Starting with a Great Family

When they opened their first gas station in Cocoa in 1980, there was one word Mike and Rashmi Shah refused to consider: “Failure.” So they worked … and worked … and worked. For 4½ years they went without a day off, and their business began to grow and grow.

Today, the couple owns Southeast Petro Distributors. In addition to owning 130 stations they are the wholesale distributers to 250 stations, carrying all major brands throughout Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Mike is the company president, while Rashmi serves as the comptroller.

What Is the Secret?

“When you enjoy the work, work hard, and work with sincerity, I think success just follows you,” Mike explained. “That’s what has happened in our life. We are blessed, no doubt about it.”

Not only have the Shahs been able to carve out their niche in business, the fact that they’ve been able to do it together – and now both of their children are in the business as well – makes it extra special. This is especially true now that those tough days are behind them. “In the beginning, when you’re husband and wife – mom and pop – both of us are involved in everything,” Mike said. “But now, there are departments. If I’m doing something, that’s my side so don’t interfere and question me too much. And if you’re doing something, I don’t want to interfere too much. That is how it works,” he laughed. “Otherwise, I don’t think a husband and wife working together can last too long.”

The Entrepreneurial Journey

Mike met Rashmi in 1971, a year after he graduated from college in India with a degree in architecture. After a five-year stint in Africa, the couple came to the U.S. in November, 1976 and settled in Stamford, CT. Mike had two part-time architecture jobs and was working more than 70 hours a week. When Rashmi suggested they buy a business, they purchased a 14-room motel that she managed.

It wasn’t long, however, that Rashmi decided spending the winter up north was not for her. So in 1979, they bought a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in St. Augustine. It was while running the hotel that they heard about the availability of a Shell gas station on Peachtree Street and were intrigued by the earning potential. They had planned to be absentee owners at first, but it quickly became apparent that it was going to take a lot of work to get the business off the ground.

“In the beginning, it was really rough,” Rashmi recalled. “The first six months … we wanted to go back to Africa.” Instead, they dug in their heels and went to work because to do anything else, would be to fail. And again, that wasn’t an option.

“We worked for 4½ years, almost seven days a week, from opening until 6 or 7 o’clock (at night),” Mike Shah said. “Then I would come back again late; I did not take a day off.”

The Fruits of Their Labor

All that hard work began to pay off when the Shahs bought another gas station. And then another … and another. In 1994, the Shahs were approached by BP about becoming a distributor. They had about 45-50 stations at that point, and that’s when things began to take off.

In 1998, their son Summit joined the business after graduating from Tulane. They started building a few stations a year and buying a few more along the way. Now with their daughter, Monica, also working with the company, it has truly become a family affair; something they can all take great pride in.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Rashmi said. “We did start it together. There is sometimes an argument, but we always come back and solve the problem. Still, I love it. Everybody asks, ‘why do I still have to work?’ I enjoy working.”

So what happens when there is a disagreement? Who has the final say? Well, Mike had a good answer for that one. “In the office, at the end of the day, I have the final say,” he said. “As soon as I go home, she has the final say.”