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A version of this post originally appeared in February 2016.
Fancy Pokket is the largest manufacturer of pita bread, flatbread, bagels, and tortilla wraps in Atlantic Canada. Headquartered in Moncton, Fancy Pokket now operates from a 45,000 square foot (sq ft) facility and employs in the neighbourhood of 60 people.
Mike Timani, President and CEO, has become a prominent member of several regional food and beverage industry organizations, and currently serves as President of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council (NBMC) Board.
ONB spoke with Mr Timani about coming to Canada, his move to New Brunswick, entrepreneurship, and more.
ONB: Let’s trace your path from Lebanon to Canada. What brought you here?
Timani: I was born in Venezuela but my parents were Lebanese; I was five years old when the family moved to Lebanon. My journey to New Brunswick began during the Lebanese Civil War. During that conflict, I immigrated to Canada with intentions of becoming a mechanical engineer. Despite having a brother in the U.S., I chose to come to Canada because it had such a great international reputation.
It would be several months after my arrival before I could get a work permit. I could not get a student visa upon arriving, and by the time I had the permit I had spent all of the money I brought with me. I then obtained an $800 loan from a cousin and when my permit arrived I was down to about $50. It was a tough place to start from.
I couldn’t afford school like I had hoped, and I didn’t want to call my parents in the middle of a civil war to request more money. So, I worked as a busboy at Toronto’s Hilton International Hotel. Within a few months, I moved to other roles — I held 14 different positions within Hilton in nine years.
ONB: It was your Hilton tenure that brought you to New Brunswick, isn’t that right?
Timani: Yes, during that time I transferred to Saint John. By 1985, I was Food and Beverage Director with 200 employees reporting to me. In 1988, I decided I had the experience to go out on my own. I moved to Moncton that December and opened this business in June 1989.
ONB: Fancy Pokket’s growth has been impressive; from humble beginnings to a large team.
Timani: I started in a 1,000 sq ft bakery with three employees, then added a 74 seat restaurant, all under the Fancy Pokket name. As you say the bakery was humble, making one pita at a time. I recognized that the status quo wasn’t sustainable and that growth was needed to survive. This is when I truly began to understand business. Entrepreneurs have ambition, but they don’t know what they’re truly facing until they’ve actually begun operations.
I had major retailers telling me they’d love to buy from me but that given our size there was no way we would be able to keep up with their demand. So at the end of that first summer, I focused on improving efficiency and speeding up our line.
I told the bank I needed more help. They thought I was crazy, that I had just started and it was too soon. I said this is how growth happens, and that I had the numbers and buyers to support it. Ultimately, the bank came through and within eight months I had moved to a 4,000 sq ft location. New financing helped semi-automate our line to increase productivity; we moved to 4,000 loaves per hour. Our first private-label contract for a major retailer came in August 1990, which we still have.
We’ve gone through six expansions to land in our current 45,000 sq ft operation. During that time we diversified our lines considerably, and with great success. We started offering a variety of pita types, added a bagel line, tortillas, Greek pitas, and more. The Lebanese Pita line alone increased sales by 30 percent. On top of all this, we did a lot of additional automation, added freezing capacity, and more.
ONB: What do you see as advantages of operating from New Brunswick?
Timani: I think we should be proud of the culture here, that’s our biggest advantage. The people of New Brunswick are so genuine and helpful. We continue to be a very welcoming and accommodating region. As an immigrant myself I have to say I was warmly welcomed in New Brunswick and am happy to call it home. Operating in this type of welcoming environment has been a huge benefit to us.
ONB: Can you comment on ONB’s role with Fancy Pokket?
Timani: Businesses need strong government to support and assist them when it comes to exports. I’ll give you a simple example; a small business looking to export to the US.
Despite being next door, the fact is we don’t always have contacts in US markets. So when ONB organizes a trade mission and gives businesses an opportunity to sit down in front of 10-15 buyers, that’s huge. I’ve been a part of trade missions where we’ve sat face-to-face with as many as 10 potential buyers over a couple of days. To get those 15-20 minutes with them—with the help of ONB—is something no small business can effectively do on their own.
This is something I will tell any government; we should never take this type of activity away and should even invest further in these missions. Having government invest in trade missions and trade shows opens markets for entrepreneurs who may have issues getting in front of major potential clients. In my 26 years doing this, I’ve learned that not every trade show will make you a killing. Some buyers need to see you multiple times to know you’re serious and that you have staying power.
ONB: You currently head the NBMC. Tell us a bit about your involvement there and fill our audience in on the organization’s latest initiative.
Timani: We are excited to have launched the Hope Restored welcome video for Syrian arrivals. The video is great, and we’re very proud of it. Its aim is to show arriving Syrians what New Brunswick is all about. It’s spoken in Arabic and offered online with both English and French subtitles.
The woman in the video—Layla Rahmeh—is Syrian herself; she arrived in Saint John over three years ago. The video explains various aspects of New Brunswick; what we provide in terms of healthcare and education, our workforce, our gorgeous scenery, climate, etc. It’s really giving people the entire New Brunswick picture. I visited with some of the arrivals on launch day and, speaking Arabic myself, got to chat with several of them. It was a great experience.
ONB: With all of these new arrivals in New Brunswick do you think the province has the resources to properly support new entrepreneurs?
Timani: Absolutely. There are some great organizations—3Plus Corp here in Moncton as an example—that are doing great work to support aspiring business owners.
The province continues seeking ways to better understand the importance of both immigration and entrepreneurship. More and more people are realizing the benefits of bringing immigrants to the province. By having the mentorship resources we have, and the willingness and enthusiasm to help people settle here, I think we’re on the right path.
At the end of the day, immigration works. Most immigrants are very hard working; they don’t arrive with a sense of entitlement. They are committed to making things happen here for themselves.
Written by Jason Boies
Cover image via Flickr