of energy.
MNBIZ: One issue we face is the anti-immigrant fervor going on, but I’m willing to bet the people that are mad at immigrants have never met one.
Carol: I think you’re absolutely right. I was in Germany for a fact-finding mission three years ago. They found that often the people who were most anti-immigrant had never met an immigrant. That’s one of the reasons why we offer so many face-to-face opportunities. Our members can host any of the State Department international visitors. You can host a mayor from Mexico or a South African parliament member. It’s all about the power of the personal.
MNBIZ: Can local business people meet traveling business leaders?
Carol: Oh, absolutely. That’s one of the reasons the corporate community helped start our Corporate Leadership program. It began when Medtronic (I think) met with some health officials from Korea, and business came about from that.
MNBIZ: What’s next for Global Minnesota?
Carol: Well, the Finnish president is coming, and the Japanese ambassador. China’s going to be our focus country next year.
MNBIZ: More face-to-face diplomacy?
Carol: Certainly. And then there’s sports diplomacy. The Minnesota Timberwolves are going to Shanghai in October for two exhibition games. The NBA is huge in China.