Former waiter creates opportunity in auto parts, then real estate.
Retail investor Benjamin Hakimian moved to the United States from Iran 40 years ago at the age of 17 to study mechanical engineering at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
His plan was to return home after graduation “and become a productive member of society.”
Relations were good then between the United States and Iran, but that didn’t last. That relationship deteriorated after the Iranian Revolution began in 1978.
Hakimian decided to stay, but not in the Midwest.
Working in the university library, he came across a book that detailed household incomes, educational costs and other demographics for the two sides of the country.
That narrowed his choices to California and Florida.
“I found Florida to be about a third of the cost of living versus California. So I decided to move to Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve been happy ever since,” he said.
He moved to Jacksonville in 1980.
Since then, he has created two companies, married and started a family that has grown to four daughters and two sons from age 17 to 28.
He became a U.S. citizen in 1989.
Shopping centers all over town
Jacksonville neighborhood shoppers likely patronize Hakimian’s properties, which he buys, upgrades, leases and manages.
Hakimian Holdings owns more than 20 shopping centers, and one office building, in Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, Orange Park, St. Augustine, Fernandina Beach and Yulee.
Many, but not all, carry the “Gates of,” such as the Gates of Tinseltown, Gates of Olde Mandarin, Gates of Orange Park and one of the latest, Gates of Pottsburg Plaza.
Other well-known centers are Merchants Walk, Mandarin Outback Plaza and Avenues South.
Tenants are high profile, including Metro Diner, Firehouse Subs, Winn-Dixie, Carrabba’s, Humana, West Marine, Pet Supermarket and The Loop Pizza Grill.
Hakimian recently diversified into the office market, buying Liberty Center in Southpoint because it had a retail component. He is upgrading the building, where he moved his headquarters, and plans to develop two retail outparcels.
Since starting the company in 1999, Hakimian has grown it exponentially.
“Today we are sitting a little close to over a million square feet, plus or minus, of retail and office,” he said.
He also wants to expand around the state, expecting to add properties in first within a 50-mile radius, then 100 miles and so on, creating a strong Southeastern real estate company stretching north to Atlanta and south to Miami.
“Our vision is to stay mostly in retail and office – office towers and signature office buildings and shopping centers,” he said.
He lets developers build the properties and Hakimian will acquire, lease and manage them.
Accident opened path to opportunity
Early on in Jacksonville, a minor car accident drove Hakimian into his first career.
The insurance company paid him $1,500 for the damages, but he found the parts and had it repaired for about $300.
“I was able to benefit from the $1,200 difference,” he said.
Hakimian always had been a saver and worked several jobs, including as a waiter at Quincy’s Family Steakhouse and the Thunderbird Motor Hotel in Arlington. He took all the extra hours he could.
He and the car repairman decided to buy damaged cars and re-sell them.
Hakimian used his savings to buy a Porsche 924 for $2,700, repaired it and sold it for about $7,000, netting more than $2,000.
Hakimian completed a few such transactions, soon realizing that the parts moved more quickly than the cars. He then bought cars just for the parts.
He started that business in 1985.
Eventually, his E Auto Parts was carried in 907 Yellow Pages and he shipped products to South America, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, with 89,000 vehicles in its database, 7,000 cars in inventory and monthly processing of about 400 cars.
Staff grew to about 77 and sales were the low eight-figures. They were handling 4,000 to 6,000 calls a day.
Growth would have meant expansion into cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Miami. Buyout offers came in, but most wanted him to stay and commit to running the business for 10-15 years.
With six children, he didn’t want the travel and time requirements.
Meanwhile, in 1999 he started a real estate company, which he found could be done with fewer employees.
He downsized and liquidated the auto-parts business and transitioned completely into real estate, recalling his father-in-law’s advice that 10 percent of your customers provide 90 percent of your business.
“Figure out what that 10 percent is and stay with that and cater to them,” he was advised. “So that’s why I picked real estate.”
He used the proceeds from selling the auto-parts real estate to buy three shopping centers.
Hakimian found that in sales, if you’re good, it can take less time to make a really big deal than a much smaller one.
And in real estate investing, you can make money while you’re sleeping. You’re not limited to earning an hourly rate for eight hours a day.
Hakimian didn’t finish his college degree, finding that fellow students who did made less than he did as a waiter. Plus, working for himself meant he could create his own schedule — and his own business.
Quality – not quantity
Hakimian describes his leadership style as “cool, calm and collected.”
“I let everyone do what they do best, and I do what I do best. That style of management, I feel like it works and it got us to where we are,” he said.
His team of nine people includes his two oldest daughters, Blair and Haley, and he expects all of his children will take some part in it. Dinner-table talk taught them the lingo and what works and what doesn’t.
“I want all of the children to understand and have a feel for what this business is and what it does, because they would be the future executives of the company,” he said.
He built the business “100 percent” with them in mind.
Hakimian’s leadership style enforces time off for family.
He’s home at 5 p.m. for his wife and children and he doesn’t work on Saturday or Sunday.
“I work to provide a happy, healthy and prosperous environment for my family, and I want to be there to enjoy it,” he said.
Plus, he measures productivity in quality, not quantity. “You get a lot more quality when people are rested and spend time with their family and children,” he said.
He and his wife, Paige, have been married almost 29 years. They met when she bought a Porsche 944 from him about 31 years ago.
“It was the best sale ever, by far. Can’t touch it,” he said.