As seen in APeeling in September 2020 - Shakeel Bharmal
As it is with most immigrants, the first months in Canada were hard for my family. Or at least that is what I am told. I don’t think I experienced any hardship. I think we were relatively fortunate.
We rented an apartment in downtown Vancouver on Pendrell Street. My mom, who had trained as a typist in Dar es Salaam, enrolled in a shorthand course at a local vocational college. With her experience working at a university in Dar es Salaam, and this additional training, she hoped to get a job quickly. My brother registered at Lord Roberts Elementary School in Grade 1 and I was sent to Marigold Pre-School.
My dad hit the pavement in search of work for the first time in his life. From time to time, he reminisces and describes how very hard this was for him. He did not have the confidence to ask for work or to sell himself. He would go from business to business and walk around the streets of downtown’s west end in between.
Eventually, my dad managed to leverage his experience in the car business back home to get a job in sales at a used car dealership. The letter he received from the Canadian diplomat in Dar es Salaam came in handy in his interview.
The downside was the pay was 100% commission-based. My dad was not successful in car sales. While he had been working in business since he was 13 years old, he was not prepared for face-to-face sales in Canada. It seemed to him that his skills and experience did not translate. A very kind co-worker felt bad for my dad and arranged to record a couple of his own sales to my dad’s name. If it was not for him, we would have depleted the little savings that we had brought with us to Canada.
One day, after my dad had been on the job for a few months in, this kind man said he wanted to level with him. He told him he didn’t think my dad would survive in the car sales business and urged him to do something else. My dad knew he was right and saw this hard truth telling as another act of kindness.
The man offered my dad an option. He knew a guy who knew a guy who had a connection with an oil company. Sounds suspicious already, I know. This ‘guy’ had an opportunity to take over an old, boarded-up gas station in Surrey, British Columbia. The guy that knew the guy said that he was looking for a partner who would be able to invest and help run the business.
With the savings mostly intact, and my mom’s blessing, my dad took a leap of faith.
Connections were made and, within a couple of weeks, my dad and this stranger, whom I will call “Jim,” were in business together running a Mohawk gas station.
At the time, Surrey was considered a rural farming community. There was no public transit to get there. The dealership my dad was working at made him a good deal on a jade green Ford Galaxy 500. It was huge, as were most North American cars sitting on the used car market then.
With the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, gas prices jumped 350%. This car had a V8 engine. No wonder they gave him a good deal! My dad commuted two hours a day because he didn’t want to uproot us from downtown where my mom was completing her course and had made a few friends. Also, Surrey was not cosmopolitan then and my dad feared it might not be welcoming for immigrants.
The deal with Jim was this. Jim would live with his family in the apartment at the back of the gas station. He and his wife would open and close the station. My dad would drive from downtown and work the middle of the day. Drawing on his bookkeeping background, he would do the daily accounting of sales and purchases. Essentially, my dad would run the business, but Jim would be the front man when it came to dealing with the local bank branch, the Mohawk district manager and the suppliers.
The business did not turn much of a profit for several months so we had to spend some of our savings. Fortunately there was still some left.
On a few occasions, my dad saw Jim taking cash from the till without writing it down. When my dad asked him what it was for, Jim said his wife needed to buy some food for their baby. One day, my dad worked up the courage to confront Jim and say that they needed to establish a process for drawing funds, as well as set a budget for how much they could take out of the business.
Jim was dismissive and said that was not necessary and that this was how business was done in Canada. He was patronizing and was playing on my dad’s trusting nature. My dad pushed back and said that, even in Canada, you have to make a profit before you draw money and that they were not yet profitable. My dad grew increasingly suspicious.
After a few weeks, my dad got a call from the bank manager at the Newton branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). The bank manager asked him to come and see him later that day but not to tell Jim. This was a surprising call. Since the day the papers were signed with the bank to open the account, Jim had always been the one who dealt with the bank.
The bank manager told my dad that, after months of excuses and stalling by Jim, CIBC had confirmed that the initial investment he had promised had not come through. What was more, a credit check the bank had conducted revealed that Jim was essentially bankrupt. Our savings were the only thing keeping the business afloat.
So Jim and his family were living rent free, drawing cash from the till and doing little more than unlocking and locking the doors and pumping some gas. My mom and dad did not know what to do. The bank manager suggested that my dad organize a meeting with the Mohawk district manager at the bank and the three of them could discuss how to proceed.
They met on a Saturday. The bank manager revealed everything that he had learned and my dad, the bank manager and the district manager devised a plan. My dad did not have any credit history, but he presented the letter from the Canadian diplomat. With that, and his view of my dad’s character, he granted my dad a small line of credit. That line of credit was enough to buy a truckload of gasoline. The Mohawk district manager advanced my dad enough credit to buy some cases of oil and some in-store merchandise.
Then, the district manager went to the gas station and evicted Jim and his family, giving them 1 week to vacate the apartment in the back. He tore up all the contracts and put new agreements in place with my dad. A week later, my family moved into the suite at the back of the gas station.
The process that started with providing excellent service to a Canadian diplomat, followed by government policy changes in Tanzania and Canada, a failed career as a used car salesman, a con man, an incredibly supportive CIBC bank manager and a courageous Mohawk district manager had culminated in a completely unpredictable outcome. One year after immigrating to Canada, my dad was once again a business owner. As I think about this story, the biggest lesson for me is the importance of resilience, perseverance and faith. This story and this lesson was very helpful when I faced my own career crisis thirty six years later but more on that another time.
Through the rest of the 70’s and 80’s, I paid attention as my dad talked about what was going on at the gas station. Various CIBC bank managers and Mohawk district managers came and went and I learned how my dad evaluated each one of them. Some were fair, some were not. Some were great teachers, some were students. This was my introduction to effective and ineffective business practices and relationship management.
As I spent summers watching the cash register and eventually pumping gas, I learned several other business lessons. I learned about the challenges of finding good employees and the disappointment of losing good ones. I learned about incredible customers and nasty ones. I learned about the impact that oil prices and the economy had on gasoline prices and the impact gasoline prices had on cash flow and profits.
I did not know it at the time but, when I started university, I realized how much I had already learned about business. As I have continued to work through my career, in several organizations, as a manager, management consultant, marketing director, general manager, president and chief operating officer, I have drawn on the lessons learned through this humble gas station business. In one form or another, I worked in that business from the age of 4 until the age of 27.
Here is a fascinating coincidence and twist of fate. Eighteen years after the kindness shown by that CIBC bank manager, my brother started a job as a teller (now called a customer service representative) at a CIBC Branch in New Westminster, British Columbia. He worked his way up to a branch manager and now, 45 years later, he is a CIBC community vice president.
And what was my first job after university? I joined Mohawk as a sales coordinator and was promoted to the position of district manager before the company was acquired by Husky and I went to graduate school. I think it is just incredible how those early experiences subconsciously imprinted to the point that they influenced my brother’s and my career paths.
What is your story? If you were an immigrant child, and are now in a leadership role, I would love to hear how your early experiences impacted your career.
Shakeel Bharmal is an executive coach who focuses on navigating disruption. Discover more about Shakeel at www.shakeelbharmal.com