Business Q & A: Sy Mahfuz, owner of Nashua's family-owned Persian Rug Gallery
Sy Mahfuz, owner of Persian Rug Gallery on Main St. in Nashua, stands before a selection of the rugs at his shop. (SIMON RIOS/Union Leader Correspondent)
NASHUA - Sy Mahfuz is a small businessman of the old school. The owner of Persian Rug Gallery on Main Street believes business is just as much about civic involvement as it is about marketing and sales.
His grandfather came to the United States from Lebanon in 1928, leveraging his connections with textile distributors in the Middle East and opening a Persian rug gallery in Boston the same year. In 1953, Mahfuz' father, who had come to the U.S. at 14, moved to Nashua and founded Persian Rug Gallery, later opening a branch in Concord.
From high school, Mahfuz had a hand in running the business, working whenever he wasn't in school from the age of 17. Mahfuz, now 61, took over the family business at 25, after his father died. About 60 percent of the shop's business is in sales. The rest is in cleaning and restoration of rugs, as well as appraisals.
His son, Fouad, and daughter, Medina, are among the business' 11 employees. Although they studied to be in different fields, when their father was ready to close the business seven years ago in favor of his consulting firm, Fouad and Medina dropped everything and returned to their native city to continue the family business.
Born in Nashua, Mahfuz graduated from Nashua High School in 1970 and served six years in the U.S. Army Reserve. He has sat on innumerable boards, and is currently on the boards of the Hunt Community and the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. Recently his work with Veterans Count served to raise $300,000 in just six months.
Q: Did you always know that you were going to go into the business?
A: I remember the first time I really came to work with my father, I was eight or nine years old. It was a snow day at school and we walked up to the front door and my father gave me the keys and said, "Here, you can open the door." So I unlocked the door and I said, "Wow, this is really cool." And he said, "It only gets better." From that moment on, working with him that day, I knew that I wanted to be here as much as I could. I love the camaraderie between me and my father - I figured that out many years later.
Q: How did your grandfather leverage the connections he had in the Middle East?
A: The relationships that he had was with manufacturers in Iran - at the time that was the main manufacturer of Oriental rugs, at least the best rugs in the world. He came to this country and was able to import from Iran and bring in what we called Persian Rugs and became one of the largest Boston dealers and one of the most respected experts in Oriental rugs.
Q: How did your kids get involved in the business?
A: When Fouad heard I might sell the business, he asked to come home. He said, "I don't want you to sell the business." He said, "Teach me the business." So out of the blue he came in and started learning the business about seven years ago. My daughter decided to come back home, decided to live in Nashua and work in the family business as well. Unlike me, who grew up in the family business, they came into it much later.
Q: What brought your father to Nashua?
A: He delivered a rug here. Fell in love with the town by driving through it, and actually went back to his father, said he was moving, sold his house, came to New Hampshire and opened the business.
Q: Since you didn't go to college, it seems you don't need to be a business major in order to run a successful business.
A: I would rather I had gone to college, but my life didn't allow it based on the dynamics of the family and the health of my father. Do you have to go to college to run a successful business? I don't think so at all. I think what you have to do is have passion, commitment and an innate understanding of business. Quentin Tarantino never went to film school, but he's pretty damn good at it, isn't he?
Q: What advice to have for a young entrepreneur who might not have the experience? What are the most important virtues?
A: Find something they love and can be passionate about. That's going to drive you through the hard times, and that's going to give you the ability to improve because you love what you're doing. I didn't know I couldn't do something. I didn't know I was running a business at 17 years old, and I couldn't, or shouldn't, or wasn't old enough to. I had so much love for this business that I came in every day like a 60-year-old man knowing what I could do.
Q: What happened with the Persian Rug Galley in Concord? Why did it close?
A: I couldn't manage them both, so I decided to expand here and cover more territory in New Hampshire by giving a bigger location and doing more advertising outside Nashua and drawing people from 30, 40 miles away. And now we do business with people from Maine to New York.
Q: So you can compete with some of the big guys in New York City?
A: All day long. I don't have the big Madison Avenue overhead.
Q: What were the challenges of running a business at 25? Did you have mentors to turn to?
A: My father was my mentor before he died. And at that point, I looked at my own community, with people like Herbie Miller, who owned Miller's department store, Mitch Focus who owned Martha's Sweet Shop, the Koutsas family, the Scontsas family, all people that had wonderful businesses and were well-respected in this community. I looked at these people and I said that's who I want to be, so I became involved and engaged based on what I was seeing them do. Not only to run a business and be successful, but to help build a community that was going to be better with us than without us.
Q: How has the business changed since you took over 36 years ago?
A: It's gone from the local retailer, being a part of the fabric within a community, to the big-box stores having one goal, which is to put all the local retailers out of business so the big boxes can be in control of the retail process. So the challenge that we have is to reinvent ourselves all the time. The biggest problem that small retailers have is they get set in their ways; they don't think they have to change, and ultimately they go out of business. My son coming into the business has been one of the biggest pluses for me because he's brought 35-year-old thinking instead of 60-year-old thinking.
Q: Do you feel that the big box stores pose a threat to Main Street businesses?
A: I think that if the small business community isn't aware of them, and figuring out how to compete with them, then they're a threat. I don't worry about them because I think people want service, I think they want education, I think they want a face they can identify with. And I know the big boxes can never give that. If we focus on the things we can do well and the things they can't do well, it's going to attract seven out of 10 people that walk into your store.
Q: Why is it important for business people to maintain an active civic life?
A: I believe that the value in a business is seen by the consumer by how that business interacts within the community to make the community a better place to live. How can I find out if I trust you unless I sit at a board table with you and see the kind of decisions you make that are best for our community? Being part of the community is absolutely vital to any successful organization.
Q: What do you see in store for the Gate City in the coming decade?
A: We need young people to move here - to believe as my father did that it is a great community to live in - so that they can continue to grow Nashua and take the baton form older people like myself and run with it. We need young people here to continue moving us forward.
Q: What's it going to take to bring them here and get them to stay?
A: We have to be a vital, exciting community that has the arts and the entertainment and the nightlife and the things that the younger group looks for to feel like they're a part of a community that's always moving and always on the cutting edge of what's happening. You think of Boston and New York like that - well a community like Nashua can be like that as well.
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Simon Rios may be reached at email@example.com.
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