Friday, 23 July 2010

From Middle East to Middle America

Cleveland Iranian Jews enhance local business climate

Their numbers may be small, comprising a couple dozen families at best, but Jews of Iranian or Persian descent figure prominently in Cleveland’s business community. The CJN introduces three such men who say they love working and living in the region.

Farhad Mehdizadeh, Marble Builder Direct

Farhad Mehdizadeh traded Beverly Hills for Brookpark Road.

“One of my older brothers is in the granite business and has 18 or 20 locations all over the U.S. where we work public auctions,” explains the owner of Marble Builder Direct, whose many stones including marble, granite, onyx, travertine and slate. “I targeted Cleveland because there’s still a lot of remodeling going on compared with other states.”

Since opening shop five years ago, Mehdizadeh, 35, has held auctions in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Kentucky; purchased commercial buildings on Brookpark Road; contracted several tenants to the property; and built an enterprise that annually does $1.5 million in sales in Cleveland and $4 to 5 million in sales throughout his other locations, he says.
“But it’s so much travel and very tiring, so I’m expanding here and just opened my own fabrication shop,” he adds. “I’m just focusing on this location at this time and offering installations for residential and commercial projects.”

By many standards, Mehdizadeh led a very comfortable life in Tehran, his home until 1983.

“My father was wealthy and had a big operation, a baby-bottle manufacturing company,” he recalls. “We lived in a very large house. We traveled.”

Still, being Jewish in the Muslim country was difficult.

“They brainwashed kids as we were growing up,” he says of the Iranian government. “We were in a school yard where everyone was lining up to take roll. They would take the American flag and the Israeli flag and set them on fire. All the kids were cheering and getting excited to see fire. I remember my mom and dad would tell me, ‘Don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. We’re going to have problems.’”

After Mehdizadeh completed second grade, the family moved to Beverly Hills, where his father enjoyed success in the real estate and clothing businesses. Life was good and the family celebrated their freedom and religion.

Life remains good for Mehdizadeh, who is single and resides with his dog Oscar in a nearly 10,000-square-foot Pepper Pike home. He loves Cleveland – even says he’s getting used to the winters – but admits that being a Jewish businessman with an identifiably Arab surname poses problems.

“A lot of customers believe I’m Muslim and they will say, ‘We are Muslim, you’re Muslim, you should work with us for a better price.’”

Sometimes Mehdizadeh evades the question of his religion, but that makes him “feel awkward.” When he tells customers he’s Jewish, “I feel that total change all of a sudden. And I love everyone, whether Muslim or Jewish.”

One customer, he relates, once bought a large amount of granite for her kitchen and bathroom. “She said, ‘I’m not going to tell my husband that I placed an order through you because you’re Jewish and he would kill me.’ I told her, ‘There are good and bad people everywhere and if that’s the way your husband thinks, he’s wrong. I want you to be happy placing this order or I don’t want your money.’”

Some time ago, Mehdizadeh’s father was visiting and wanted him to hang a mezuzah at the store.

“I said I’m happy to be Jewish, but I’m afraid my business will be hurt,” says Mehdizadeh, who has mezuzot throughout his home.

The young businessman says he’d like to stay in Cleveland, but that may depend on whom he meets and eventually marries. He’s been making an effort to attend Shabbat services weekly.

“It’s the best philosophy for me, since I’m single, to meet someone,” he says with a smile. “Going to work and going back and forth, I’ll never be able to meet somebody.”

Danny Shafiyan, Garfield Jewelers and Brecksville Fine Jewelers

Danny Shafiyan says his cultural and religious identity doesn’t factor into his business success.

“Not many people ask me about it, but I have no problem with it,” says Shafiyan, who was born in Iran in 1955 and moved to the U.S. in 1978 to attend Northern Illinois University. “I sometimes bring it up, not necessarily with all customers.”

In 1982, the Solon resident opened Garfield Jewelers, a wholesale operation that evolved into a retail store four years ago. This past March, Shafiyan added Brecksville Fine Jewelers.

“I’d been in the business for years, so I gathered experience and used it as my propeller to get me going,” he says, declining to discuss sales figures but pointing out he has three employees between the two stores. “The new store was an existing property and we purchased it from an existing owner. So we added to our portfolio by adding new sales and adding a different location. We’ve grown, but at the same time we’ve expanded ourselves. There are days that are a lot of struggle and days there’s a decent business.”

Shafiyan’s brother and cousins, now retired, still live in Iran. “The business climate (in Iran) is in a depressed mood,” he says. “The government controls all aspects of the economy. Business is okay, but not great. It’s as depressed as anywhere in the world.”

Isaac Yomtovian, Staten Island Land Development

“Every child outside of the United States dreams to come here,” says Staten Island Land Development CEO Isaac Yomtovian. “When I came to the U.S., it was a longtime dream-come-true.”

Yomtovian has fond memories of celebrating Jewish holidays in Iran, although he’s quick to add that he didn’t live there during Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign.

“During the Shah’s period, you were put in a box with boundaries that are defined and you’re not supposed to cross those boundaries,” he says. “You mainly were being tolerated and were given limited freedom. During the Shah’s period the box was much larger. With Khomeini and the Islamic Republic, the box was extremely smaller.”

Seeking a better life, Yomtovian’s family emigrated to Israel in 1966. After earning a civil engineering degree from Technion, he moved to the U.S. in 1971. When his physician-wife was offered a job in Cleveland in 1988, he relocated from Minnesota and expanded his existing business, STC Enviroscience. A year later, he established Staten Island Land Development.

“I was a consulting engineer to the cities of East Liverpool and Euclid and I also did work for developers and construction companies,” he says. “Then I gradually started construction work and that’s where I ended up.”

According to the company’s website, the business strives to “develop land with excellence in preservation of historic values, improvement of the environment and natural resources, and enhancement of quality of life.”

Like many in the construction business, the economy has taken its toll.

“Now it’s extremely small because everybody is laid off,” he says. “I have two active projects, which basically is with subcontractors.”

But Yomtovian, who has benefited greatly from the advice of many in the Jewish community, remains optimistic.

“My business plans are to stay in business and try to survive these hard times,” he says. “Hopefully, when they are over, good times will come and I will complete my projects.”

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