The Ferdowsi family: From terror in Iran to prominence in Nashville
Farzin Ferdowsi, one of three partners who built more than 300 restaurants.
Imagine the government swoops in, takes everything and forces you to flee the country. For the Ferdowsi family, that nightmare became a reality.
Farzin Ferdowsi was a few years out of college when the Iranian Revolution began in 1979. He had a degree in engineering as his father had wished, and was working his way up the ladder in a Pizza Hut franchise by opening restaurants in Tennessee. But the prodigal son’s planned return to Iran was cut short by the radical changes back home.
A prominent business leader and member of the Baha’i Faith, Fat’u’llah Ferdowsi was targeted by the harsh new Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini. Under the regime, the Ferdowsi patriarch was kidnapped, tortured and executed—a crime that has still not seen justice, Ferdowsi said. The rest of the family fled, smuggled out of the country through Pakistan with help from the state department and other governments. Farzin’s mother escaped with only her purse and the clothes on her back so she wouldn’t draw suspicion from the dictatorship’s police force.
That brutal experience put Farzin at the head of the family in his late 30s where he thrived, moving on from the nightmare and forging his way to the American dream that so many immigrant families like his seeks. He built a diversified, entrepreneurial footprint with his college roommate, Homey Aminmadani, that stretched from Nashville to South Korea—but Farzin downplays the business’s scale. “I wouldn’t call it an empire,” said Farzin Ferdowsi, saying it’s just a little company he built for the next generation.
To all but the most successful franchise operators, the small-framed patriarch with an impeccably groomed beard did build an empire. He’s become a fixture in the burgeoning Nashville business world and built hundreds of franchised restaurants over the last 40 years. His company, Management Resources Co. (MRCO), today operates 46 Taco Bells, five Gigi’s Cupcakes and a slew of other businesses and sits at No. 157 on the Franchise Times Restaurant 200 ranking, which lists the largest restaurant franchisees in the country. (See entire list on page 55.) The term serial entrepreneur gets thrown around a lot, but Ferdowsi lives and breathes it.
The MRCO family at their first Taco Bell. From left: Shabnam Aminmadani, Shareef Aminmadani, Michael Shahsavari, Homey Aminmadani, Amin Ferdowsi, Farzin Ferdowsi and Imaan Ferdowsi.
Not satisfied with the service or the price, Ferdowsi started cleaning his restaurants with a small satellite janitorial company. It eventually grew into its own thriving company with dozens of clients in and out of franchising. Over the years, the Ferdowsi family built several companies from payroll processing to uniforms, HVAC maintenance and insurance.
Ferdowsi was also a founding member of the Nashville Zoo and serves on a handful of boards from the Boys and Girls Club to the Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center. And since 1985, he “got into banking,” as he humbly suggests, and is on the board of the $900-million Reliant Bank.
Franchising has been central to the company since before it was a company. Ferdowsi got his start with Yum Brands back in college. And once he graduated, it was simple math. “After we graduated, I interviewed with Honeywell and got a job,” said Ferdowsi, referring to the engineering firm. “But I could make more money at Pizza Hut.
Honeywell offered $440 a month, and at Pizza Hut you could make about $1,000 in 1970.”
That extra $560 paved the way to a globe-trotting franchise career that initially brought the original partners to the Nashville area after a then-PepsiCo executive offered ownership incentives to develop in the area. When the company went public, it bought out the initial locations. “We got some cash and were able to expand into Alabama and Tennessee,” said Ferdowsi. “Nashville became our headquarters.” From there, they brought Pizza Hut to South Korea and the Dominican Republic as well. “Over the years, we probably built and bought 250 Pizza Huts,” said Ferdowsi.
Then in 1985, MRCO got out of Pizza Hut. The partners started in Taco Bell, growing to 84 restaurants at one point. The natural diversification artist also got into the Gigi’s Cupcakes system after Nashville-based Gina “Gigi” Butler turned one of the company properties into the flagship location, showing how profitable cupcakes could be. The family later became investors in Gigi’s until it was bought out in 2016 by an affiliate of private equity investor FundCorp.
Homey is the quiet, numbers-focused partner and the “brakes” of the organization. He’s been working with Farzin for 50 years.
The company sold off half the Taco Bells to focus on the middle Tennessee market and grab some real estate. The sale turned out to be a good bet on the explosive region.
Nashville has seen rents rocket from $8 per square foot a few years ago to $30 or more. Cranes dot the skyline and big business headquarters are bringing a lot of money and new customers to the area. Between 60 and 90 people are moving to the city each day. It’s a traffic disaster, but a dream come true for landlords.
But he didn’t do all this on his own. His college roommate Homey was the first partner, working alongside Ferdowsi at Pizza Hut long before there was a company. Now, the loquacious Ferdowsi and the quiet, careful Aminmadani are celebrating their 50th anniversary of working together, a history that is rare in marriage and rarer still in business.
Then there’s Michael Shahsavari who said he’s “the kid” at 66, who joined the original partners in 1979 as they created more and more secondary companies to support the franchises.
“Usually we have a need for a service, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do it ourselves?’” said Shahsavari. “And if it really started working, why don’t we make it another business.”
The bevy of secondary businesses has become a running joke among close franchising peers at their regular knowledge-sharing meet-ups. “When we’re going around the room, I’ll say, ‘Oh we have a company for that.’ How about uniforms? ‘Oh we have a company for that.’ Eventually, they say, ‘Don’t ask Michael, he has a company for that,’” said Shahsavari.
Farzin’s office is filled with family photos and philanthropic mementoes.
Ferdowsi’s family was instrumental as well. His brothers operate the uniform and payroll businesses and now his and Aminmadani’s sons and daughters are taking over. The focus now is laying the groundwork for that succession, getting Taco Bell and Gigi’s Cupcakes ready for the next generation of operators.
“Our role really right now is the transition to the next generation. We are putting all our efforts into making sure the company continues to thrive,” said Shahsavari. “We’re blessed to have a very good franchise. Yum Brands has really been good for us, so we’re really blessed with having the right franchise and our goal is handing off the operations and being here for as long as they need us.”
To that end, the partners are pushing hard for remodels and hitting development targets early. “We have taken a very aggressive stance on remodeling our stores. We’re doing them earlier than mandated or needed just to be sure that these guys have a better kickstart with more up-to-date stores and less capital need when they take over,” said Ferdowsi. “There are enough challenges just running the operation.”
Despite that focus on the future, the partners’ sons and daughters were never under the impression they could waltz into the family business. From their first pre-teen jobs, the new generation learned their way up the ladder at Taco Bell and across the various subsidiary businesses. “Growing up with a silver spoon in your mouth doesn’t exempt you from mowing lawns or working in a Taco Bell,” said Amin Ferdowsi, the junior brother in the business who helps run the franchised restaurants.
Amin and Shareef Aminmadani are the odd couple for the next generation. Amin is the boisterous, long-haired image of Farzin. Shareef is the quiet, calculating side of the business odd couple that Homey fills. He said they only hope to maintain that delicate balance that keeps the operation driving forward.
“The best way to think of it—think of a car,” said Amin Ferdowsi. “Farzin is the gas, Homey is the brakes and Michael is the engine that connects the two. Without one of them, the car either goes too fast or doesn’t move at all.”
“It’s imperative to have all that get transferred from their generation to ours,” said Shareef Aminmadani. “That’s what we have to keep in mind the whole time is that we don’t let the components of those three get lost on our generation.”
Michael Shahsavari, “the kid” partner of the management team, juggles the many books for the group’s various businesses as CFO.
Right or wrong, unanimously
The eldest of Ferdowsi’s sons, Imaan, worked his way from selling ice cream by the giraffe pen at the Nashville Zoo to his position as vice president at the franchise-specialized insurance company Franchise Risk. He said through his career in the family business, the three partners’ collaborative style was a critical lesson.
“Just like any partnership there are disagreements, but the one thing that contributes to their success is that no matter what they all ended up in their conclusions, they’re united in their decisions,” said Imaan Ferdowsi. “We’re either unanimously right or unanimously wrong.”
After college and a trip abroad to learn Spanish, Imaan became a manager at the family janitorial company, growing it from 10 employees to a 150-employee company cleaning 45 buildings along with the family franchises. The “trial by fire” he called it was not glamorous, but got him the management skills he’d need at Franchise Risk, where he’s focused on the same growth he cultivated at the janitorial company.
“This insurance opportunity really intrigued me. I loved the fact that it was a startup, I loved the fact that we were using our experience and our relationships and bringing it into a new industry,” said Ferdowsi. “I was really charged by the family that they were bringing the restaurant experience, and I needed to become the insurance expert.”
His laser focus on Franchise Risk doesn’t keep him from getting caught up in the entrepreneurial diversification his father and “uncles” Homey and Michael all share. “I always knew I would come back to franchising. I always knew I was from franchising,” said Ferdowsi. “Especially in these past few years it’s been hard to stay away.”
The two locations are his “nights and weekends” project, a bud he hopes to grow into his own Gigi’s Cupcakes franchise operation. He’s aiming for 10 locations by 2018. He said the love of the work surprised even him. “We would spend 5:30 to 7:30 baking cupcakes then going to work,” said Ferdowsi. “We were always so happy and giddy about doing it and we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we not miserable.’ It’s because we were doing what we want to do.”
Finding a family
Homey’s daughter Shabnam “Shab” Aminmadani runs the HR department at MRCO, after a short career in the tech field brought her back to business school. She said growing up her father didn’t talk much about work. She knew Papa John’s (an arch-rival) was off limits when the three partners were still in the Pizza Hut system, but what she did learn early on was how to treat people: a lesson that the entire second generation agrees is the most important part of the company, and one they hope will endure.
“It’s a great place to work,” said Shab Aminmadani. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m so glad I found this MRCO family.’”
Imaan, Shab, Amin and Shareef said the family-first culture extends beyond the second generation of Ferdowsis and Aminmadanis. There are a lot of companies that say they treat their employees like a family—it’s repeated ad nauseam in fact—but MRCO’s impressive tenure does seem to prove the company’s close-knit atmosphere.
The restaurants deal with the same turnover that affects fast-food brands, hovering around 180 percent for hourly workers. But managers and home-office employees just don’t leave. John Miljanich, director of operations, has been there 35 years; controller Donna Nevels has been there 35; VP of operations Kyle Rouhani-Fard has been there 30 years. And in the restaurants, Kathy Tally, a restaurant trainer, has been there for 26 years and even area supervisors have been there 17 to 18 years. The average tenure for the home office is 16.1 years and in the restaurants, managers average well over 10 years. And it’s not great pay that keeps them there.
“We treat them like human beings,” Farzin Ferdowsi said with a big belly laugh. “I know for a fact we don’t pay high salaries. But every time you see someone you engage with them.”
He said it goes well beyond small talk and pleasantries about the weekend. One home-office worker has a son working in one of the Taco Bells. Like any frank grandfather, Farzin is on both of their cases about college, urging them to take advantage of the company scholarships. Every time he sees her, he says, “Hello, how are you, has your son decided to go to college?’” said Ferdowsi.
Imaan Ferdowsi said he didn’t realize that was odd growing up in the business. “These are things to me that are just inherent,” said Ferdowsi. “I thought this is just the way businesses treat employees.”
“I compare ours to a family,” said Michael Shahsavari about the company culture. “A family that converses openly, a family that cares, a family that is willing to make sacrifices when needed.”
One such sacrifice came when MRCO sold off half its restaurants. Instead of laying off the support personnel and saving the money, the partners shuffled employees around and are still pushing growth to help keep them busy.
Homey Aminmadani said that family culture goes a long way in finding and keeping good people—the biggest challenge at any business. But it’s a challenge he thinks the new blood is ready to tackle. “That sunk in to our second generation because the guys see how we treat people and they like to work with us. We are supportive of them,” he said.
Staying until asked to leave
MRCO has two units under construction, two in planning and three being remodeled to keep ahead of schedule. As for future lessons, the old guard isn’t leaving anytime soon.
“These days, the whole concept of retirement is becoming a daydream. I can’t even imagine stopping work,” said Shahsavari. “I think our future is going to be bugging these guys—just showing up and hanging out in the conference room until we’re asked to leave.”
Spoken like true lifetime entrepreneurs, none of the original partners is all that eager to leave the office despite all the work they’re doing on the succession plan. “I don’t think I will say one day, ‘I’m retired, don’t call me.’ That’s part of being alive. How many days can you go fishing and golfing? You get bored,” said Farzin Ferdowsi.
The new generation already has big plans to grow the Taco Bell footprint to 100 stores or more, and to diversify—of course. They have some dreams of getting into fine dining and creating their own concepts to compete with the upscale and fast-casual competitors entering the area. But ultimately, it all comes back to working together and growing the family and company legacy.
“My wish is for the kids to get along the same way that Homey and I got along and lived our lives, and for them to work together and try to build on what we have built,” said Ferdowsi. “I’m sure they all have a good head on their shoulders, and I’m sure they can do it. But we probably won’t see it. We’ll see it from up above.”