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Mr. Alex Harb came to the United States from Lebanon nearly 14 years ago with hopes of earning a college degree and eventually landing a job. The experience left him with more questions than answers about how he would accomplish those goals. His situation was compounded by the fact that he knew little English. He was raised speaking French as a second language. Perseverance was his most important attribute.
Overcoming obstacles, he says, was nothing new in his life because he grew up amid turmoil in his native Lebanon. "It gives you the survivor mentality," says Harb.
He came to Wichita in August 2000 and enrolled at Wichita State University. Harb paid his way through college by busing and waiting tables, and selling pocket knives on eBay, while learning English along the way. He also worked as an intern at LSI Corporation, a computer storage device manufacturer in Wichita.
Within four years, Harb had accomplished one of his goals and set out to accomplish the other. With a computer science degree in hand, Harb started Ribbit Computers in December 2004.
Working with Intrust Bank, Alex Harb obtained a 7(a) SBA loan that financed the equipment, inventory, staffing and other operating expenses. “The SBA loan really helped,” Harb says. “I saved with a lower interest rate, plus it gave me more confidence in the marketplace. I can’t say enough to praise the professional assistance I received from Intrust Bank, and the great financing available through the SBA loan program.”
Alex Harb’s first job was at his dad's wholesale grocery store in Lebanon as a teenager. He honed his customer-service skills while working as a waiter at Red Rock Canyon Grill restaurant in Wichita. "Those experiences taught me the more you take care of the customer, the more reward you are going to get out of it," Harb says. Transferring those lessons to the computer business has helped Harb be successful with Ribbit.
Ribbit now has 55 employees across five retail and computer repair stores in Wichita. The company also includes a business solutions division, which launched in 2013.
"He was really good at customer service and I think he took that with him to Ribbit Computers," says John Arnold, who owns Red Rock Canyon Restaurant. "He's really passionate about that." Arnold says Harb wasn't afraid to work hard to accomplish his goals, and he often came to work early and stayed late.
Alex Harb has been interested in the restaurant business since college, and now he’s finally getting ready to open one of his own. “I just wanted to wait for the right opportunity to do it,” he says. His first foray into the business will be with a Golden Corral in Raymore, Mo., followed by three more in the Kansas City area in the next five years. Harb says North Carolina-based Golden Corral is a good company. A franchisee already has two in Wichita, so Harb says doing any Golden Corrals here is not an option for him.
“While I was going to college, I worked in restaurants,” he says. “I really wanted to open a restaurant by the time I was done.” He says he realized he needed business experience first. “The restaurant business is really tough,” Harb says. “You can’t make mistakes.” Keith Stevens, senior vice president of Southwest National Bank, who has served as a financial advisor to Harb, says he has a solid grasp of how to make a business successful. Stevens says Harb understands how to strategically grow a business. "I just admire his business acumen," Stevens says. "His expansion plans have been well thought out."
When he's not working, Harb enjoys pheasant hunting and playing soccer. "I enjoy what I'm doing," Harb says.
Anguil is the 2013 SBA Wisconsin and Region 5 Jeffrey Butland Family-Owned Small Business Award winner. Anguil Environmental Systems is a family-owned business that has transitioned very successfully to second-generation management. Gene Anguil started the business in the 1970s, and with his eldest son, Jeff, developed a line of air pollution control products to help manufacturers meet EPA-mandated emission standards. With Gene’s manufacturing and engineering acumen and Jeff’s sales vision, the company flourished and had reached $10 million in sales when it hit a crisis point.
Jeff’s tragic illness and death in 1992 brought the firm to a time of transition and difficulty as sales slumped. Gene turned again to his family, daughter Deb and son Chris, to ask for their help in re-focusing the business. Both were well suited to the challenge, with Deb drawing on her MBA and sports competition background to take on operating the business; while Chris was made Vice President of Sales. With their help, the firm regained its growth trajectory and flourished over the next several years.
At the firm’s 30th anniversary celebration on August 10, 2008, Gene announced that Anguil would begin its transition to the second generation leadership. In 2009, Chris moved from sales to President of the firm, responsible for profits as well as revenue. Deb was promoted from Vice President of Operations to Chief Operating Officer with the added responsibility of running the business efficiently and profitably. The transfer resulted in a greater emphasis on planning and strategizing for growth rather than relying on instinct.
While Anguil was affected by the global economic downturn, its sales have since rebounded to twice the previous level and its workforce has also doubled in size—currently 65 employees. Given its focus on the environment, the firm has made an ongoing commitment to healthy living for its employees. That accelerated in 2008 when a wellness committee was formed. The firm built an athletic facility on site, provided healthy snack options in the lunch room, provided risk assessments, and brought in a visiting nurse each month. The program has continued to expand, including a newsletter, onsite classes, and company-wide volunteerism.
Anguil has helped other family-owned businesses in Wisconsin through Chris’ affiliation with TEC (The Executive Committee) and Deb’s participation in the MMAC’s Executive Round Table and the Milwaukee World Trade Association’s Board of Directors.
The firm was recognized as SBA Wisconsin’s Exporter of the Year in 2007, and its recognition by the SBA has been an asset over the years.
How much difference does the quality of olive oil make to the flavor of your food? A lot, according to Olive This Olive That co-owners and founders Janell Pekkain and Mary Kucel. In the summer of 2012, Pekkain opened an olive oil tasting bar in San Francisco to give people an opportunity to taste a wide variety of extra virgin olive oils and discover the difference in taste for themselves.
“Our business gets people really excited and knowledgeable about extra virgin olive oils, balsamic vinegars, pairings, and uses.” Pekkain explained. She finds the looks on people’s faces as they experience the tasting for the first time almost as rewarding as the sales that result.
Olive This Olive That is a boutique retailer with three part time employees that sells extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, hand-crafted pasta, and other fresh, food products. Pekkain prides herself on the customer service provided in her shop as well as the quality foodstuffs.
Pekkain’s background wasn’t in retail or food preparation, so starting a retail food business has provided her a seemingly never ending series of learning opportunities, from the importance of comfortable shoes to the challenges of managing staff and communicating with a partner.
Luckily, Pekkain wasn’t alone; she had the help of SCORE counselors and workshop teachers to guide her. Recommended by a friend, Pekkain began attending workshops ranging in topic from financial to marketing, and her partner, Kucel, took the six-week starting a business series. Mary also consulted with a business counselor who provided free one-on-one guidance. “Writing a business plan with the SCORE templates was challenging but fantastic. It's clear and logical. The financial reports are also very helpful. Although we ended up not needing a business plan for loan purposes, the process was very useful,” said Pekkain.
In addition, Pekkain availed herself of some of SCORE’s online learning tools, such as a social media webinar.
Pekkain also took advantage of another SBA sponsored resource, Small Business Development Centers (SBDC). She attended a payroll workshop and consulted with food specialist, Anni Manuzzi.
Building up a customer base is a challenge for any new business, regardless of industry. Pekkain and Mary came up with fun and creative ways to boost sales and word of mouth. Olive This Olive That hosts a regular BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread) event. The tongue-in-cheek event name came from Pekkain’s policy that “We don't usually offer bread when tasting during the week because we feel that bread distracts and detracts from noticing the nuances of the oils.” At the event, Pekkain prepares food featuring products and recipes and partner with other local businesses to create a theme for the night. In just over a year, the event has already built up a faithful following. The space also hosts book club meetings, private tastings, chef events, and industry events.
Still in the early phases of growth, Pekkain is optimistic about the future of her business. She hopes that a forthcoming website will help spread the word inside and outside of San Francisco. She’d love to see Olive This Olive That become a turnkey business with multiple locations.
Olive This Olive That is proud to be a 100% woman-owned general partnership. Like any good team, both members bring different skills to the partnership. Pekkain sums up the relationship nicely, “My partner is a true entrepreneur: she doesn't take no for an answer and relentlessly finds a way to make things work. If our business and relationship was a bicycle, I'm the front wheel driving sales, marketing, training, product and she's the back wheel, protecting quality and managing finances. You need both wheels to make the bike move forward.”