[This is the first in a series of profiles, each of which is meant to highlight a particular quality or characteristic that lends itself to successful business practices. If you know someone who should be featured here, please send suggestions or leave a comment. Enjoy!]
“Ok, whaddya need?” Fred Kunik is on the phone, and I’m eavesdropping as he chats casually to someone on the other end of the line. He’s talking about one of the many projects on his plate, and I have the distinct feeling that he says this a lot—what do you need?—since he’s clearly someone who has learned over the years to master the lucrative art of fulfilling need. And what is an entrepreneur, if not someone who sees, assesses, and satisfies need, often before the rest of us are even aware we have it?
With a career in the financial services industry that has spanned three and a half decades and that has led him through the check cashing business, international wire transfers, ATM services, foreign currency exchange, and even the establishment of an armored car service, Fred can only be described as someone who seizes opportunity when it arises. In 2007, he and his partner sold their business, RIA Telecommunications, which was the third largest money transfer company in the world, to the public group, Euronet, for over $500 million, which included company stock, CVR’s, and SAR’s. A few days ago, I sat down with Fred to find out what insights he could share about the mind of a successful entrepreneur, and whether or not those insights might be useful to those of us trying to make our way in the small business sector.
Fred and I meet in a conference room in one of his office buildings in Los Angeles. On the surface it’s all technology everywhere. An electronic board displays the exchange rates of all the major currencies and employees are busy talking on the phone or typing away at their desks. And I’m pretty sure I noticed a camera mounted to the outside of the main door, electronically eyeing everyone who comes and goes. In sharp distinction to all this, Fred does not own a computer. I don’t even think he has his own email account. Whatever it is that makes him a successful businessman, it is clearly not his familiarity with technology, owning the latest gadget, or staying ahead of the start-up curve. It doesn’t take long to figure out what it is about Fred that makes him a great entrepreneur. It is much more basic and simple than I would have imagined, but there it is, bright as the daylight outside. What separates the wheat from the chaff in the world of business seems to come down to an important question that everyone must answer for him or herself: are you or are you not someone who looks for ways to make things happen?
To put it another way: are you a doer or are you a naysayer? I notice that when Fred describes the significant moments that have shaped his career, he often uses the word “opportunity”: “I had the opportunity to start a particular business”; “I had the opportunity to buy a certain company”; “I had the opportunity to learn from a great businessman.” But, while many of us tend to think of opportunities as events that fall at the lucky feet of those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, I don’t think this is how Fred understands it. I imagine that, for Fred, opportunity is nothing more than the seedling of possibility before anything takes root or begins to blossom. It is only a moment, seized or not seized, when everything can still go either way. There are no guarantees, only the desire to create something out of nothing, and these moments occur all the time and to everyone. That is, opportunities don’t just present themselves wholesale to the fortunate few who happen to be hanging around; rather, they are created and shaped by people who want to bring them to fruition. This is why Fred says, “you have to look to want to make a deal. You can always find reasons not to. The reasons not to are much easier to find.” Viewed in this light, opportunity seems to be more about a certain mindset, a way of looking at the raw material of the world and discovering in it a blueprint for something bigger or better or more perfect. Maybe opportunity just comes down to different ways of seeing. Fred says, “Some people only see problems wherever they look. I don’t want to see problems. I want solutions.”
He tells me the following story, as if to perfectly illustrate this point: It was the mid-1980s, and the size of the unbanked population was increasing. Technically, these were people without bank accounts, either because they didn’t have enough money to meet the minimum required balance, because they were immigrants, or simply because they didn’t trust banks to protect their resources. At the time, most large financial institutions refused to do business with the unbanked because it involved a certain amount of risk, and there was no way to hold them financially accountable, as they could always come and go from the bank without leaving a trace. As the unbanked population grew, so did their need to find places where they could cash checks and wire money home, often to their families in Mexico and throughout Central America. This is where Fred and his partner come in. They had opened a number of check cashing stores throughout Los Angeles, one of which was located in the barrio in Santa Ana. One day, two Mexican men walked into his office and asked to take Fred out to coffee. His curiosity piqued, he agreed. And so they took him out, sat him down, and presented him their idea.
Basically, their proposition went like this: Western Union was in financial trouble back in the mid-80s, and from firsthand experience, these two men understood how serious the repercussions were on the ground in Mexico. Because Western Union was so deeply in debt, the wire transfers that it sent to Mexico often stalled out. What should have been an immediate transaction would, instead, take weeks, or months even, to go through. For example, if someone wired money from the US to a family back home, there would be a long delay before they were able to collect it. Recognizing the direness of this situation, these two men had a solution in mind. They wanted to set up send locations to do wires into Mexico, which would be expedited on the other side by someone from the Mexican National Telegraph Office who was able to produce the cash quickly. Families would receive their money faster, and it would also break up the Western Union monopoly in Mexico. The only problem was, these two men lacked the resources to get the whole operation up and running. They decided to approach Fred only because his store happened to be located in their community, but they could not have stumbled upon a more receptive listener. Where many would have turned them down, Fred saw an opportunity. They came to him with an idea, and in it, he was able to envision something bigger, something that could be built and developed and grown into a viable business. Ultimately, he gave them seven of his stores, and in the process, established a sub-business sending wires into Mexico. These seven stores would eventually become the foundation for the international money transfer company, RIA, and it would turn out to be one of the wisest business decisions of his career.
And this is hardly an isolated event. Again and again, these kinds of things happened to Fred, as if he were sending out some kind of cosmic welcome to the universe. For example, another time, he received a phone call out of the blue from someone that Fred had never met and never heard of. The caller was trying to unload a foreign exchange company based in San Francisco. In the process of trying to sell the business, this man had trekked up to Sacramento to find out who owned remitter licenses in California, a requirement to operate the company. While the man was there, he came across Fred’s name on a list of wire license owners and decided to call him up and make him an offer to sell. Now, when I put myself in Fred’s place—on the receiving end of an unexpected phone call from someone I have never done business with who offers to sell me his company for $250,000—I imagine I would politely decline and hang up. But this is exactly what Fred did not do. The difference is that Fred takes the call where many of us would not. Within days, he was on a plane to San Francisco, headed for a tiny building at the end of an alleyway on Sutter and Stockton. I picture him poking around, squinting his eyes at the situation, quietly sizing up the risk and potential reward of such a purchase. And in the end, he took the lot, including the man slumped over asleep at his desk, who would later provide the early prototype for a wire and draft service geared specifically to businesses, something that would become another lucrative venture. In Fred’s own words: “I got a sweetheart deal out of him,” and all the sweeter because it only led to more and more opportunities.
Now all this is not to suggest that Fred throws caution to the wind, scoffs at risk, and plows ahead at all cost. Quite the contrary. In fact, Fred is very risk adverse when it comes to certain things. For example, in spite of all his business in Las Vegas, Fred is never tempted to gamble. Too risky. And given the volatility of today’s market, Fred is the kind of guy who goes in for bonds over stocks. It turns out that risk is a very personal thing and that, depending on where you stand and how you’re wired, the same scenario can look very different from two different perspectives. At the very least, it seems particularly wise to make peace with one’s own level of comfort when it comes to assessing and assuming risk. In Fred’s case, he seems to possess a fruitful combination: the right amount of curiosity and enough courage to make things coalesce around him. Mainly, he is willing to listen to what someone has to offer—even if they wander in off the streets or call him up unsolicited—and then, a certain ability to evaluate both the consequences and potential payoff before making a decision. And he’ll be the first to admit, “Not everything works. Some things fail. We’ve lost a lot of money at things. You have to understand what you’re getting into.” And that must be the mark of a good businessman—not just someone who can say that he’s won more than he’s lost, which certainly is true in this case—but to be the kind of person who continually looks for ways to say “yes,” to make things happen, to face the world and say “whaddya need?” and then go out and create it.
-by Jacqueline Abrams