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The Money Makers

Ten Chicago entrepreneurs who have recently found success talk about how they did it.

(page 3 of 3)

 

Anthony A. Demasi
Founder and managing member, Tsunami Capital, LLC

Making it: After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in D.C., Anthony Demasi went to work first for a large national law firm, then for a smaller boutique firm, where he practiced securities and commodity futures law. He liked the work, but it didn’t satisfy his inner entrepreneur (his grandfather ran his own wholesale hardware business and once dammed a river in Michigan so he could sell the surrounding land as premium lakefront property). So Demasi struck out on his own, launching Tsunami Capital. The company offers legal and venture capital services, trades in futures, and launches and manages entertainment businesses, including the nightclub Reserve, the West Loop hot spot. Tsunami has about $10 million invested and has achieved returns of 68 percent and 56 percent in the past two years, Demasi says.

Burning the candle at both ends: Having a venture capital business and a nightclub means there is work that literally needs to be done 24 hours a day. Demasi has gotten good at delegating. But long hours have their rewards, in addition to the financial. Demasi, 31, is known for throwing after-hours surprise parties for friends, customers, and regular clients at the Park Hyatt, The Peninsula, and other swanky hotels. “I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from surprising people, entertaining people,” he says.

On being a wealthy Gold Coast bachelor: “All the time, people are trying to set me up,” Demasi says. He wants to start his own family eventually, but he’s not ready now, even if being a bachelor is a disadvantage in the workplace. “People look at you as being a little less stable,” he says. “But I can accept that.”

 

Mike Domek
CEO, TicketsNow.com, Crystal Lake

Making it: Mike Domek had spent three years at Southern Illinois University when he realized he was less interested in his studies than in his hobby: selling tickets to rock concerts, football games, and other events via an 800 number routed to his Carbondale apartment. Domek moved back to his McHenry County hometown of Harvard, used his last $100 to buy a two-line phone and a music-on-hold adapter, and in 1992 started reselling tickets he found through classified ads. Within seven years his operation had evolved into the Internet-based TicketsNow.

Today, his former hobby is one of the country’s largest online ticket sales venues, with a 100-seat call center and more than $200 million in ticket inventory. The secret to Domek’s success is that TicketsNow doesn’t own any tickets. Instead, ticket brokers, whom the company screens to ensure they are legitimate, set the price for their tickets to sporting events, theatre performances, and concerts. TicketsNow charges the seller a 15-percent fee on the price of each ticket, and 10 percent to the buyer. In 2005 alone, revenues jumped from $50 million in 2004 to $150 million.

Measuring success: “I thought that when we hit $100 million, that would be success. But now that we just passed that, there’s so much left to do. When we’re a household name, that would be success.”

What money buys: “I’m not focused on brand names. I’ll buy a shirt if I like it, regardless of what it costs. I don’t care if it is from Wal-Mart or a custom shirt from Nordstrom.” Despite the couple’s disposable income, Domek’s wife, Amy, prefers to shop for the family (they have two children and one more on the way) at Wal-Mart.

What money can’t buy: Most of Domek’s close friends have been his buddies since high school. They play together on a softball team, sponsored by TicketsNow, and occasionally hop on a private jet Domek rents to go to a football game or rock concert. “These were and are true friends,” he says. “They give what they can to me, and I give what I can to them, and we’re all always appreciative of each other’s generosity. We never lose sight of that.”

Having financial security: “I feel less secure, because I can still screw it up,” says the 36-year-old. “The company could still crash and burn. As you earn more, the stakes get higher.”

Andrew K. Priester
President and COO, Priester Aviation, Wheeling

Making it: When Andrew Priester was as young as 13, his father began asking him and his four siblings if they were interested in joining the aviation company their grandfather had founded. Although Priester worked there at summer and after-school jobs sweeping out hangars and fueling planes, he opted instead to teach eighth-grade science. But after five years of teaching, he began to feel the pull of the family business. In 1997 he took what was to be a two-year sabbatical to help his father-"No one else in the family had gone into the business,” Priester says-and has been there ever since. Priester took charge, selling off the fixed-base operations (things like hangar rental, fuel purchasing, and passenger services) and focusing only on charter flights for businesses and individuals.

“I changed the philosophy of the organization, but I did it with respect to my father’s point of view,” he says. In the wake of 9/11, with commercial aviation decimated, Priester Aviation was positioned for rapid growth. “The legacy and reputation my father and grandfather built made us one of a reasonably few companies people trusted,” says the 34-year-old. That year, as many as 60 competitors could boast larger operations than Priester Aviation. Today the company is the fifth largest of the country’s 3,000 or so charter operators, and it’s still growing-revenues for the privately held company were up 57 percent last year, almost double the industry average, Priester says.

A different kind of flextime: People often ask Priester if he misses having his summers off as a teacher, but he contends his current position is better for balancing life with his wife and two kids. “When my daughter has a midday performance, I can schedule around that, go to her school, see the plays and the programs,” he says. “When you teach and have 32 kids in fourth period, you can’t leave.”

Unexpected perks: Being a company president has some advantages over teaching. “I did not come in with a silver spoon in my mouth, but, for lack of a better word, this is a sexy business to be in,” he says. “There is a different social aspect now. We get to enjoy the city more than we did in the past, attend nice events downtown. It is very rewarding from that aspect.”

Oscar S. Tatosian
Co-owner, Oscar Isberian Rugs, Evanston

Making it: Oscar Isberian, Tatosian’s grandfather, started selling Oriental rugs 86 years ago from a wheeled cart and later from his own store in Evanston. Since taking over around 20 years ago, Tatosian and his brother, Sarkis, have added stores in Highland Park and River North, increased sales by 40 percent annually, and boosted profits by eliminating middleman distributors in Europe. As early as age 16, Tatosian started making trips to Turkey, where he would buy rugs directly from weavers, and bring them back to sell without the distributor markup. The brothers now take buying trips to Nepal, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere as often as five times a year. Tatosian’s favorite trips are to Armenia, his family’s ancestral home (they immigrated to the United States from Turkey). “Armenia is an emerging market,” says Tatosian, 44. “I used to have to take $30,000 or $50,000 in cash hidden around my waist because there were no banks. Now it is a free market and it is fascinating to watch that transition.”

Defining success: “It is very elusive. I had a super month [in January]. The checkbook was fat; the bank account was really fat. I was driving back from [a customer’s home in] Hinsdale at 8 p.m. and I thought I should really be at rest. When does it stop? Then it hit me: it is not the money; it is something else, a drive. If you have talents, you cannot just let them sit on the shelf.”

Better to give: “I have a cousin who asked, ‘What is with you? Is it just about making money?’ I said, ‘Hold it. I give my money away.’ I shut him up, but more important, I got clarity for myself.” Tatosian is actively involved with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s board and with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s associate board, but his favorite cause is the Armenian Church, for which he serves on the national board and has participated in overseas gift delivery at Christmas.

Fruits of success: After living in a loft above his River North store (“Like a baker lives. My grandfather did that, too: lived on top of the Evanston store"), Tatosian, who is single, bought the historic Reid mansion on Prairie Avenue for $1.5 million in 2002 and has spent the past three years restoring it. “I use it because I like to entertain,” he says. “I do not need 6,000 square feet. It is just me and my dog [Lexie, a pit bull he rescued as a puppy]. She’s pretty good on the rugs, but not as good on the shoes. She likes Ferragamos.”

 

 

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

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