Mike Timani is president and CEO of Fancy Pokket Corporation with manufacturing plants in Moncton, N.B., and Lancaster, S.C.
I was born in Venezuela; my first language was Spanish. I was five years old when my parents moved back to Lebanon. During the civil war, all the embassies were closed but I got out because I had a Venezuelan passport, coming to Toronto in 1976 as a visitor. I wanted to study engineering, couldn’t study or work, so quickly spent the $2,000 I had. I didn’t want to call my parents requesting money when there was a war on.
Canadian immigration allowed me to get a work permit. I had $50 in my pocket.
I got a busboy position at the Toronto Airport Hilton. I was going to make money, then go into engineering but I started to take part-time courses in hotel management at Ryerson [University]. I was hard-working, worked many hours, had 12 different positions in 14 years. I stayed with Hilton because I was moving up fast. In 1983, I went to Saint John to open its convention centre; in 1984, I became banquet manager.
Even as a busboy I felt like that [hotel] was mine. When people don’t think that way it means they don’t have that commitment or passion for what they’re doing. If you’re only there for the paycheque, it’s never going to happen. I tell that to my staff; I want them to be proud, to feel this place is their place.
I moved to Moncton in 1988 and started a restaurant and a small bakery producing pita bread in separate locations. When you work for somebody else or a corporation, as hard as you work, it’s different when you have your own place and start signing cheques. Being an entrepreneur is a completely different responsibility. You have the possibility of making things happen, but you have the risk you lose everything.
Pita wasn’t well known in Atlantic Canada and a restaurant based on pita wasn’t simple; it’s not meat and potatoes. From Day 1 I launched it cholesterol- and fat-free, no sugar. Within three months I thought I was going under. I was delivering pita to stores, knocking on doors – that was not enough. I brought retailers into my bakery; they said, “Really, from here? Do you know our volume?” I asked what I could do to gain their business.
I only had $22,000 when I started, now I had to buy machinery. I went to the bank [representative] and said I needed to expand. He said, “You must be kidding.” I said, “Let me put it this way: If you want your money, you’ll have to give me more.” He laughed, “Call me tomorrow.” He gave me the money.
I went back to the retailers and gained our first private label, two months before money started to come in. You have no idea how many calls I got from the bank. I was even looking for a job, that’s how tough it was. I started to think about diversifying. I started making pizza crust, flatbreads, tortillas, bagels, through testing products and a full truckload of equipment. I bought a production line making 14,000 pitas an hour. In less than 10 minutes, it was what was made during 12 hours in 1989.
I wanted to send product to the United States and move product from the United States into Canada. I listened to people talking about gluten-free products in the market – too much fat, too much sugar – so the U.S. plant is gluten-free, one of the largest in the world. If I didn’t put it in a gluten-free bag, people would think it was normal.
The facility, 60,000 square feet, [cost] more than $20-million; it’s almost like walking into a hotel. From Moncton, I moved 3½ truckloads of porcelain ceramic, no plastic on the floor anywhere. For the foundation, the contractor said 3,500 psi [compression strength] is enough. I said, “I want 5,000 psi. I don’t want mesh, I want rebars.” They said, “Mike, this isn’t Canada. You don’t have to go six feet in the ground.”
I use my business skills to help and assist not-for-profit organizations, keeping in mind you want to use heart and soul, but when it comes to running it, you need to run it as a business.
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