Entrepreneur Sam Simon has built his success by betting on people.
By Jackie Headapohl
Photography by Rudy Thomas
Simon came to America from Armenia at age 9 with his parents and four siblings. “We had nothing,” he said. “My father never believed in taking money from anyone. He didn’t want welfare. He said, ‘Give me jobs.’”
His dad went to work at a friend’s gas station in Detroit at Six Mile and Hoover. Opportunities began to open up for his family. “Shell Oil gave him the door opening, and from there on he worked hard,” Simon said. His father eventually owned 30 gas stations.
He passed his work ethic to his children. While both his parents worked two jobs, Sam worked, too, mowing lawns, delivering newspapers and pumping gas. “I also had to go to school to learn English,” he said. “It was a terrible time. We looked different. Our clothes didn’t match. In school, people used to spit on my food — it was the most horrible time for me.”
Although it was difficult, he said those times cemented his belief in the importance of family. “My father got me to understand how you dedicate yourself to hard work. If you want something, you must go after it and never give up. Nobody’s going to give it to you.”
ON HIS OWN
When he was 19, Sam struck out on his own, founding Atlas Oil in 1985. “We had a Shell gas station across from [Detroit] City Airport. Our customers needed diesel and we didn’t have it. Shell said, ‘No, we can’t supply diesel.’ But I don’t take no for an answer.”
He found a diesel supplier and bought a truck, maxing out his credit cards to the tune of $30,000 to get started. He hired one person — “the best sales person I knew. Seven years later, I married her and Atlas Oil was bigger than my family’s business. After some 30 years, we have 500 employees and sales of over $2 billion.”
He began by buying the mortgages of retail gas stations, fixing them up and bringing in the right people to run them. Eventually, people brought him other deals and his empire — Simon Group Holdings (SGH) — snowballed.
“I invest in people, not facilities,” Simon said. “I’d rather buy a mediocre company with a great person than vice versa.”
SGH has 120 direct investments and 15 companies in sectors including commercial fuel supply and distribution; oil field services; logistics and transportation; commercial and residential real estate; aerospace and defense; technology; and turnkey modular housing. The SGH Investment management team is involved in venture capital and private equity funding.
“I’ve always believed in hiring the best people and giving them all the tools they need,” Simon said.
“I want to hire people who are smarter than me, but you have to be willing to let go of things — delegate and elevate. They will make mistakes; it happens.”
About five years ago, he left the day-to-day running of Atlas Oil to longtime employee and now president and COO Bob Kenyon to concentrate on strategic planning for SGH.
“Sam bets on people, and I’m that guy,” said Kenyon, who started as a retail district manager 20 years ago “with a lot of enthusiasm and not much experience.”
Atlas Oil is no longer just an oil distribution company, Kenyon said. “Atlas is in a business model transformation — leveraging technology and new operating platforms to create value for companies in the industry and fueling innovation.”
Michael Evans is another example of Simon betting on people. Evans started as an assistant in 1996 and is now senior managing partner of SGH. “I think Sam allows people to fail, learn and grow and get better at what they do. He lets people learn lessons the right way,” he said.
Simon continues to look for good people to back. “One person came to me wanting a job. I asked him what he really wanted to do. He said, ‘I want to be an owner, an entrepreneur.’ I said, ‘What are you waiting for? Let’s work together.’ And I invested with him.”
That person was Dan McMurtrie, CEO of VESTA Modular, an SGH company. “When I told Sam I wanted to own a company, he came back to me with a proposal,” McMurtrie said. “He makes pretty quick decisions. Once he jumped in, he was all in.”
BUSINESS & PLEASURE
In 2009, Simon purchased the former St. Clair Edison building on Pierce Street in Birmingham and transformed it into a showcase office, designed for entertaining and building relationships. It features a large wine cellar of exposed brick and a large kitchen with a long, U-shaped marble counter where he can entertain.
“I hated to entertain at restaurants,” Simon said. “They’re so loud you can’t talk. Here we have a nice homelike atmosphere where people feel comfortable and we can build relationships.”
Wine is a passion of Simon’s. “Being with the wine is about friendship. It’s about people. It’s about sharing, about giving, about conversation,” he said.
About 10 years ago, he created his own wine called Simon Estate, working with Bill Harlan of the Napa Valley Wine Reserve, a private club where members get five rows of grapes on 88 acres to create their own wines with help from the experts. “It’s fun,” Simon said. “I get close to 50 cases a year, mostly cabernet, and I don’t have to worry about day-to-day operations.”
Another of Simon’s passions is giving, and he encourages his employees to volunteer for a day at the charity of their choice. In 2007, he created Atlas Cares, which helps local nonprofits. The Atlas Cares team purchased two K9 dogs for the Taylor Police Department; the dogs are named “Atlas” and “Simon.” They built Atlas Park, complete with playground equipment, in Taylor across from Atlas Oil headquarters.
Sam and his wife, Nada, have a personal foundation as well, which focuses on the military, children and education. In August, the foundation will hold its 11th party for service personnel and their families at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, during the base’s centennial celebration.
He, Nada, and their twin 16-year-old boys, Peter and Michael, live in a newly built home in Bloomfield Hills (complete with a beautiful wine cellar) — a short ride away from his Birmingham office. “I love spending time with my family and can’t wait to go home and see my kids for dinner and spend time with them.”
As for the future, Simon says one day he can envision himself moving to Napa Valley to become a winemaker. “I’m always positive,” he said. “Life is so short. God gave us 80 to 90 years to live in this world that’s millions of years old. Time is the most precious thing we have. I enjoy it with wine and people.”