Rags to Riches: Immigrant Mike Ghaida weaves adversity into success

Mike Ghaida lives in a million-dollar house in a quiet suburb in New Jersey with his wife and three sons, and $300,000 worth of cars in his driveway. It wasn't always this way for the 41-year-old Ghaida, who came to the U.S. from Lebanon at 17 to study English and architecture at LSU.

His family in Lebanon was well-off when he arrived in New Orleans, thanks to his father's textile business, which he'd built up in Nigeria when the country was still a British colony--and where Ghaida was born. But, says Ghaida, soon after his arrival in the U.S., inflation gobbled up the family fortune, and his father died soon after from a heart attack. Ghaida dropped out of LSU and moved to Florida.

"I was forced to beat the streets and hustle," says Ghaida. He got a job in Orlando for $350 a week selling t-shirts. One day, he says, his boss ordered a from Domino's and gave the driver a $5 tip for a $15 order. Ever-alert, Ghaida asked the driver how much he earned in a day: it was more than Ghaida made in a week. The next day he was at Domino's applying for a job.

And hustle he did. "I was their best driver. I was fast. I liked the rush," he says. His supervisor soon invited Ghaida to become a manager-in-training. When his supervisor moved to New York, Ghaida went with him as assistant manager. One day his supervisor got into a fight with his manager and quit. The manager told Ghaida, "Here's your chance."

That began a 20-year streak in which Ghaida would take an underperforming store, raise its sales, and move on to another underperforming store where he would do the same. "I took stores from $3,000 to $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 a month," says Ghaida, who managed more than 30 stores in New Jersey over two years.

Then, says, Ghaida, he thought, "Enough is enough. I want my own store." Domino's gave him a store that was losing money--for $1, he says, as a reward for building up all those other Ghaida says he took the store, which was deeply in debt, from weekly sales of $3,000 to $7,000 in three weeks, and continued to build from there.

Thus began his franchising career, which he describes as "building and selling restaurants, building and selling restaurants, building and selling restaurants," a course he would pursue for many years along with his other job as a contractor. During the interview for this story, he was in Queens, N.Y., directing the of a three-story building, with subways rumbling overhead and sirens wailing in the background.

"I feel like a bumper car, I'm always pushing people," says Ghaida. "Before I hire someone, I look at his driving record. If he doesn't have a speeding ticket I won't hire him--he's not in a rush."

He also pushes numbers, costs, deals, and anything else that can improve his bottom line. "I'm relentless. My goal is constant improvement. There's always something that can be fixed."

After building sales and selling several Domino's, he saw an opportunity with Papa John's, which had closed stores in New York and New Jersey. Ghaida attributed this to the franchisor using "a Louisville mentality" in Metropolitan New York. (Louisville is Papa John's corporate headquarters.) He thought that with his local savvy he could make Papa John's succeed in the area.

"Domino's was excellent a good school," he says. And with his experience building Domino's stores in the region, Ghaida had site selection down: "I knew the good areas for Domino's, so I built my Papa John's there."

When he approached Papa John's, he says, they told him to show them what he could do. The first thing he did was take a store bringing in $7,000 a week, and in six weeks he boosted sales to $20,000. Then he built up sales at another unit to $20,000 in eight weeks. Before that, he said, Papa John's never had a store in the Northeast doing more than $8,000 weekly.

That convinced the franchisor, and Ghaida soon owned a territory in New Jersey that he describes as "the gateway to New York," with population and demographics second only to Hong Kong. Full of people of all races working multiple jobs, this area is prime territory for hard-working people who have no time to cook but still want to feed their family well at an affordable price, he says. "Where else can you feed a family of five for 20 bucks?"

Today, says Ghaida, his stores average $26,000 in sales, twice the average Papa John's unit revenue--and he has six more stores in the pipeline. Building store sales, says Ghaida "was not a walk in the park. I spend a lot on marketing."

Most recently, Ghaida signed on with Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits to open 35 units in New Jersey--the first Bojangles' restaurants in the Northeast. He has one open in Newark.

"I love to build and sell," he says. But his success has taken a lot of training, dedication, and marketing skills. The ingredients for success are simple, he says: "excellent product, excellent service, invest in new people, spend some money on marketing, and the sky's the limit--whether you want to walk, run, or fly."

Then there's the hustle factor--a route, he says, that is not for everybody--and which comes with a cost. "You have two enemies in life, time and yourself," says Ghaida, who has achieved his goal of being a millionaire by 40 by working 16-hour days for years.

"It's only for those hungry enough," he says. And in the early days, it meant sleeping in his car and in motels while he spent time away from his family. "It took a lot of family support--long hours, misery, and days and nights of working."

Hiring the right people has always a priority for Ghaida. "You're only as good as your people," he says. "Invest in them, train them, talk to them."

Ghaida, who says he's been nicknamed "The Preacher," is full of advice and philosophy about both business and life. "A smart man learns from his mistakes, a genius learns from others," he says. One look at how he chooses where to put his Papa John's shows he's wise enough to follow his own advice, as well as give it to his employees.

When sales go up (which they always have for him), he says, "You sell or keep it and use the cash flow to build other stores. I don't want to be overextended in debt," says Ghaida, who plowed as much as he could back into the business. "When I started I put everything on the line--credit cards, cash--I risked everything." But he had enough with Domino's to know he was going to make it.

Today his business does between $8 million and $10 million a year. The days of buying used jackets for son in a Salvation Army store are past, but not his memory of his years of struggle and hard work. "The challenge is not to get on top but to stay on top," he says.

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