The art of an entrepreneur

Ten tips to survive in a competitive world

By Vanessa Denha Garmo

John Jonna fell into the food and beverage industry because it was the only venture opened to the newly arriving Chaldean Immigrants to the United States. If you are truly to understand John Jonna, you will re­alize that he is an ardent entrepreneur and a well-versed passionate educator whose busi­ness classroom is in retail and restaurants.

His business sense began to develop when the Jonna family opened their first store – an 1,800 square-foot grocery store called Union Pacific Market located in the inner city of De­troit at the corner of Brush and Brewster.

The philosophy was simple. “The cus­tomer is your friend, your supporter, and your source of income,” he noted. “If you treat ev­ery customer well and fairly, they will reward you with unending loyalty.”

John is the 5th of 7 children born to George and Hanniya Jonna. Growing up in Detroit in a large and caring extended family was instru­mental in his formative years. Living in pov­erty was not easy, but he never forgets the wise words of his beloved elder brother Jimmy: “As my very wise brother Jimmy said, ‘John, the world is 95 percent good. Every human being deserves respect and a little kindness.”

In the 70’s, he joined his brother Eddie who created the Merchant of Vino, a visionary wine and gourmet food shoppe. Merchant of Vino was in operation for 20 years. John and two of his three children, Kristen and Vinny, ventured into the restaurant business. They own Vinology in Ann Arbor and Vinotecca Wine Bar in Birming­ham, opened in the 90’s, and are part owners of Jolly Pumpkin in Royal Oak.

“When transitioning from one business, of which you are familiar, to the next, of which you have less experience, be careful, do your home­work, and be prepared for the long haul,” he said.

Over the years, Jonna has dished out business advice to employees, his children and anyone who has ever asked for it. He has strong beliefs on how to grow and survive in this intensely competitive environment. Here are his top 10 tips.

1. Learn the art of listening: How many times, in the middle of a testy conversation, have you heard the refrain “You’re not listening to me.” We are all afflicted with this simple lack of concen­tration. In building our gourmet business over the years, our customer was our best resource, because I, in particular, learned the art of patient listening. I learned quickly that empathy in conversation. I repeatedly used the phrase “I know how you feel.” Most people don’t want pity; they just want to you to understand how they feel, whether it be joy, or sadness, or depression. Engagement is also very powerful - listen more and talk less. Whenever a client was looking for a new product, I always re­sponded with “tell me more, tell why you like it, tell me how to use it.” That’s engagement. In deal­ing with special items, follow up was critical. If we did not find the product in two days, we called our client and told them we were on the hunt. An­other call came in a week with success or failure, but always letting our client know we were trying. Finally, follow up: when the product arrived, a friendly reminder that it was ready for pickup. This system created an eternally grateful customer base, and lead us to many new items that would have taken years to discover. This “discovery” was also combined with my insatiable and endless reading and research on the world of gourmet food.

2. Continually learn: Self education is impera­tive. In my youth at Visitation School, I got to play basketball with the first Chaldean basketball superstar, Jimmy Yono. He was everyone’s idol and played varsity ball. One day in the damp, dim, funky gym, I asked Jimmy if he would teach me how to shoot foul shots. He looked at me, smiled, and with that all knowing grin said “No, no one can teach how to shoot a foul shot. I can show you my technique, but you have to teach yourself.” Well, it’s pretty obvious, stop blaming your teacher, and start teaching yourself, endlessly, continuously and forever. Read, read, read, fall asleep and read more.

3. Develop a sense of vision: Gaze intent­ly into the future. When we started Merchant of Vino, no had ever imagined that custom­ers would ever actually pay for bottled water. What? Water is free right. The world is chang­ing so fast, that those who sit still will be like the house by the side of the road, rumbling and creaking as the speeding train goes by. Re­member, my father and yours saw the first light bulb, first airplane, first television, first car. I will bet you a dollar the first liquor store on Mars will be owned by a Chaldean.

4. Be a true entrepreneur: This definition was given to me by a 90-year-old Ph.D. pro­fessor in the Wharton School of Business: An entrepreneur is a motivated individual in the relentless pursuit of opportunity. Key words here are “motivated” and “relentless.” Don’t just profess it, live it.

5. Follow the Japanese business philoso­phy of Kaizen: This is the combination of Zen philosophy and the teachings on quality circle by Dr. Edward Demming. It states that qual­ity and success are based on the principle of extreme dedication to continuous improvement in everything. This takes a serious study, but well worth it, because quality is important.

6. Never quit: Never stop moving forward, un­der any and all circumstances. Failure is just a small learning bump, albeit painful.

7. Follow the angle: Every business opportu­nity has a hidden method of success, sometimes ob­vious, sometimes not, sometimes political, some­times an unknown relationship, but always there. Read between the lines.

8. Take the high road: Honesty is just that, and once you choose it, your reputation and re­spect will spread fast. My Father always said, “If you are honest, people will love you, but once a thief, always a thief.”

9. Respect your elders: Please, please, once in a while take the advice of your elders. Parents, old crusty uncles and aunts, colorful cousins, good balding friends, shoe shine men. Old people are old, but they have been through a lot, and have much wisdom buried in their wizened skin.

10. Stay healthy: Prevention is the key to get­ting sick. You will be shocked how a small amount of exercise, a tweak in diet and a bright optimistic outlook can improve health. Learn to live and tol­erate your pain, and the pain of others.