Hard-work, dedication, perseverance, motivation and focus.
1.) Coming to America (not the Eddie Murphy movie, if you haven’t seen it you should. It is funny):
There was no plan for me to come to America. I was doing great in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I just finished my Bachelor in Commerce and going for my Masters in Finance from Dhaka University (DU).
A friend of mine got the bug. He wanted to come to America. Like any good friend would do, I was merely supporting him in his quest.
- taking the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language, got a decent score)
- getting all the official transcripts translated into English
- parents income statement
- bank statements
- sending the application to the University of North Texas in Denton (UNT)
- buying a ticket, yep you have to buy the ticket before you even get the visa.
- sending all these documents to UNT through priority mail (DHL), no email, not sure how we survived back then, LOL
I didn’t think I will get the visa (very hard to get US visa even back in 1991). People used to prepare for months and sometimes applied 3 or 4 times before they get the visa. Also, my parents did not have a lot of money to support my entire education in the US.
I received my paperwork (I-20) from UNT at the last minute, one of the main document I needed to apply for the visa at the US embassy in Dhaka. The I-20 was also needed to get the cashier’s check, which is a vital requirement for obtaining the visa. I had a few days to arrange all the final paperwork to submit to the US embassy for visa Interview. My parents and family were able to give me $5,000.
Armed with my I-20 and all the necessary paperwork, I applied for the interview on Aug 14th. The immigration officer asked me a few questions and told me to come back later in the day. Three agonizing hours later they called my name, and guess what? I got my visa. Oh, crap! I am going to AMERICA.
Since I wasn’t expecting to get the visa, I didn’t plan for anything. Picture yourself leaving your home to a different country for 3+ years, and you have a few days to plan on what to take with you. By the way, you can only take two suitcases with weight limitations and the country is on the other side of the world. I left for Dallas on Aug 16th two days after getting my visa. Fall semester starts the last week of August. I had to present for the mandatory orientation at the University.
2.) Reaching Dallas Airport:
I reached Dallas on August 18th, 1991. Guess, what was the first thing I noticed? If you guessed the Texas heat, then you are correct. Man, it was in your face heat, I have never experienced such heat in my life. After living in Dallas since 1991, now if you ask me about the heat, I will say, it is not too bad, dry heat. As if dry heat makes it alright. Funny how you adapt to your surroundings. Two of my high school friends greeted me. They were also attending UNT; they came a few years ahead of me. Remember, I didn’t plan to come to America, had I planned it right I would have come to the US sooner instead of going to Dhaka University. I am very grateful for those friends. They helped me with living accommodation when I reached Dallas. I along with five others, stayed in a three bedroom townhouse in Denton while going to school.
3.) University of North Texas:
When I applied to UNT from Bangladesh, I was under the impression that I would get around 60 credit hours subject to the evaluation of my syllabus. When I got to the US, and after going through the course descriptions evaluation by UNT, I only received 36 credit hours. Wait, there is more, of the 36 hours I could only use 18 hours towards my Accounting major.
It was a huge blow because now I almost have to start over. Since my family wasn’t able to support me financially, that meant I would have to figure out how to finance the whole thing. I had a total of $5,000 with me. I was not eligible for any grant or student loan because I was not a US citizen then. My first-semester alone was $2,200, plus books and housing. Time to make the tough decision in a new country:
1.) Go back to Bangladesh (easy, but not preferred)
2.) Drop out and become an illegal immigrant (no can do). My student visa required that I take at least 12 hours each semester, or else, I lose my immigration status and become illegal. Once you lose a statue, it all goes downhill from there.
3.) Figure out a way
I chose Option 3.
4.) Transferred to North Lake College:
Community college here I come. To save money, I enrolled in the community college to finish the 60 hours of foundation classes needed for my accounting major. Not a sexy move but one that kept me on track. I even got an associate degree if, for some reason, I could not pursue my bachelor’s degree. If you are on a tight budget, community colleges are great for saving money and getting a good education. (Insert advertisement here, hint for DCCCD or TCCC).
5.) Transfer back to UNT:
By now, I have been in the US for some time, so I learned a thing or two. If you work for the university, then you pay in-state tuition instead of out-of-state tuition. I am not sure what is the policy now but back then if you were not a US citizen you had to pay out-of-state tuition regardless of how long you have been in the state; the difference was approx $50/credit hr. vs. $300/credit hr.
So, I applied for a computer lab assistant’s position (keeping the stereotype going, of course). Huge competition because every other damn international student wants that job as well for the same reason. With my charm and smile, I somehow managed to get that job and was able to get the in-state tuition that I needed so badly.
I got a few scholarships on the way too. Thus, I was able to finish my accounting degree. The funny thing about the scholarships was, the reason I got it not because I was the best student, I had a decent grade 3.75 GPA in my major related courses and no one with higher GPA than mine applied.
6.) Getting my first Job: Weaver and Tidwell
Getting my first job was hard. I didn’t know anyone in Dallas (no guidance or connection to draw from) all my job search was through the university’s placement center. However, since I was not a US citizen, the placement center won’t send my resume to companies interviewing during the job fairs looking for an entry-level accountant. I didn’t get a chance to interview during those job fairs.
Now I can say this, I joined Beta Alpha Psi for one reason and one reason only, and it paid off. One day while I was at the Beta Alpha Psi meeting, a company representative was taking resumes, and I handed them mine. And the rest is history. Since then, I have become US citizen, and things have become easier in that regard. I define luck as to where opportunity and preparedness collide.
Weaver: was great to me. They used to hire kids fresh out of college, so pay was very low (that is the norm for that industry), you work hard and learn if you want to be an auditor or tax accountant. I always knew that I wouldn’t be in public accounting for too long. I still remember my first day going to a client for audit and not knowing how to use a 10-key. See all the people from Weaver that helped me one way or another. XXXX
7.) My Second Job: RadioShack
After three years of being at the public accounting firm, I decided to move to industry. RadioShack was flying high. It was a great time to be working at the Shack. Fortune 500 company and was the leader of the cell phone market with 4,500 stores all over the US. “You got questions, and we got answers” was their theme with very knowledgeable sales associates.
I enjoyed working there. I was with RS for about eight years and saw a great company slowly going downhill due to lack of strategy and executing. By the time I left in 2008, the management was in cost-cutting mode instead of investing in the online business. Sr. level management did not trust mid-management. By 2017 RS filed for bankruptcy for the second time. I believe the company was founded in 1921, so I guess it was time for it to go and make room for the new generation, a circle of life.
My progression at RS:
a.) I started as an operational auditor: I used to ask a lot of questions, and the CFO took note of that. If I were not in the quarterly update meeting, the CFO would say I missed Aref’s ten fold questions. When there was a position open at corporate finance for financial analyst, I was told to apply.
b.) Financial Analyst: I was reporting to a Director of Finance but also working with VP of Finance and the CFO. I had first-hand experience working with the C-level to see how they think. This experience helped me later in my career.
c.) Merchandise Finance Director: This was a very critical position, and I wanted it, and the pay was good too. The position would be responsible for helping a team of buyers and the merchandise vise president with the $2B category.
Responsibilities included: along with budgeting and forecasting, I would be helping with the first time buy, discount rate and incremental lift calculation, helping to manage inventory and end of life products, thanksgiving, and marketing promotion analysis, GMROI (gross margin rate on inventory investment.) Help the supply chain team with demand planning, analysis of new product launch, working with the pricing team, not to mention monthly meeting with the CEO and CFO on business analysis. High profile and high visibility.
I applied for the position, knowing that I had a good reputation. At the end of the interview, I was told that the company was looking for someone with the above experience, and the best candidate will get the job. I came home and told my wife that I am not going to get this job. The company is looking for someone with experience, and I have no experience.
To my surprise, two weeks later I got a call letting me know that I got the positions. Jokingly, I told my wife; apparently, they couldn’t find the best candidate, so they settled with me.
I have so many memories with RS and probably could write a book. I was part of the CEO Council, a hand-picked group of future leaders to advise the CEO. We would meet once a quarter with the CEO to talk about strategy, policies, challenges, opportunities, competition, etc. This recognition gave me the confidence to be more vocal during meetings. Now looking back, was it confidence or arrogance, I am not sure. Maybe both. See all the people from RS that helped me one way or another. XXXX
While I was working at RadioShack, I enrolled in a Masters program at the University of Texas at Arlington and worked towards my CPA certification. I got my MS in information system in 2003 and the CPA certification in 2004.
8.) Job number 3: Michaels Store
I started looking for other opportunities as RadioShack was going nowhere and kept declining. I saw Michaels was hiring for corporate finance and I applied. I even talked to the recruiter at Michaels. I didn’t hear anything, and it didn’t go anywhere. A few months later, the VP of Finance at Michaels called me. He used to work at RadioShack and recently joined Michaels. We have worked together on several different projects in the past, and he asked if I would be interested in coming to Michaels. I accepted. We all know how important the relationship is.
I left RS in 2008 and Joined Michaels Store as a Director of Corporate Finance – FP&A (Financial Planning and Analysis). Major responsibilities included: annual budgeting, forecasting, monthly reporting, preparing quarterly board deck, strategic planning, tracking capital budget, providing backup information to the CFO for his earnings call, ad hoc analysis to name few.
The role required interacting with all departments in the organization and ensure alignment, between HR, marketing, global sourcing, merchandising, supply chain, real estate, IT, loss prevention, store operation, accounting, treasury and other business units (Aaron Brothers, Framing, Canada).
Michaels culture at the time was a very dog eat dog world. PE firm Bain and Black Stone took the company private, and a lot of changes were happening. A lot of politics were going on. I noticed there was no teamwork. Right after I got there, I worked on a special project for the CEO and quickly got recognized and received a special bonus directly from the CEO.
In few years Michaels hired a new CEO from Walmart. And then came a new CFO. My immediate boss did not get along with the new management. Later, he was let go, and soon after that, I was too. I knew it was coming, but I stuck around for the severance package. I negotiated a six-month package in Nov of 2012. In the corporate world, as you move up, anytime new management comes in, there are changes, and sometimes it may impact you, it doesn’t matter if you are good or not, it is part of the process. The new management has such a short time to prove that they usually bring employees that they have worked with in the past to speed up the process. There is not a guarantee that this method will work, but it happens a lot, not always.
I have learned a lot from my experience at Micheals not as much as technical knowledge but more of the politics and management style. The experience helped me ground myself; bad things can happen to good people. It is certain; things will happen to us throughout our life that we can’t control. The only person one can control is oneself, how we react, and the decision we make. At times it is hard, but one has to recognize that and move forward. See all the people from Michaels that helped me one way or another. XXXX
9.) Restaurant Business:
I had the feeling that my time with Michaels will come to an end soon. So, I invested in a restaurant. I knew how hard that industry is but wanted to give it a try. The business was decent, but the highway construction killed the traffic, and we closed the business in 2015. The restaurant business helped me with my communication skills. I would talk to the customers all day. I wasn’t very good at small talk, but after my stint at the restaurant, I can now say I am decent at it. As we all know, communication is vital in business.
10.) Changing industry: Job # 4 Bick Group
I wanted to branch out. I started to look for a job outside the retail. I had 12 years of retail experience; it was hard to find anything outside the retail industry. Even though we all know that a good finance person can work for any industry, a number is a number, and variance analysis is the same, Sure you will need to learn the industry-specific terms, compliances, policies, etc. but the basic knowledge is transferable. Try to explain that to a company and a recruiter. Most company wants the employee to hit the ground running without too much training, except for the entry level position.
Luck would have it; I saw a Craigslist posting for an assistant to a CFO’s job. I sent my resume and met with the CFO. I later found out that after the interview, the CFO went to the CEO and told him that “I am hiring Aref as a controller.” The company is in the service and installation business.
If you have been following me so far, I don’t have any experience as a controller, and I told the CFO too. He said, not to worry that he could train me for that. The company needs someone with my experience in the finance side more.
I spent four months in a hotel, learning journal entries, payroll processing, and closing the books. Talk about a crash course in accounting. Not only that, I had to get ready for an audit for the year-end. Fun stuff.
In my six years with the company, I moved from the controller to CFO to CEO. I proved that my retail experience is easily transferable to the customer service and installation business. I learned contract management, job costing, work in progress, estimating and bidding jobs, not to mention the whole accounting cycle.
I was able to “hit the ground running” fast enough that the CFO decided to retire in nine months after I joined. The original plan was for him to stay two years before retiring. When we were having a challenge with the CEO, the board was able to put me in charge, and I was able to restore the company in a short amount of time and continue to grow the EBITDA. Now I am visiting customers, talking to the banker, health and general liabilities insure brokers, presenting to the shareholders, building strategy, and execution plan.
I continue to learn and grow. The CEO’s role helps to test one’s ability to see if oneself has the ultimate leadership skill or not. You are responsible for everything, but you are not in control of everything. You have to motivate and influence people to do the work. See my new CEO, XXXX, for more. Leaders are born vs. created.