Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Mega-X gas station owner finds success a convenienceBy MIKE COTE
March 26. 2016 9:15PM
EXCEPT for the lack of a window, Elie El-Chalfoun's spacious Hooksett office has all the perks of a successful executive. Oversized wooden desk, comfy leather chairs, a 40-inch flatscreen TV and plenty of shelf space for framed photos of his son and his four daughters.
And when he craves a cup of coffee, he can walk upstairs to Dunkin' Donuts.
That's one of the perks of owning a convenience store. El-Chalfoun operates six Mega-X gas stations in Manchester, Auburn, Allenstown, Suncook, Windham and Hooksett. The store he built from scratch in 2011 on 1560 Hooksett Road includes his basement headquarters and a Dunkin' franchise that pays him a percentage of the profits.
El-Chalfoun financed his business with help from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which named him Small Business Person of the Year for New Hampshire for 2016. The SBA invited him and winners from other states and territories to Washington, D.C., in May for Small Business Week, when the National Small Business Person of the Year will be announced.
El-Chalfoun credits the SBA and local bankers for taking a chance on him. Loan officer Jenn Boulanger of the Capital Regional Development Council -- the SBA 504 program lender for three of El-Chafoun's stores -- nominated him for the award.
The culture in which El-Chalfoun was raised helped prepare him to be an entrepreneur, he said.
“I came from a country where we have no welfare. We have no retirement plan. We don't have any of these things. We learn the hard way,” he said Friday at his office. “My father had to work hard. He had to make a future for all of his kids and give it to us. That's our culture. When I came here I used the same culture as back home... I work hard. I made it to the point in my life where I'm happy now. I have security.”
El-Chalfoun, 49, was born in Lebanon, where he studied architecture. His architectural acumen — which years later he would use to help design his Hooksett store — landed him a sponsorship to continue his studies in Italy and, ultimately, a chance to come to the United States on a six-month visa.
While participating in an exhibition in Syria, El-Chalfoun and a friend stood in line at the U.S. Embassy, hoping for a chance to be considered for the visa program.
“I was number 100, the last person in line. They took 100 people every day inside to interview,” El-Chalfoun said. “And they picked three out of 100 a day. So I was one of three. So I said to myself that I would try the United States. I would come here for three months, four months, do some exhibitions and learn about the art here. When I came here I fell in love with the States.”
El-Chalfoun expresses his love for his adopted country — and his late parents — in the corner of his office, where an American flag and a life-size sculpture of a bald eagle are nestled between poster-size portraits of his father, Emile, and his mother, Laurie.
He arrived in Boston in December 1989 with $5,000 and within a month was out of money. He was able to take advantage of a new law allowing for a work-permit visa. After working at a convenience store in Massachusetts and a gas station in Maine, he made a deal to lease a store in Plymouth, Mass.
“I worked for somebody first and learned about the business. And I figured, ‘That's easy. It's not hard to run, and I can do it myself,'” he said. “I started saving some money and I bought the first property in Manchester.”
In 1998, El-Chalfoun bought land on Queen City Avenue and built a gas station with funding from an SBA loan, opening a year later. In 2001, he sold the business — which now operates as a 7-Eleven — and created his Mega-X brand with a gas station and convenience store in Allenstown with financing from TD Bank.
In 2011, El-Chalfoun secured SBA financing through Hampshire First Bank (now NBT Bank) to build a new convenience store and gas station in Hooksett, tearing down the existing structure. Two years later, he bought five more gas station/convenience store businesses and quickly sold off one of them.
“I'm always keeping my eyes open, and I would like to grow more and more,” he said.
Through his holding company, New Sunset Realty, El-Chalfoun operates six stores under the Mega-X umbrella and employs about 20 people. The location on Harvey Road in Manchester includes both a Dunkin' Donuts and a Subway.
While El-Chalfoun pays other people to run the stores now — they start at $9 an hour and can earn up to $12 — he loves the service part of the business.
“I like customers. I like to talk. I like to help,” he said. “Right now I'm behind the scene, but I'm trying to do it the same way from the office. Trying to keep my price low and the stores clean.”
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The New Hampshire Bankers Association and the New Hampshire District Office of the Small Business Administration will recognize Elie El-Chalfoun and the other 2016 New Hampshire Small Business Award recipients at 4 p.m. on May 3 during a reception at the Manchester Country Club in Bedford. For additional information call 225-1402 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Cote is business editor. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or email@example.com.