Living the American Dream
By Josh Field
The headquarters of Southeast Petro Distributors sits atop one of the highest geographical sites in Brevard County – appropriately named, “High Point Drive,” in Cocoa – as if the elevation provides a vantage point for watching over the 400 locations it owns and/or supplies gas to throughout the state. Inside, Petro Founder and President Mahesh “Mike” Shah, has no windows to the outside. Shah doesn’t need to look out over his empire from afar; instead, he is a grassroots-type of businessman who prefers to have personal relationships with his employees and customers.
To be successful, you have to get along with people – make them like you,” says Shah. “I learned early on from my father and grandfather that you must be one with the people – know not only their name, but the names of their spouse and children, too.”
That’s a pretty down-to-earth attitude coming from a man who lives in a 12,000-square-foot mansion overlooking Sykes Creek between the Indian and Banana Rivers in Merritt Island – a residence he opens to the public to host community fundraisers for causes near and dear to his heart. But it’s been quite a journey for Shah and his wife of over 40 years, Rashmi, to get to this point.
In Search of a Better Opportunity
It is said, “All men are created equal.” Some, by birthright, may begin life with an advantage, but ultimately, the “American Dream” propounds that through hard work and opportunity; anyone can have a fulfilling life comprised of personal happiness, security and material comfort. For many growing up in the U.S., these inalienable rights may be taken for granted. But for others around the world, the American Dream has far greater meaning.
Since the founding of this great nation over 200 years ago, immigrants with entrepreneurial dreams have left behind friends and family in search of opportunity and a better life. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) reported a 149 percent increase between 1990 and 2010 in the number of new businesses started by people born outside the U.S. Today, nearly 1 in 5 small business owners in America are foreign-born.
Shah is no statistic, but his career path parallels that of many Asian and European immigrants who left the limitations and oftentimes Third World conditions of their home cities or villages to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Shah’s journey began in 1947 in Pavi Jetpur, a small village on the Orsang River in West Central India where farming was the mainstay of many of the locals. By Indian standards, Shah came from a prominent land-owning family, although water was still hauled from the river in jugs and his home had no electrical lights; there were also no local banks for the farmers to borrow money from to plant their crops. “My father and grandfather were in the money lending business,” explained Shah. “They were very successful because they were well-liked and fair.” Shah attributes his negotiating skills today to these paternal mentors he was allowed to follow to
work when he was just 9 years old.
With his sights on a more fruitful future, Shah enrolled in the nearby Maharaja Sayajirao (M.S.) University of Baroda, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture in 1970. Soon after his graduation, he met Rashmi, they married, and the couple moved from India to Southern Africa, where Shah worked as an architect first for the Republic of Zambia, and later for a large multi-national Italian-owned construction company. At the same time, Shah pursued his entrepreneurial aspirations, starting a hovercraft company in Botswana, South Africa. Like many start-ups, Shah poured much of his earnings from managing the construction company into this new venture. After five years in Africa, the Shahs again looked for new opportunities, this time, at the recommendation of Rashmi’s brother, to the U.S.
Pursuing the Dream
Settling in Stamford, Conn. in 1976, Shah quickly learned that the role of an architect in the U.S. differed greatly from that which he was used to in India and Africa. “In America, the engineers and general contractor – as opposed to the architect – are more the visionary for an entire project; I was used to overseeing large projects from concept to construction, not playing a smaller role,” explained Shah. Somewhat disillusioned at the reality of not “calling the shots,” his focus again turned to entrepreneurship. Having saved a reasonable sum of cash from their African venture and from flipping condos in the States, the Shahs purchased a 14-room motel, which Rashmi managed while Shah bought and sold commercial and residential real estate.
Following a couple of harsh northeast winters, Rashmi convinced her husband to move south – first to St. Augustine in 1979, where they bought and later sold a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, and a year later to Cocoa, where they bought a Best Western hotel in Cocoa Beach and their first gas station, a Shell station on Peachtree Street just north of SR 520 in Cocoa. “In the beginning, it was really rough,” recalled Rashmi. “The first six months . . . we wanted to go back to Africa.” But failure was not an option, so the young couple persisted. “For four and a half years, seven days a week, from opening until 6 or 7 o’clock at night, we worked,” said Shah. “I pumped gas, cleaned windshields, whatever the customer needed. I never took a day off.” Looking back at those days, Shah added, “The harder you work, the harder your luck works for you.”
That persistence began to yield dividends when Shah purchased a second location, and then a third.
“Money is made when you BUY real estate, not when you SELL it,” says Shah. “You must negotiate well up front to get what you deserve.”
By the mid-90s, with the couple owning close to 50 stations, BP (formerly British Petroleum) offered Shah a wholesale distributorship – a game-changer for Shah and his company. Supplying wholesale fuel opened up opportunities beyond just owning and leasing real estate.
Shah’s son, Summit, joined the family business in 1998 following his graduation from Tulane University, and today serves as VP of operations, involved in every facet of the company. “Summit was 4 years old when we purchased our first gas station,” Shah reminisced, “he grew up in this business.” The couple’s other child, a daughter, Monica, currently lives in Atlanta, and assists her parents with their philanthropic efforts while working with special needs children.
Today, Shah oversees various corporations, collectively owned by M & R High Point Holdings, Inc. He has built a network of over 150 Fee gas stations throughout the state and supplies wholesale fuel to close to 400 locations in all.
The business model for the company-owned sites allows Shah to own the gas pumps and supply the fuel, while leasing out the retail portion to individual store operators. Shah works with many of these individual business owners to help them become successful entrepreneurs, much like his father and grandfather did with the farmers back in India.
The Shahs are very aware of the great success and fortune their hard work and perseverance has yielded them. Thus, they are extremely generous in their support of the community they believe helped them get to where they are today, as well as their Indian heritage and childhood hometowns that helped form their character and values.
Donating time and money to local organizations such as The Scott Center for Autism Research, Brevard Schools Foundation, Crosswinds Youth Services, United Way of Brevard, Cocoa Village Playhouse, IndiaFest, Project Hunger and Florida Institute of Technology, to name just a few, the Shahs have become vocal and active leaders within not just the Indian community but the entire Brevard County community. “I believe our Indian culture best assimilates through involvement in the community,” explained Shah. “Many first generation immigrants think about themselves first, but charity begins at home. Oftentimes, someone in the community just needs to ask.”
The Indian community has recognized Shah’s leadership, as he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Indian American Chamber of Commerce and Philanthropist of the Year by the Brevard Indo-American Medical and Dental Association (BIMDA) in 2012. And so too has Brevard County embraced Shah for his business and philanthropic leadership. In 2010, Brevard Community College (now Eastern Florida State College) bestowed Shah with an Honorary Doctorate of Law. In 2012 Shah received the Patriot Award by Honor America, and this month, he will again be honored, this time by the Founders Forum, which has named him its 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year (see sidebar).
While Shah still puts in a full work week, he says he travels more and enjoys playing golf one to two times per week. “I’ll keep working because I enjoy it,” he says. “I’m in good health, my family is here and I can continue to give back to our community – the more I make, the more I can give.” Regarding how he would like to be remembered, Shah said, “There is no greater satisfaction than knowing you are making a difference in your community. It feels good to show your family, friends and customers that what really matters aren’t the business profits, but rather in how the community profits – that is the legacy.”