The Barnstable Patriot (Barnstable, MA)
Posted on October 14, 2004
By David Curran
Doreen Bilezikian traveled extensively in Asia to find wares American consumers wanted to buy. This week, the Christmas Tree Shops executive told a group of business women from the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan how the West was won.
The formula? For Chuck and Doreen Bilezikian, it was hard work, perseverance, personal sacrifice, a willingness to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them, to invent new systems when the ones available wouldn't do, and most of all, to give customers what they want.
"We would not be in business without our customers," Bilezikian said. "We have to listen to what they want."
All of that, along with a talent for buying and selling - "My husband is a very talented merchant," Bilezikian said - went into the Christmas Tree Shops' 34-years-and-counting success story.
Bilezikian's very select audience was made up of four prominent Uzbek business women. They met with Bilezikian at Cape Cod Community College Wednesday to learn about economic development and entrepreneurship, with a focus on women in those fields. The college is hosting the foursome for the final eight days of their 10-day U.S. visit, which began with two days of briefings in Washington, D.C.
The four are among a group of 50 Uzbeks visiting the U.S. for 10 days under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.-based Open World Leadership Center to study economic development, health, independent media and the rule of law, according to the Center"s Web site.
All 50 began their visits with two days of briefings in Washington, D.C. They then split up into smaller delegations according to their fields and went their separate ways to meet with American professional counterparts in different parts of the country.
Viktoriya Kim, Chief Specialist at the Department of International Economic Organizations for Uzbekistan's Agency for Foreign Economic Relations, said the visit is adding an in-practice dimension to what previously had been "theoretical knowledge."
"Doreen for us becomes an example of a perfect business woman, business leader, who started a very small business that is now a giant" in the Northeast, Kim said. "We see the process of how a small business can grow... to a giant."
On Tuesday, the foursome had visited with Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and state Sen. Therese Murray, getting a look at the public sector in action.
In Healey, Kim said, "We could see with our own eyes a perfect leader in the public sector."
Then, as a speaker using a foreign tongue, she clarified that the four were "very impressed with the United States of America," but "Of course we understand the United States is not an ideal country. We could see with our own eyes democracy in action, the legal system in action, free entrepreneurship in action."
After their meeting with Murray in Plymouth, the women went to check out a nearby Wal-Mart. Bilezikian suggested they try to visit a Target store before returning to Uzbekistan.
Another member of the delegation, Zoya Kaliyeva, Director of Legal Resources for the Karakalpakstan Republic branch of the National Businesswomen's Association, said she had taken an interest in the business advocacy, lobbying and fund raising she saw in Boston and Washington, and would like to get involved in those activities in her home country.
"We are just working on the issue of business advocacy," she said through an interpreter.
Start-up funding was one of the points Bilezikian touched on as she related how self-sacrifice and risk were essential building blocks in running and expanding the small business they had purchased. The seller agreed to let the Bilezikians pay for the business over a 10-year period, and they borrowed against their credit cards "to the hilt," she said.
She and her husband worked long days, ran all aspects of the business - unloading trucks, hiring, bookkeeping, buying, you name it - and took minimal salaries while reinvesting profits in to the business and living in a small apartment above the original Yarmouthport store. It was five years before they felt they could afford to move into a single-family home, and five more before they were ready to open a second location.
"We learned that the concept of the store would be successful and we built on that as time went by," Bilezikian said.
When they expanded to the point where merchandise was warehoused rather than stored only in store stockrooms, she said, they could find no computer program that would allow them to keep track of what was where as well as they wanted to. So they had a new program written to their specifications.
Last year, the Bilezikians sold the business to Bed Bath & Beyond, Inc. for $200 million. By the end of this year, she said, Christmas Tree Shops will have created between 3,200 and 3,300 jobs.
"Today we have three generations shopping in the stores: grandmother, mother and daughter," Bilezikian said.
In addition to Kaliyeva and Kim, the Uzbek delegation includes Lola Fatayeva, manager of a business women"s association in the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara, and Roza Sabirova, director of Asia Textiles, Ltd., a joint venture that produces fabric for export.
The visit to Cape Cod has not been all work, no play. They have explored art galleries in Provincetown and attended the Last Gasp fund-raising bike ride and clambake in Sandwich last weekend.
The Open World Program is the only initiative of its kind funded and administered by the U.S. Congress. It began in 1999 as a way to bring emerging leaders from the Russian Federation to experience American democracy and free enterprise in action. Uzbekistan became eligible last year, when Congress authorized expanding the program to the other former Soviet republics.
[Reprinted with Permission]