John Klyce, Reporter Jul 21, 2020, 12:46pm CDT
In 1997, Rooziman Shah mopped floors at a Blimpie Subs & Salads gas station.
It wasn’t the job he had expected. Rooziman came from Chitral, Pakistan. He studied political science and economics at the University of Karachi. He worked as a business center manager for Pearl Continental Hotels and Resorts, a chain of five-star hotels in the country.
Coming to America was his dream — and so far, it meant toiling at a service station in Atlanta.
“But he was optimistic,” said his wife and business partner, Nighat Shah. “He wanted to change his life.”
Twenty-three years later, that optimism has helped propel the Shahs to the success Rooziman imagined in South Asia. Through Shah Holdings Group and other LLCs, they have a portfolio of about 600,000 square feet of gas stations, restaurants, and retail space in the Memphis Area, with more projects on the horizon.
To understand how the Shahs reached this point, however, you must start in 1997, when Rooziman took the only job in the U.S. he could find.
The road to independence
In the hotel industry, Rooziman’s colleagues had often told him, “When I save money, when I get old, I will start my own business.”
The line gave him a thought: Why not now, when you’re young? Why wait until you’re old to start a business?
Rooziman knew he wanted to run his own company. So, in Atlanta, he worked around 18 hours a day. He saved money. And while it wasn’t the job he expected, he realized he liked the fast pace of running a service station.
“If I do it right,” he told himself. “Everything is going to be possible for me.”
In 1999, he flew to Pakistan to marry Nighat. They lived in Canada for several years — the two are dual citizens — and wound up in Memphis. In 2001, they purchased a Conoco gas station at Knight Arnold Road and South Mendenhall Road for about $25,000.
Nighat would run the station from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then, Rooziman took over, so Nighat could attend evening classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Six months in, they purchased two more gas stations.
When the Shahs had a son in 2002, Nighat worked from home, ordering materials for the stores, while Rooziman managed them. Often, he worked long hours, ready to go in at a moment’s notice.
“Gas station management is tougher than any other thing, because you have to keep it open, and you have one employee at a time,” explained Nighat. “If that employee isn’t coming, and you have no backup, you have to go and stand there.”
At one point, the Shahs owned 12 gas stations, and Rooziman managed each, constantly traversing around the city.
“I usually call him the Memphis Navigator,” Nighat said. “He can navigate around Memphis pretty easily.”
Over time, the Shahs expanded from owning gas stations to property development. During the Great Recession of 2008, they purchased a six-acre property at Knight Arnold Road and Ridgeway Road in a Shelby County Land Bank auction, for $75,000.
After building up the location, they sold a portion of it for $1.4 million.
Then, at another auction, they purchased two run-down stores on Mount Moriah Road and Lamar Avenue for $150,000. According to Rooziman, each is now worth more than $1 million.
These days, the Shahs often finance others, and bring them on as partners.
“We started bringing in more partners,” Nighat said. “Instead of us just owning everything and having managers, our strategy of running this business was giving ownership to other people so they can also own part of it, and do work there, so that way they can give us money, and get themselves money.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed some areas of business — the Shahs received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and allowed for rent delays from some tenants — it hasn’t prevented them from moving forward with projects.
In early 2020, the two completed the purchase of a 20,000-square-foot property on Presidents Island that has a restaurant, grocery store, post office, and base for Standard Global Services, a Swiss inspection and verification company. Rooziman said he wants to invest another $400,000 to $500,000 in the space.
They have plans to develop a gas station, along with retail and restaurant space, on a 35-acre property they own at East Holmes Road and Tchulahoma Road. And, they plan to put a truck stop on their 65-acre property at East Holmes Road and Malone Road.
Careful to remember where they started, the two said they donate to various organizations, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Mid-South Food Bank.
The Shahs provide aid to Pakistan as well. Nighat built a hostel for women in Chitral that can house 200 people. And when the virus broke out, she helped finance the production and distribution of face masks to hospitals, business unions, and other places in the city.
“We’ve been lucky, things went in our favor,” Rooziman said. “We’re happy to do that, because we can share success.”