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Farid Ashdji August 25, 2012 Pugh Hall, University of Florida Esam Alhadi, Interviewer and Translator for University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Edited by Jardee Transcription Alhadi: Hello and thank you very much Mr. Fari d. We are happy to have you with us today. My name is Esam Alhadi. I am a lecturer here at the University of Florida in the department of languages, literatures and culture s. We are recording th is interview in the University of Florida library building. Toda y is Saturday, August 25, 2012. It is now 12:15 PM. Welcome one more time and thanks fo r agreeing to give us this interview. Ashdji: You are welcome. Alhadi: We begin by asking you to give us a brief history of your early life such as place of birth and education before coming to the USA. Ashdji: My name is Farid Ashdji. I am originally from Palestine. My great-grandfather was an Iranian immigrant, and my mothers family is partially Egyptian, pa rtially Lebanese. I was born on February 20, 1957. I came here when I was nineteen years old. My father, God bless his soul, always had the intention to come to the USA. He filed the necessary immigration paperwork. I remember from my early childhood days that we always talked about America and how beautiful this country is. We always thought it is worth visiting this country. Processing my fathe rs paperwork for immigr ation application took five years to be completed and accepted. My father waited until I finished my high school and then we came over. The biggest concern my father had was that all his children should go to college. We are six ch ildren including an elde r brother and others who were still in their high sc hool. We all came and we all went to college. I am sorry
for my poor Arabic. This is because I haven t been using my Arabic that often during my thirty-five years of residence here. I hope My Arabic will be clear to your listeners. I am afraid that I will have to use some English word s for the terms that escape me in Arabic. Alhadi: No problem. Ashdji: The first problem I had after coming to the USA was my weak English. During my early days here, I was struck by the warm we lcome this country has given to us. I was also struck by the generous help that I ha ve received from all people that I came to know. It was a very sincere and heartfelt help. My father started his career by opening a restaurant. We all helped him, including my mother and sisters. I still remember the great help our neighbors have given to all of us. This has further affirmed the kind and generous image that I had about the American people. I also felt that I have been missing the level of freedom that people here are enjoying. The only ne gative image that I remember from my early days is the disc rimination and how the blacks were being treated. This struck me because discrimina tion is not a known practice in Palestine and we didnt even know what it meant. I remember that my father, may God rest his soul in peace, always loved to talk to the blacks. They also loved him because he was kind to them. Unfortunately, later on I myself felt th at I was being discrimi nated [against]. I finished two years of college study at Wint er Haven Community College. My family made it a priority for all of us that our top choice was to finish our college education. After finishing my education in Winter Ha ven, I joined UCF in Orlando and obtained a degree in mechanical engineer ing. My Egyptian professor Fa ris Bouslaihi, who was very close to me, recommended that I should do my masters in engineer ing with him at the same university. I began my M.A. study and wh en I was only one semester to graduate, I
received a job offer from FPL [Florida Powe r & Light Company] here in Florida. I passed the job interview, but at that moment I decided I should quit the engineering profession. I went back to the university and told my professor that the engineering profession is not fitting my inte rest and I will not succeed in it. He wanted me to finish that last semester, but I insist ed not to. I joined the MBA program at Stetson University in DeLand Florida. I also had the opportunity to work for one of the hotels there while I was finishing my study program. I really liked working at the hotel and decided that I will continue working in this field. That is exactly what I did. Thanks are due to God that I am doing very well in this field. Alhadi: We will get back to your experience with hotels later. Now, I want to get back to the period before coming to America. I want to know specifically about the process of making the decision of coming to America. Was it an easy decisi on? Who made the decision and what role did you play in this decision? Ashdji: When I think about the decision of coming to America, I highly value the vision that my father had. He sacrificed everything he had, including hi s land, personal life, and home, and brought his six children to America. I don t think this is an easy thing because I see how difficult [it is] for me now to move even from one state to another, such as moving from Florida to California, Ge orgia, or New York. My fath er, may God rest his soul in peace, looked way ahead and decided that there wont be a good future for his family and children had they stayed in Palestine. He deci ded to come here to [guarantee] us a better future. Alhadi: That means the decision was fully your fathers? Ashdji: Correct.
Alhadi: What was your father doing before co ming to America? Did he have any business experience that eventually drove you into the business field? Ashdji: He had a very good restaurant in Israel a nd we had a very comfortable life. We lived in a town with the Jews in Palestine. Alhadi: What town was it? Ashdji: It is called Nahariya close to Acre. My father and all of us were born in Acre and then moved out of town to Nahariya where my fath er started a farm and then moved to a taxi business and then a restaurant. The rest aurant was doing very well. Besides the restaurant, we still owned farmland. We had a very decent income. However, my fathers vision was that the situation in Pale stine and the consequen ces of the 1973 war at the time will not make it easy for us to have a good future there. I remember the conditions during the 1976 fighting when we used to hide in shelters or when my father used to carry us to hide at night. These unpl easant situations might have been the driving force behind my fathers deci sion of coming here. My fath er thought about moving us to Iran, Australia, or Canada, but finally decided to come to Am erica, and praise God that the decision was to come to America. Alhadi: You said that after coming to America, your father was very keen that you continue with your education, and accordingly you all began to go to school. Did that happen here in Florida or in another state? Ashdji: We came to Florida. When we were back in Palestine, we came to know an engineer from Florida who used to work for a citrus machinery company. During the 1973 war era, all young men whose age allo wed them to join the army were actually recruited. The ones who were left out were the high school students who became the ones who
controlled and guarded the city. I was one of those high school students and I was studying at an agricultural school. I also used to work at an orange field and my job was to pick the oranges and take them to the comp any to make juice. That is where I came to know this engineer and we became friends. I invited him to my house. He came over and started to know my family. He is th e one who helped us with the immigration paperwork that lead to our coming and settlement in Florida. Alhadi: Was he based here in Florida? Ashdji: Yes. He used to work here in a citrus machinery company called FMC in Lakeland, Florida, but was transferred to Washington, D.C. two weeks after our arrival. We continued to live here in Florida. Alhadi: Does that mean you have be en living here in Florida since 1976? Ashdji: That is correct. Alhadi: This is a remarkably long pe riod of time to spend in one state. Ashdji: When I was studying economics at Stetson University, I had to keep an eye on The Wall Street Journal for a project that I was working on. I read the paper daily. I found an ad for a hotel for sale in Tennessee. The idea that came to my mind that I should buy that hotel though I havent seen it. I moved to Tennessee for six months. I bought the hotel and I did very well with it. That was the firs t hotel that I ever bought. It had twenty-six rooms and it is located in the Smoky Mountains area. I bought it for $252,000. Alhadi: What is the name of that hotel? Ashdji: I am sorry I forgot what it was called. Wh at happened is that we sold it to Wal-Mart for 1.9 million dollars. They wanted to open a Wal-Ma rt store there. It was a very good deal for us. That good starting experi ence made me fall in love wi th this field of work.
Alhadi: Mr. Farid, there is something here that I dont understand. You left your studies when you were about to get your M.A. in engineer ing and moved on to the business field. The decision of leaving a field as attractive as e ngineering sounds like not an easy decision to make. This is an area of study that many students dream of gra duating from. Can you tell us a little about this hard decision and did your entire fa mily agree to this decision? Ashdji: I truly loved the study of engineering. I loved math, physics, and chemistry, and I did very well in all of them. The turn came after receiving a job offer from the power company, and after seeing the work environm ent where many senior engineers appeared to have spent all of their lives in that place. At that mome nt, I decided that this should not be the field where I will be spending the re st of my life. I didnt like the way they appeared, behaved, and talked. It appeared of no attraction to me. The idea I had in mind about how engineers look was diffe rent from what I have seen at that location. I felt that if I accepted that position, it would be no more than life imprisonment for me. The idea that I would be tied to the companys schedule all the time didnt appear appealing to me [either]. When I was back in Palestine, we had to go through very severe and hard competition to get whatever we wanted. This applies to finding a job or even finding a good school to go to. Everything was very comp etitive. When I came to America, I was still driven by that power of competitiveness which always made me be the best either at school or at work. We were ra ised on the notion that we have to be on top and the best in everything. The image of an engineer who sits at desk didnt seem like what I wanted. Alhadi: What did your family think of this deci sion? Did they all agr ee, or did they have a different say?
Ashdji: It was my fathers wish to see me as an engineer after seeing how good I was in math and physics. He didnt object to my deci sion to do an M.A. in business as long I continued my education. Alhadi: What did your other brothers do? Did they continue with their education? Ashdji: Yes. They all finished their univers ity education. My elder brother continued his studies in the engineering fi eld. My younger sister graduated with a degree in medicine. My other sister has a degree in education and has been wo rking as a teacher for more than twenty years. I have another sister w ho is working in the business field. She has a marble company. She imports marble from Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan, and also from Mexico. She has a very big company in Or lando, Florida. My younger brother graduated from college and is currently working in th e hotel business with me He has experience working in the food industry. Now he owns some hotels. We have all achieved remarkable success in this country. Alhadi: It sounds like a true success story. Let us now move on to talk about business. You mentioned earlier that you came to the fiel d of hotel [management] by mere chance. Would you please shed some light on your be ginnings in this field of business? Ashdji: One of the economic courses that I took was about supply and demand. This was one of my favored subjects. A very simple example of this supply and demand issue could be given through a commodity such as waterm elons. When it is the watermelon season, you can buy one for a very reasonable price. When the season is over, prices go up. This simple example applies to the work of hot els. Hotel booking pr ices go up during the [vacation] season or any regular occasions such as weekends and home-games. On these days, hotels are usually fully booked. The manager of the hotel where I was working
didnt look carefully at the prices issue. I told the hotel ow ner that he was actually losing money due to the incorrectly ca lculated pricing policy that was applied by the manager. I told him that prices should go up and down based on demand. I got this idea from my experience working in this field. The hotel owner told me that he wanted to talk to me at home. I went to see him. He handed me the keys and asked me to be the manager. I told him that being there for one year doesnt give the experience I need to be qualified for a manager position. However, I was able to sense that hotel wasnt managed properly based on the income it was making. The owner in sisted that January first will be the date I assume responsibilities of the manager positi on at that hotel. I wa s twenty-six years old at the time and never had the experience of a top management position. I accepted the challenge and took over the position. In my fi rst year there, the revenue was doubled. I always had the idea of supply and demand in mind when I was managing that hotel. That course gave me a huge success in my career life. Alhadi: This sounds interesting. These were your first steps in the field of the hotel business. How did your business move on from that time onwards? How did you acquire your own first hotel and what hotels did you own? Ashdji: The same hotel owner opened another two hotels in St. Augustine and asked me to include them under my management umbrella. It is known that hotels operate within a well-calculated budget that is based on your revenue estimates. The owner promised me a good bonus whenever the revenue estimates ar e achieved. One year later, I found one hotel for sale and recommended to the owner I was working with to buy it. He instead suggested I should buy it for myself, and that he will fund me. I did buy the hotel and started to do very well. I moved on to a nother one with the pr omise of getting a 10%
commission of the revenue. My next step was another small hotel located on the beach, and thanks to the non-wavering help of my fa ther, I was able to buy it. I later moved on and bought another small hotel. Later on, I de molished these small hotels and made them bigger. One of them accrued the Hilton na me following a franchise agreement with the company. A few years after joining this fi eld, I was the owner of a number of hotels which at some point reached above twenty. So me of them were mine and others were a partnership between me and other owners. When we decided to split and everybody goes on his own, I ended up with four of my own. Alhadi: Do you mean that you currently own four hotels? Ashdji: Yes, I am currently running four hotels out of the many ones that I owned previously. I also added to my business a number of mobile home parks. I have more than 400 units of mobile homes in Jacksonville and DeLand. Un fortunately, this part of my business felt the impact of the housing crisis and, conse quently, didnt do very well. This economic crisis caused me to lose two hotels before e nding up with the four I currently have. I am now left with two mobile home parks. Alhadi: What brand names do you have on your hotels now? Ashdji: One of them is a Quality Inn in St. A ugustine, [another is] Sleep Inn in Waldo, [and the other two are a] Budget Inn and I ndependent Inn in Jacksonville. Alhadi: This is truly a success story. It sounds great. I need to ask you about your workforce. What is the total number of your employees? Ashdji: I have forty to forty-five employees who work for me. Alhadi: Are you getting any help from a ny family member to run your business?
Ashdji: All my employees are very helpful and excellent, but as far as my direct family is concerned, I have a younger br other who is helping me. Alhadi: This sounds wonderful. I want to know what are your future plans? Ashdji: I am now fifty-five years old. I am very satisfied with the opportunities that this country has given me. Many people and instituti ons including banks, family members, employees, and the surrounding community have all been very helpful and supportive. All has just been perfect for me. However, I st ill feel I have other th ings that I want to do in my lifetime, including more travel. My three children are now grown and pursuing their college degrees. Two of them go to FSU and another one at UCF. None of them goes to this school here in Gainesville. I w ould love to see them done with their college education. After that, I will be travelling as much as I can. I have been to about twenty countries so far, and I would love to visit even a hundred countries more. Alhadi: That could be done. Let me now as k you if you have any connection with the business industry in the Arab world? Ashdji: I had the opportunity to visit Egypt and T unisia, and next month will be in Morocco. I have many friends in these countries and they all wanted me to partner with them and start hotel businesses with them in their countr ies or in Dubai or othe r places. I never had the intention to do business there because of lack of security. It is also hard to get the permits and licenses you need. In Egypt, fo r instance, you need to acquire no less than forty, maybe fifty or even sixty permits to complete a building. I am used to the American way of doing business. You work ha rd here but the rules are very clear and easy to understand and eventually you get th e permit or the loan you want as planned. Arab countries lack clear regulati ons. They also lack security a nd safety. It is not safe to
start a business there. Also the people as individuals are not very helpful. Here, everybody helps you to succeed, while there they pull you down and they want you to fail. However, security and safety remain the most important components for business to succeed. These are not available in that region. Alhadi: How frequently do you travel to the Arab countries? Ashdji: I visited Egypt once, and Tunisia twice. This coming trip will be my first time in Morocco. This trip is not business related. It is just to have a good time there. Alhadi: How often do you go to Palestine? Ashdji: I go every other year. I didnt go this year, but will be going next year. My dream is to start a business in Palestine, but it seems har d, due to a lack of security and safety. Alhadi: Do you think that your child ren will have any interest in the business field in the future? Ashdji: None of them is interested in the business field. They appreciate the comfortable life that my business has provided them. However, they are going the American way where everybody does whatever he/she wants without falling under family pressure and control. My younger son wants to be a doctor. My elder son wants to be a lawyer, and my daughter is a dentist in Jacksonville. They are doing fine in their life. Alhadi: This sounds good. I wish them and you, all the best. These are very important details about your life and business e xperience and will be extremel y interesting and beneficial to our students to know about it. We are very happy having this opportunity with you. This concludes this interview. Thank you fo r giving us this honor of having you with us here at U.F. Ashdji: You are welcome. Thanks to you. [END OF INTERVIEW]