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American Dreamers

American Dreamers

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Meir Lazar

President, Custom Complete Automotive

Forty-five years ago, Meir Lazar left Israel to move to the United States. Back then he was looking forward to living in a country that he heard was full of opportunities. Today, as president of Custom Complete Automotive, he is truly living the American Dream.

Raised on a kibbutz, or a collective farm, Lazar spent his early years primarily growing cotton and alfalfa. This unique experience introduced him to young adults from other countries. “It was a safe place to live, so a lot of kids from all over the world used to join us,” he says. While on the kibbutz, he met his first wife, an American from the Midwest.

Married in Israel, the couple moved to Unionville, Missouri, in 1969 where they lived and worked on a farm owned by his wife’s father. The following year they moved to a farm in Fair Grove, Missouri, where they stayed for the next 10 years. During this time Lazar started to look around at other business opportunities. “You could not get your labors’ worth in farming those days,” he says. So he took a second job managing an automotive shop in Springfield.

“I loved the automotive business,” says Lazar, adding that his automotive skills are self-taught out of necessity. “On the farm we fix our own messes.”

In 1976 he left the Springfield job and used $13,000 from the sale of an apartment he co-owned with his father in Israel to open Custom Muffler in Jefferson City. “I already knew how to do the business with my background from the Springfield shop,” he says. “I just needed a niche where I wouldn’t have a lot of competition.” The capital city turned out to be the perfect choice. In fact, his gamble paid off so well, the following year he opened a second shop on the Business Loop in Columbia.

Following his divorce in 1980, Lazar left the farm and a year later opened another automotive shop in Kirksville. He branched out a bit further in the industry in 1985 when he started the Ozark Muffler Corporation factory in Columbia. “There was no muffler manufacturing equipment made in the United States at the time,” Lazar says. “So I traveled to Italy and brought my equipment back from there.”

At the same time, he continued to build more shops. In 1991, Lazar opened the Providence shop and just six years later the one on Nifong, at which time he changed the name of the business to Custom Complete Automotive. In 2000, when a Chinese firm from Beijing “gave me an offer I could not refuse,” he sold his successful OMCO factory. Three years later, he opened the shop on Worley by the Columbia Mall.

Lazar says he loves Columbia. “In the years that I owned the factory, I traveled all over the country from New York to California. I spent a lot of time on the road, but I could not wait to come back to Columbia. It’s the absolute jewel of this country.”

After almost 40 years in industry, Lazar has seen a lot of changes. “You have to be sharp to keep up with technology to survive,” he says. His own business has changed considerably as well. “Only 8.5 percent of our business is exhaust work now. Today we do everything it takes to fix your car except body work.”

Lazar has some advice for others hoping to start a business in this land of opportunity. “I think you just have to get lucky once in a while, and you have to work hard,” he says. “If you want to survive in business, you have to adapt as well.

“We are running a good business with a good reputation,” Lazar adds, giving credit to the 50 employees who work for him. “If you last for 38 years, you’ve done something right.”


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Elias Abadi

Owner and CEO, CoMo Premium Roofing

Elias Abadi was 11 years old and spoke very little English when his family left Iran. Leaving behind everything that was familiar and learning to adapt and thrive in a new country wasn’t easy. Today, as the owner and CEO of CoMo Premium Roofing, Abadi says he feels blessed to be running a successful business and raising his own family in the United States.

It was a rapidly changing political landscape that initially prompted many of Abadi’s extended family to leave Iran in the 1970s and early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that Abadi’s immediate family, including his parents and two older brothers, decided to follow suit. Settling briefly in Turkey, they soon relocated to Los Angeles to be closer to other family members who had made the United States their home. In 1999, an uncle who was a professor at the University of Missouri suggested they move to the Midwest. “He said to my parents: ‘Why don’t you bring kids here to Columbia? It’s smaller, and they can get a good education,’” Abadi says.

Taking English as a Second Language programs at both West Junior High and Hickman High School, Abadi improved his English. Soon, he picked up a part-time job at MBS that lead to a full-time position after graduation. It was while he was working at the book company that he met his future wife, Marta, who is from Belarus.

While Abadi was attending MU and working on a degree in civil engineering, his older brother Mousa, who was working for Gus’s Pizzeria, approached him with a proposition. “He said, ‘The owner is selling it, and it would be a good opportunity,’” Abadi says. They bought the business, which they renamed Southside Pizza, and Abadi left the university.

During this time Abadi was married, and by the time he was 25, they had the first of their three boys. “At the restaurant because it was a sports bar, I was working until 2, 3 in the morning,” he says. “I was missing a lot of things with my boy.” So he quit.

Unemployed and anxious about supporting his family, he had a friend who was successfully flipping homes, and Abadi decided to give it a try. He bought a home and hired a couple of friends to help him remodel it. They completed part of the roof and went home for the day when a hailstorm hit. “I came back to do the other part of the roof the next day, and several neighbors walked by and asked if I would give them an estimate,” he says. “It just kind of clicked for me. I needed to concentrate on one thing.”

Abadi opened CoMo Premium Roofing in 2009 from a home office, relying primarily on business he received from canvassing door to door. Today, CoMo Premium Roofing is located on Interstate 70 Drive SE andserves customers in Columbia and within an hour’s radius of the city.

“It’s so much easier here, the way you can expand yourself and the freedoms you have here,” Abadi says of being self-employed in the States. “As long as you’re honest, you work hard and you have even a partial business plan, you can be successful here.” Both of Abadi’s brothers own local businesses as well. Mousa still owns Southside where Abadi’s mother and father help out, and his eldest brother, Reza, owns a branch of USA Mortgage in Columbia.

Abadi appreciates the sacrifices his parents made to leave their home and come to this country. “I am blessed my kids are living here in America,” he says. “You can have your own car, your own house, your own business.” Although he misses Iran and returns to visit when he can, Abadi considers Columbia home.

“I love the community,” he says, especially because of the way local businesses are supported. “Other companies may come and give the homeowner a bid, and the owner won’t even look at it. They go with me because I am a local company.”

As for future plans, Abadi hopes to continue working in his business and that it will remain in the family. “It has a lot of headaches, but every job has good and bad in it,” he says. “In my opinion, being self-employed has more benefits.”

Overall, he is focused on taking care of his three boys, ages 6, 3 and newborn. “My goal is really to be a good father and to raise my children well,” he says.


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Pano and Alex Terzopoulos

Co-owners of G&D Pizzeria

When brothers Pano and Alex Terzopoulos left Greece almost 40 years ago to come to the United States, they didn’t know what to expect, but they were ready to work hard to achieve their dreams. Today, as co-owners of G&D Pizzeria, they run a thriving restaurant business in a community that has not only supported them over the years but also one that they are proud to call home.

According to Alex, their uncle and local businessman George Terzopoulos paved the way for their success. Opening G&D Pizzeria in 1977, he already owned G&D Steakhouse and By George, as well as several restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota. “He was in this business, and he needed some good help,” Alex says.

In January that same year, Pano, 18 at the time, moved to Columbia. “It started as a deal with my parents,” he says. “I said I can I go over for five years and save some money and then come back and start a business or enlarge our family grocery store.”

Alex, 23 and serving in the military, immigrated eight months later. “My brother said, ‘Alex, if you work like you work in Greece, you make four times the money here,’” Alex says. “I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’”

With financial help from their uncle, the brothers bought the restaurant in 1979, which Pano says was easier than trying to secure a traditional loan from the bank. “Giving a loan for a restaurant for two guys just off the boat from Greece would be hard,” he says.

But they were ahead of the game when it came to running a business. “We got a good start in Greece working for our father,” Alex says.

At first, they didn’t hire any employees to save money and keep their overhead low. “We were willing to work, and we were here from open to close every day,” says Alex, who adds they also worked for free the first six months they were open. Their efforts paid off and allowed them to stay in the States. After waiting the required five years, the men became American citizens in 1982.

For the brothers, the secret to their success is the quality of their menu items. They prepare everything they make daily, cut their own steaks and only use fresh ingredients. In fact, many of their recipes, such as their Greek salad, they brought from home. “The pizza recipe has been in our family for 60 years,” Pano says. Overall, they only make menu items they know they can sell. “Your customers really guide you. If they don’t like something, you won’t be selling it very long.” Today, though they offer a full-service menu, their best sellers are still their pizzas, steaks and gyros.

The Terzopoulos brothers believe the American Dream is alive and well for those who are willing to work hard and believe in what they are doing. “You come here for a better life, and if you achieve that dream, then it’s worth it,” Pano says.

Alex agrees, especially for those just starting out. “If you are a young person, you have the potential for more opportunities in America,” he says.

Both consider Columbia a great place to not only start a business but also to raise a family. “The community has supported our business for years, and we support our community,” says Pano, who has three children: two daughters, 23 and 19, and a 20-year-old son.

Alex, who has been married for 24 years and has two children, a 23-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son, appreciates the beauty of the city and the friendliness of the people. “It reminds me of my hometown of Katerini, Greece,” he says.

Alex and Pano encourage others to take a similar leap of faith and start their own businesses, though they admit it may be a bit harder to get a foot in the door these days. They advise to start by researching the industry. Understand there is always a risk. And when it comes to starting a restaurant? “Work in one,” Pano says. “That’s what we did. And make sure the food is good and hot.”




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