I Thrive On A Challenge

I Thrive On A Challenge
SOUTHERN EXPRESS’ OWAIS A. DAGRA REPEATEDLY BUCKS NAYSAYERS
by Gregory J. Gilligan

In late 1980, when Dagra was a teen-ager, his ailing father didn’t want him to leave Richmond and return to his native Pakistan to take care of the family. He went back anyway. In 1990, when he decided to buy a money-losing convenience store shortly after returning to Richmond, several people told him to look for another line of business. He bought the store anyway, and it was profitable within six months.

When Dagra sought to buy 13 U-Totem convenience stores in 1991, banks wouldn’t lend him the money because the deal was considered too risky. But one bank eventually made the loan, and Dagra created the Southern Express chain.

“Some had bets on how long we would survive,” Dagra said. “Some people gave us six months. One was gracious and gave us a year.”

Dagra’s upstart chain of convenience stores and gasoline stations, however, has endured. In fact, it now has 22 stores. Twelve are brand-new units, three are former U-Totem stores and the remaining seven have been acquired.

His company soon will be getting much bigger, and he plans to buck the naysayers again.

The chain, which is owned solely by Dagra, announced three weeks ago it is buying the more established and larger Fas Mart Convenience Stores Inc.

His company plans to convert its 22 stores to the Fas Mart name and merge its operations into the 42-store Fas Mart chain. The new company will generate about $150 million in annual sales.

But buying Fas Mart is just one step toward Dagra’s aggressive and ambitious goal of having a chain with $1 billion in sales within the next five years or so. For instance, he is conducting due diligence, or an in-depth review, of the financial books and operations of two other potential chains.

“I thrive on a challenge,” Dagra said. “The more challenge I have, the more strength I’ve got. I get energized to succeed.”

While Dagra’s goals might seem lofty to some, his plans shouldn’t be taken lightly, according to competitors and area business associates.

“He is very clear on what his goals are and how he plans to achieve them,” said Frank B. Bradley III, Fas Mart’s president and owner. “And he stays focused on what he wants to do.”

Another strength: Dagra always has a backup plan, Bradley said. “He thinks ahead of time what his next step will be. If in midstream, change in direction is necessary, he adjusts but he never loses sight of where hewants to go long-term.”

Gary D. LeClair, who is chairman of the LeClair Ryan law firm and has worked with a number of upstart companies, agreed.

Not only does Dagra have good instincts, but he studies an issue completely before making a decision, LeClair said.

“Instead of jumping on an opportunity immediately, he will spend time to plan how to make sure he does it the right way and makes the right decision,” LeClair said.

Conventional wisdom wouldn’t have a 33-year-old who lacks an MBA, any financial backing from the family and real roots in the Richmond community owning a fast-growing convenience store chain and getting ready to buy another, LeClair said.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but he does it because he works at it so much harder than others,” LeClair said.

Dagra is described as creative and innovative, yet intense, highly motivated and aggressive.

“I wouldn’t characterize myself as a risk-taker, per se,” Dagra said. “I think a lot of people come across opportunities and recognize opportunities but not everyone takes the risk to execute them.”

His accomplishments, he said, are a combination of having a clear plan and executing it well.

“You also have to have an attitude for success,” he said. “Where I may be a little different is in my attitude. My attitude is to do whatever it takes in terms of effort, intensity and hard work coupled with an aggressive approach.”

Part of that attitude and his aggressive nature come from experiences he had while growing up in Richmond and in Pakistan.

“There is a thing called the university of life, and sometimes that is better than Harvard,” he said. “It teaches you a lot of things.”

One thing it taught Dagra was to go after anything he wanted, even if it was perceived to be unachievable.

Shortly after moving to Richmond from Karachi, Pakistan, in 1975, for example, he wanted a bicycle. Problem was, he didn’t have the money, nor did his aunt, a social worker with whom he was living.

So he persuaded a circulation manager for Richmond Newspapers, which at the time, published the morning Times-Dispatch and the afternoon Richmond News Leader, to give him two newspaper routes. And he talked the man into lending him $50 to buy a bike.

“He took a chance on me, and I went to the Salvation Army and got a bike,” Dagra said.

The $50 was repaid from his earnings on the two newspaper routes. “I look at every event in my life as an opportunity for education,” Dagra said.

Dagra moved to the United States because his family wanted him to be educated in America and eventually go to medical school in this country. He went to middle school and high school in Henrico County, but during his senior year, his father suffered another massive heart attack.

He decided to go back home in 1980 – against his father’s wishes – to take care of his two younger sisters and mother. In Pakistan, like many developing countries, most men were still the breadwinners of the family.

The family had been well-off financially, but his father’s poor health caused the family hardware supply business to suffer. Dagra worked odd jobs trying to make money.

His father died in 1983, and Dagra took over the family business. He expanded the operation by providing interpretation and other services to American and European companies doing business in Pakistan. Then he began leasing heavy construction equipment.

“I guess you can say it was like going from rags to riches,” Dagra said.

Dagra, however, still had dreams of creating or running a large company. That was unlikely to happen in Pakistan because most large companies are family owned.

“I was a lone ranger,” he said.

So he decided in 1989 to move back to Richmond and explore options locally.

He looked at a variety of businesses, but chose the convenience store industry because he wanted to get into a line of business that was less volatile and didn’t require a lot of accounts receivable.

“I felt like the convenience store business didn’t require a lot of technical skills but it was more people and business skills,” he said.

That’s when he bought a store off Parham Road.

“I didn’t even know how to run a register, but I learned very quickly,” Dagra said. “People kept telling me I couldn’t do it, but I turned it around and proved them wrong.”