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Entrepreneur Sheldon Stephen shares his secret: How to grow $15,000 into millions

Sunday, April 6, 2014

At 28, Sheldon Stephen is a self-made millionaire with an estimated net worth of over $60 million. It is a fortune he amassed through hard work selling mobile phones and developing real estate up and down the value chain. Anyone who knows him can testify that he created his wealth the old-fashioned way; through hard work and perseverance, Stephen told the Sunday BG in one of three interviews, the most recent being April 3. Born in San Fernando to an employee at an oil company and a housewife, he attended a nearby Vedic school before going to San Fernando Secondary. A lot happened in young Sheldon’s life at 16 after secondary school. He enrolled to study business management at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), his father passed away, and he dropped out of UWI to start a business. 

His father last knew him as a student. His decision to leave tertiary education was met with resistance by his family. As the last of the children, there was no pressure on him to provide for the family and it was his family’s preference that he stay in UWI and complete his degree. Today, some of his family number among the 350 people who work for him throughout his group of companies. By 17, he had mustered $15,000 from his family and started a small kiosk upstairs a small mall on High Street in San Fernando, selling mobile phones. Asked if the location was what made his first business prosper, he said no. “I think it was the drive. By that time we had already built a clientele. We were already recognised as the cell phone guys.” 


When asked why he kept saying “we,” he said his business partner, Abdool Azimullah stayed with him in his other ventures. “We started everything together,” he said. “We were friends growing up.” Stephen asked that the Sunday BG not print Azimullah’s exact age but okayed the newspaper to say he is slightly older. “So everybody would have found out our location, and would have come to us, because we had the best prices. We had a lot of innovative technology, new stuff. A lot of things that, at that time, were hard to get done, we would basically get done. So we were up to the times with all the new stuff.” His business prospered and, by 18, he took on a bold new partner, Digicel. “I got my Digicel franchise at the age of 18, which was pretty young and that’s what drove me to get develop a group of companies that fast. “I started off with Digicel in 2005 and, over a short period of time, we grew to become Digicel’s number one dealer, that is, based on performance.”


The 17-year-old’s cellphone business was “independent” because it had no bmobile contract. He got his Digicel contract in 2005, but did not start until 2006 because of “all that drama with bmobile” that saw Digicel’s launch date delayed until April 2006. His two Digicel stores did very well in its first five years. Lollabee Cellular grew from two outlets in south Trinidad to, now, eight outlets nationwide. Loyal to Digicel, he added, “So that’s just to show the whole escalation in terms of growth within Digicel. That’s Lollabee Cellular.” 


Persistence and hard work

However, Stephen was not sitting on the laurels earned as a Digicel retailer. In 2008, a mere two years after his Digicel launch, Stephen opened a construction company. “We started to do a lot of buildings and houses. We did a lot work for Digicel as well. We actually built all of Digicel’s stores. We also do a lot of work for T&TEC, and for, you know, people who want houses built and that kind of thing. We then we went into machinery. That actually did pretty good.” In 2009, he opened up an event management company, Lollabee Entertainment, “and that was really, really successful. We do a lot of events and Carnival fetes in South. The Guardian publishes a lot of photos from my parties. We actually dominated the entertainment industry in a matter of two years or so.” “We are probably the most premium event company in South right now. I’m probably the only person who gets people to come from the West to South to party.”


In 2010, Stephen and his partner opened a real estate company through which they buy, sell and develop properties. “We actually launched our first major real estate project through Lollabee Real Estate, which is The Hamptons in Palmiste,” he said, adding that the project “up to scratch with those projects in the West.” He said a key acquisition was a two-acre plot of land in Palmiste. He described it as “a good breakthrough for us.” Stephen is proud of The Hamptons at Palmiste—named after the prestigious New York island-neighbourhood—which forms the South Fork of Long Island. “It’s a partly-solar townhouse development. We’re going green with our housing projects, so we’re doing solar street lights, part of the house will be solar. It’s actually 20 townhouses with pools etc.”


In 2012, Stephen opened another company, Experience Effects Ltd, which is a lighting and special-effects company. He said he has done work for Digicel and Stag. “For a two-year-old company, I think we did extremely well. This year we did Army fete, Fire fete, South Cancer fete, Jamboree and Rise. I did all Johnny Soong events. We took work from companies that were out there 20 years and more. I think it was a real big achievement,” he said. “It’s a really big challenge to get people to even consider you for work.” In 2014, he plans to venture into advertising. “My goal is to open an advertising company with LED screens. We actually have our first screen up in Princes Town. That is up and running,” he said. Looking further, five to 10 years ahead, he said he sees himself expanding each of his businesses. In real estate, we already have projects lined up for the next five years in Sangre Grande, Fyzabad. “We have another project in Palmiste too.


“The real estate company purchased a lot of land all over the place, so what I’m going to do now, all over, is housing projects on each of those plots of land. In terms of Lollabee Real Estate, we have our hands full for the next five to eight years.” He said he plans to “go heavily into machinery this year” as well, buying tractors, escalators and backhoes, “just to diversify out the construction company with heavy equipment.”


Long-term plans

Stephen’s 10-year goal is to open “a manufacturing company that generates a lot of employment for the country.” He said he has a few ideas, but has not decided on which of his three to five ideas he will pursue. He said a number of manufacturers in T&T have no major competition. He said no one is doing “recycling of energy” either, so he may look into that too. Asked what he thought is holding back fledgling entrepreneurs, he said: “My view of some Trinidadians’ downfall is that they like to follow. “Somebody starts to sell burgers, next thing there are a million burger carts around the country. Somebody starts to sell clothes, same thing. We don’t like to be audacious and to take the first step. We’re not that innovative and it makes the industry saturated.”
Prodded for more business ideas to share with Sunday BG readers, Stephen said: “On a large scale, I think Trinidad needs something for tourism. I’m not capable of doing it yet, but you know, a businessman should look into something for tourism. Let’s say, like a big water park. We’re an island. We have beaches and we don’t really have a world-class facility for tourists.

“We need something to T&T like Atlantis is to The Bahamas. Look at what one massive hotel could do for an island. We have beautiful waters. I think if a big investor invests in a massive resort, with water slides, or even build an island off Trinidad—like the small palm islands off Dubai—that will generate massive tourism for Trinidad. It’s out of my reach for now but maybe in 20-30 years.” Asked for the overall worth of his company, he said he never really calculated it but “if I add in all my real estate properties, it would be a good bit, you know.” 
He added: “If I were to give you a figure I would be guessing, but I started off with $15,000 and we are definitely a multi-million dollar company right now. My real estate company alone is probably valued at least $35 million based on the properties we have alone.” 


He estimated that is assets Experience Effects Ltd probably has about $4 million in equipment; his construction company, about $2 million; Lollabee Cellular about $6 million in stock and equipment; in vehicles, about $4 million, “so if you add up, we’re safely over $60 million in terms of the value of what we have. I think it was a good accomplishment in a short space of time.”
He later added, “I’m only 28, so we have some years ahead.” Many think Stephen inherited his business from his father or wealthy relatives but unhesitatingly he told the Sunday BG, “No, I started this off from scratch. Many people think that I am running it now, that I didn’t start it. People always think my dad started it up, and I just run it because he’s not here, but that’s not true.
“I really came from nothing. Hard work is what made me what I am today, and everybody who knows me could testify to that. It’s not that I inherited millions, and I just continued to make money from that money. To take $15,000 to millions of dollars really requires a lot of hard work.”


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