At the age of just 17, Owais Dagra was now the head of his family.
He learned that if necessity is the mother of invention, responsibility – coupled with an intense hunger to succeed – is the catalyst of creation.
Owais started with odd jobs in Karachi to support his family. He needed to be aggressive and ruthless to make something of himself and continue supporting his family.
Owais was the eldest son, and now responsible for the well being of two women and six children in his joint-family household. He found employment in a nearby metalworking shop. While it helped pay the bills, he was constantly on the lookout for ways to create an opportunity. There was no concept of minimum wage back then in Karachi, so Owais worked multiple jobs to put food on the table and fund the family’s expenses.
In 1981, Owais made his first foray into his own business ventures. At the age of 18, he undertook what would become his first “big-ticket” transaction. Having learned of a large supply of scrap metal could be purchased in tribal areas, Owais developed a way to buy and then resell the scrap metal in Karachi at a profit. This would be no small feat as the area of Pakistan where the scrap metal was located was enduring significant tribal conflict and travel in the area was not safe. This deal gave Owais a confidence booster, as he realized, that if he applied himself to the maximum, results would follow.
Between 1981 and 1989 Owais became involved in the scrap metal industry; steel fabrication; international heavy equipment procurement and sales; offshore fishery operations (including a boat building businesses), as well as general equipment and supplies contracting to local and western governmental and business entities.
Creating allies would become a hallmark of Owais over his business life and personal life. He realized the importance of people, and how he could utilize their expertise and experience to his advantage.
As a result of Owais’ American exposure, Owais was an effective communicator, and could relate with the way of thinking the western culture promoted.
In 1982, Owais became familiar with the owner of Zor Engineering, a British businessman by the name of Dan Bevington. Owais came across an opportunity to construct a sample fence to certain specifications in exchange for consideration to fulfill the bid for a project should his sample product meet the necessary requirements.
Owais was hands-on and became the worker himself by going to engineering shops and getting the prototype constructed in the most cost favorable fashion. Within 48 hours, Owais had constructed a prototype section of fence that met, or exceeded, the stated specifications by repurposing used steel bars at below market cost while reaping a sound profit. Still only 18 years of age, Owais was awarded the US Consulate fencing job.
He soon realized that people who contacted him for construction would only do so if he offered them something that others didn’t such as a cost advantage. He became known as a contractor who would do any job, but at a better cost. Owais was later awarded with steel contracting work for a five-star hotel being built in Karachi.
Owais then became involved in the construction of the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, which remains the premier hospital in Pakistan today. He had established a reputation for himself in the construction market.
Owais used his communication skills to work with American and British companies. These organizations gave Owais opportunities such as securing everyday supplies that ranged from paper and office materials to screws. These included, Turner International, Trollope Colls Cementation Overseas Ltd., and Ellis.
At age 21, Owais was successfully operating in the heavy equipment and earth moving industry. However, because of insufficient start up and working capital, he was limited in achieving the growth he aspired. He figured out a way to catch the competition off guard by beating them in pricing and product delivery, and still making a reasonable profit. Owais continued purchasing used equipment with back-end re-payment terms that allowed him to be competitive and profitable.
The lessons Owais took from his adaptive, problem-solving experience in the heavy equipment business would be applied throughout his career, leading all the way to his current state-of-the art manufacturing facility – Stallion Textiles
Although Owais ended up divesting his interests in the heavy equipment business at a modest profit, he moved forward with the great lessons learned and skills acquired that enabled him to look at challenges and problem solving in a different way. It was during this time that he was introduced to the shrimp fishing industry, also known in Pakistan as “the fisheries”.
Applying the same intuitive ingenuity and retrofitting concepts he had acquired in the earth moving equipment industry, Owais began retrofitting and rebuilding engines that were unconventional for use in marine applications such as commercial shrimping boats. This was a new learning curve for Owais as the fisheries was a booming industry at the time, but an industry he was completely unacquainted with.
Owais questioned the design of the heavy engines that were traditionally used in the shrimp boats and sought to greatly reduce their weight, inefficient fuel consumption and high operating costs. His idea was always that “it can be done better”. Owais was able to engineer the marinization of the Cummins engine by altering the reduction ratios of the gearing assembly achieve the requisite propeller drive shaft speeds.
Owais began buying boats on credit and retrofitting them with the less costly engines and equipment he had designed. Through his intuition, creativity and ingenuity, Owais was able to purchase, retrofit, outfit and repay the total investment of his first commercial shrimping boat in less than four months.
Owais took the challenge even further by designing a totally new type of hull for a shrimping boat, which was much larger in size, yet, lesser in weight with increased cargo hold capacity. The hull that Owais designed and constructed is still in use by commercial shrimping boats in Pakistan today.
Once again, Owais had demonstrated how a new way of thinking and applying new engineering design concepts, equipment fabrication techniques, and innovative business practices and processes could transform not only a business, but also, an industry.
In 1988, at age 24, Owais established himself as the youngest operator of a commercial trawler business, with 25 boats under his management. Overtime, Owais automatically developed this characteristic of being a leader. Even though he was not as well informed as others in certain areas, people would come to Owais for solutions, they followed his direction, because they had faith in “his confidence level”.
Owais continued to gain an extraordinary “education through experience“ that few entrepreneurs and business leaders ever experience, let alone, one packed into 24 short years; and he was just getting started. His experience of starting and understanding everything from scratch developed Owais as a self-taught businessman, who looked forward to take on challenges.
During the fisheries phase of Owais’ life, he came to gain important experiences in negotiating and relationship-building skills between people of different and polarized business, political and ideological beliefs. For Owais to be successful, he understood that people needed to “believe in him” and he was extremely determined in “making everyone a believer”.
Owais wanted to expand his fishery and boat building businesses. However, in 1989, the fishing border conflicts with Iran and India decimated Pakistan’s shrimping industry. Another challenge was the fact that business opportunities for non-family owned enterprises in Pakistan were limited for individuals who did not have multi-generational, established businesses.
Owais was a “one-man show”, and quickly realized that Pakistan would not facilitate his aspirations.
Owais always believed that “time is a prime asset”. Owais decided that it was time to exit financially, capture what liquidity he could from his fishery business ventures and return to the U.S. with the hopes that opportunities that he had once seen as a young boy in Richmond, VA would still be available to him.
In 1990, at the age of 26, Owais came back to the United States to start from scratch. He returned to Richmond, Virginia, with his young wife and little money He went through various struggles.
He took work where he could, at a convenience store, while he contemplated his next move. Owais dedicated himself to learning the ins and outs of running a c-store.
He worked the cash register everyday, but because of his inquisitive personality, he started “focusing on the details” of the store. He understood the inventory systems, consumer habits, costs of operating the store, amount the store would generate and how it could all be more “efficient”.
Owais invested $500 to purchase the convenience store in which he was employed. Owais used all his experience and inquisitiveness to make the store work. He narrowed down to the core issues and problems of the store, and not the symptoms of the problem. Within a year and as its only employee, he was making a profit and was ready for more.
In less than a year after buying his first store in Shannon Green, Owais bought an unprofitable 13-store chain of c-stores that operated under the brand name U-Totem convenience stores. He was able to obtain a substantial bank loan to acquire the outdated and unprofitable stores for the value of their inventory alone. He renamed the stores Southern Express, and within a year, every store in the chain was profitable.
Between 1991 and 1995, Owais sold the original Shannon Green store, sold 10 of the former U-Totem stores for a substantial profit, and built and opened 19 new stores. By the end of 1995, he built the chain to 22 stores, changed its capital structure and built market share – revolutionizing how c-stores operated.
The Southern Express management team:
Betty Bowi, Owais Dagra, Larry Landis, Michael Kappler and Bob Cash.
Owais Dagra (Left) with Frank B. Bradley,
III – Founder of Fas Mart (Right)
He kept working hard and built a footprint in the convenience store industry.
In 1997, Owais entered New York City’s capital markets and formulated a strategy to bring in Wall Street financing and capital into the C-Store industry. Owais developed a strategy to “buy, build and improve”, which lead to a $100 million support from investment bankers, to facilitate acquisitions on a leveraged buyout basis.
In February 1998, Owais acquired Fas Mart Convenience Stores. In another strategic move during 1998, Owais formed Dagra Petroleum, LLC; which secured a 10-year branded jobber contract with Amoco. Owais Dagra was now owner, president and chief executive officer of Fas Mart
Convenience Stores, Inc.; an enterprise more than twice the size of its
predecessor, Southern Retailers Inc.
Owais Dagra (Left) with friends at the
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 1998.
In 1999, Owais acquired the 82 store, Shore Stop chain of convenience stores in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
Owais had built a company employed more than 1,600 employees and ranked among the top 40 national C-Store chains in the United States. Fast Mart became the fastest growing chain in North America, with a remarkable 1600% growth, in just one calendar year.
By the end of 1999, just 9 years after returning to the U.S. with almost nothing to his name, Owais had turned a $500 investment into a 170-store chain generating upwards of $500 million a year in annualized revenues. Owais envisioned to develop to achieve a $1 billion company
In early 2000, an OPEC oil crisis shook the gasoline retailing industry. As a result of the crisis, Fas Mart experienced dramatic reductions in cash flow and margins, which compromised its ability to repay the loans that financed its expansion. Several measures were put into place to offset the reduction in gasoline margins with increased margins of in-store sales.
Fas Mart, along with others in the industry was starting to succumb to the financial pressures and realities resulting from the consequences of the precipitous rise in the cost of gasoline.
Working with its lenders, Owais agreed that Fas Mart would enter into a Chapter 11 Reorganization to restructure the debt and ensure smooth operations of the company.
The unprecedented legal proceedings that followed placed Fas Mart at the center of a long and challenging legal battle that would eventually resulted in the resignation of Owais as Chairman, President and Chief Executive in 2002.
Owais did not shy away from the legal proceedings. He wanted to resolve all disputes that arose out of the Chapter 11 litigations. Owais prevailed in all litigations by obtaining dismissals with prejudice against all parties.
By 2003, he successfully helped negotiate the sale of Fas Mart – keeping the chain intact and successful to this day. In 2006, the last of the legal proceedings were resolved. All claims were dismissed in Owais’ favor with prejudice by the courts. His valuable role in saving Fas Mart was documented by the Trustee with great respect for Owais’ efforts and integrity.
A recently featured case study in the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) Journal has recognized Owais’s extraordinary efforts, and responsible entrepreneurship as critical in Fas Mart’s emergence from chapter 11. The article states “the completion of the sale of Fas Mart is a testament to Mr. Dagra’s commitment to the success of Fas Mart as a going concern that continues today.”
In 2002, Owais started building a life in Pakistan for his family. This period in his life was of intense challenge as he built his new business presence in Karachi while also overseeing and navigating the lingering Fas Mart business issues that would continue to demand his constant attention until their successful resolution in 2006.
Anxious to build on his history of creating and developing successful and innovative business enterprises, Owais spent time not only in the real estate sector in Karachi, but he also held a seat on the Karachi Stock Exchange. Although initially successful in the stock exchange,
Owais felt the nature of the investment profession and industry was short-term. He felt that the stock market was speculative and demanded more intuition than planning, execution and targeted large-scale success.
Owais realized that his success in business in the past had been due to his passion, and the financial success was a collateral outcome of his passion. Along with building a financial trading presence in Karachi, Owais continued to perform due diligence on a number of business opportunities and sectors. He began focusing on business opportunities that could provide not only for the short-term financial stability, but also generational sustainability.
In his search for opportunities, Owais landed upon Pakistan’s major export sector, the textile industry. It was stable and sustainable. Owais knew that he could find ways to consolidate and make improvements that would boost margins. He also viewed textile as a strong sector in the country because of the high volume of exports.
He honed in on spinning as his specific subsector. He further focused on a highly specialized type of polyester cotton yarn after detailed study and analysis showed that it had the most potential for enhanced efficiencies and productivity.
Calling his new company Stallion Textiles, Owais broke ground on the textile plant complex in late 2003. The foundation stone of Stallion Textile’s project complex was laid in December 2003 and Phase-I of the Project was completed in December 2005, commencing initial production in January 2006.
In 2009, after successful completion of Phase-I, the management implemented Phase- II in which the project size was enhanced to its originally planned capacity of 156,000 spindles. This expansion increased Stallion Textiles production by tenfold.
Today, Stallion Textiles has become one of the largest textile-spinning mills in the world producing 30/1 PC carded yarn.
The vision and goal of Stallion is to establish mega size textile spinning projects that are based on the concept of a single count spin plan to ensure maximum operating and cost efficiencies, along with the capability to deliver consistent and acceptable quality products to a broad customer base.
The long-term goal of Mr. Dagra is to establish a business conglomerate envisioned as “Stallion City”, an industrial compound consisting of a series of mega spinning units manufacturing high volume commodity yarn counts, catering to both the local and the international markets. The ultimate vision is to progress from being a vibrant organization to a self-sustaining growth oriented institution, making Stallion City the spinning capital of the world.
Owais is now joined in business by his sons Mohib and Asad. Both sons have completed a fast track, immersion education of Owais’ design, that have earned them multiple degrees in law and finance from U.S. universities.
Owais with Dr. Michael Szenberg (Editor – The American Economist),
Asad Dagra (Left) & Mohib Dagra (Right)
at the induction ceremony of his sons into Omricon Delta Ephilson in New York City.
Looking back, Owais has overcome not just economic hardship but the barrier of cultural stigma in eastern society, turning a $500 investment into a $500 million dollar enterprise in just several years, earning a place in the U.S. capital markets, and then rebuilding his life to establish the one of the world’s largest textile spinning units.
Reflecting on experiences in life and business, Owais Dagra has always focused on extracting lessons, which have formulated into a set of fundamental guiding principals over the years. He has referred to this approach as “The University of Life” believing that one can steer themselves towards success in all dimensions of life, regardless of their circumstances.
Owais Dagra has developed long term relationships with qualified and trusted professionals. He believes in investing in people and making them successful. Owais has always believed that success is an attitude. The only limitations exist within one’s own mind.
Left to Right: Owais Dagra with Gary
LeClair, Frank Weimann & Mike Mulvihill
in Karachi, Pakistan – January 2014.