Monday, September 8, 2014
"I Don't Want to Leave Anybody Behind"
A Day in the Life of a Businessman
Lasana Tambajang, New York City Meat-Market Owner
By Cherno Baba Jallow
It's a beautiful morning in the Bronx and I arrive at the New York Meat & Fish Market on Macombs Road, hoping to meet with the owner Lasana Tambajang. He is expecting me. I make my way straight to the front cashier, who is by now finishing up with a customer. "I would like to see Mr. Tambajang," I announce, and the cashier, a seemingly gracious fellow, immediately asks who I am. "Tell him, it is Mr. Jallow, the journalist," I respond rather tersely. The cashier, by the point of a finger, directs me to Tambajang's office door. It is locked, but somebody is inside as I am able to make out some chatter on this side of the walls. Somebody, and it turns out to be Tambajang himself, buzzes me in. But then he is on the phone, and I don't want to intrude. So I step outside. Twenty minutes later, I return to the door, and he lets me in - again.
Tambajang and workers at the main door of New York Meat & Fish Market in the Bronx
I am here to do a day-long interview with Tambajang, 48, and document his every move in both word and pixel. It is our first time meeting. I had learned about him through a contact in New York City several days earlier. A self-made man, Tambajang's is your classic rags-to-riches story, an affirmation that with hard work and patience, anything is possible in life.
"Welcome, Mr. Jallow," he says, extending a hand and beckoning me to a chair, but all the while still standing and glued to his cell phone. His attention-span consumed elsewhere, I seize the opportunity to size up the man in front of me. Tall and broad-shouldered, Tambajang is in a black Dickies work shirt and an African Kufi hat. He soon betrays my preconceived notion of him as the suit-and-tie kind of a boss. He is casual, looks like a foreman momentarily taking a lull without the heavy-duty boots and gloves on. But Tambajang is not in the construction business. He runs a butchery and a general merchandise store, one of the biggest in New York City.
Inside the butchery
"When I come in, the first thing I do is to get on the phone and talk to the vendors and do some banking," he says after extending an apology to me for the delay in the start of our interview. He starts talking, but the phone calls keep interrupting. And he can't avoid them, for this is business; most of the calls are from his clientele in the city and in Philadelphia. He is a very busy man.
A married father of eight, Tambajang was born into a big family in Kuwonko in the Sandu District of the Upper River Region. He came to the United States in 1988, landing in New York with just $300 on him as pocket money. But he had actually borrowed it from Dakar with the promise that he would wire the money as soon as he got past the US immigrations at the airport. "I sent it the next day to Senegal just as I had promised my brother who borrowed the amount in Dakar," he recalls. But just as the story starts to get interesting, the phone calls and the door bells keep getting in the way. He is on the phone with his secretary Bintou Njie, a Banjul native. She deals directly with the vendors, taking orders, receiving and making phone calls. She shares an office, adjacent to Tambajang's, with Haja Waggeh, a Gambissara native, who runs the account receivables, payroll and banking operations. Haja is effectively the day-to-day manager, and even more, when Tambajang is away from the office.
In 1988, New York City was running amok with drugs and gun violence. "Homicide Hit a Record in New York," ran a 1988 headline in The New York Times. The city under the then-Mayor Ed Koch and his successor David Dinkins, recorded peak levels of crime and a dwindling job market. For Tambajang, it was a difficult start. On numerous occasions, he came face to face with the some of the tragic realities of New York City life as a new immigrant. "New York was dangerous at the time," he recalls. "I got into fights with people trying to break into my truck during deliveries, there were robberies everywhere, and somebody got killed right in my own presence."
But no stranger to foreign adventures, having lived in Libya in the early 1980s, where he learned tiling, Tambajang jumped right into a shrinking job market, searching for a livelihood in his new home. "Every day, I would go into the city looking for work, and then I got my first job tiling several apartments in the Bronx." He was happy to land a job in a profession he had learned and mastered in Libya. He thought he had found his niche. But he soon fell out with his bosses, after realizing that he had been severely underpaid. He took the matter to court but nothing came off it. "I decided to let it go," he says, matter-of-factly. It was back to the drawing board. He returned once again to job hunting, knocking on doors and contacting people. "I was going round looking for work and I went into this place. They asked me what I could do, and I said, well, I could do tiling and have a driver's license," he remembers telling the owners of Park Avenue Meats in 1988. But this place had no jobs for tiling; it was dealing mainly in meats, processing and selling. "They gave me a job as a truck driver, transporting meats to clients, and three years later, I became a supervisor."
Abruptly, our conversation grinds to a halt. Informed that supplies of tilapia in the store have all depleted, he hurriedly excuses himself and gets on the phone. "I need tilapia bad," he tells the supplier on the other line. "How many do you want?" the fellow can be heard through the speaker-phone. "Well, you know with the weekend, I will need about 80 boxes."
Tambajang is conversational. He is already turning out to be friendly company. Fluent in English, Spanish, Fula, Wollof, Serehule and his native Mandinka, Tambajang's facility with these languages makes him a tactful, well-rounded salesman. I am intrigued. Where did you learn Spanish? I ask. "Right here in New York," he replies. How did you learn to speak Fula so well? I ask again. "Well, there is a big Fula presence from Guinea in Kuwonku ... our Imam is Fula. So we learn speaking each other's languages from childhood. The Fulas there speak good Mandinka as well, but they struggle with the Serehule," he says with a chuckle.
From 1988 to 1998, Tambajang took various positions within Park Avenue Meats, commanding a lot of respect from his bosses for his hard work and honesty. But he thought the African customers there were not getting the right treatment. It was getting exceedingly difficult for the Africans to get their meats trucked to their homes because Park Avenue Meats would rather deal in bigger purchases from other customers than the small-quantity orders from many in the African community. And the Africans were a tiny slice of the customer base. "In those days, there were no African restaurants, very few people had wives, so it meant people had to cook at home," he says. He would take it upon himself to deliver the African orders in his own truck late after work.
He also didn't like the fact that the same machines were being used to cut pork and lamb, something that troubled his Islamic sensibility, and also given that many of the African customers at Park Avenue Meats were Muslim. He would complain about that to his superiors, and would specifically clean behind the machines before cutting any meats for the African Muslim customers. But this won't continue forever.
"One day, an African lady-customer suggested to me, 'why not start your own business, doing something similar?' " he says over a cup of hot lemon tea, while he orders his son to make me one. He thought long and hard about the idea of leaving the company. He felt that he had gained enough experience and goodwill from especially the African customers, to launch his own business. He could no longer postpone the inevitable. "I submitted my resignation, but it took me three months before they responded to my letter." His bosses didn't want him to leave, but they also didn't believe that he was going anywhere. They thought his resignation was a maneuver to force them to increase his pay knowing how vital he had been to the company. "They tried to give me a raise, but I refused. One day, I just handed the keys and walked away." This would change his life forever.
Leaving the confines of his cramped office, we take a walk inside the store, checking out the lamb meats freshly-arrived, mingling with the workers and getting a general perspective about this place. A sprawling grocery store, selling various African foodstuffs, New York Meat & Fish Market is a study in business risk-taking and entrepreneurial audacity. "I opened this store in 1998 with three people," he recounts, struggling to be heard above a hubbub of voices in the far eastern corner of the butchery. Working off a personal loan from friends, he began to lay the foundation. "I didn't try the banks at the time because I didn't have a credit history, I didn't have a record to work with," he says, now donned in his white overall, butcher uniform.
Inspecting the meats
Today, his store, having undergone three extensions since its inception, has grown into a big enterprise. It has 22 employees, coming from various Gambian districts such as Sandu, Wulli, Sabi, Niani; and from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, Mali and the United States. It is a serious company, but it is operated more like a community, where everybody feels being an integral part of the business. "The employees here are like family. Some of them have been with me from day one. They are happy, they are well paid and get their bonuses on a regular basis," he says with a glint of pride in his eyes.
As soon as we return to his office, somebody is already at the door, buzzing. The boss looks through the security camera and lets the person in. And it is Pateh Jallow, an employee and a native of Wulli Touba. It looks like he has come to talk some business with the boss, but I immediately sense that he wants to talk to me. Sure enough, he pulls the chair next to me and unburdens his mind: "Everybody working here is happy," he reveals with relish. "He doesn't control people and he treats us all kindly like family. We can't have it any better anywhere else." Tambajang listens attentively as Jallow unloads plaudits after plaudits for the way he (Tambajang) has been running the affairs of the company. There is a popular refrain among the workers here that New York Meat & Fish Market is one of the few places that will guarantee you your job back no matter how long you stayed on vacation. The story goes of an employee, affectionately called "Karamoko," who recently came back from a three-month vacation in his native Ivory Coast and ordered a staff meeting where he urged his colleagues to keep praying for Tambajang for the opportunity of reliable and continued employment he has given them.
Tambajang is a courteous general manager. His employees walk in and out of his office with great ease. Some come in to talk about job-related matters, and others come advancing issues pertaining to their daily challenges outside of work. He has a generous open-door policy which does not just consign him to on-the-job matters but to other issues affecting the general well-being of his work force. He lends a dutiful ear to his workers, and takes it upon himself to help out wherever he is needed.
Employee Alhagie Camara (r) raising some issues with the boss
He reminds me that it is time for midday prayers. So we take off in his Land Cruiser to the neighborhood mosque, frequented by Gambians and other nationalities. As we ride along, he is now turning the tables on me. He is asking about me, my origins and life. It turned out that he had known a late uncle of mine Alhaji Haruna Jallow, a prominent businessman in Basse in the 1980s. "He was a good man ... when I was in Libya, I would call his store and he would connect me with my family members waiting inside," he recalls those long-gone years.
We return to the store, but before long, we are heading out again. This time, we are going out to lunch at Le Baobab, a restaurant in Harlem he recently bought. A scrupulous driver, Tambajang gently melts away, reaching over the Bronx Bridge and taking short-cuts to the restaurant at 116th and Malcolm X. Avenue. Just recently re-opened after undergoing a major overhaul, the restaurant is adorned with new chairs, tables, and three big TVs mounted on the walls. You see a steady stream of Senegalese music on one TV and an assortment of American news channels on the others. His brother's son, the new manager of this 11-employee-run eatery, greets us at the counter and ushers us to our seats. We both order Benachin Yappa. While we wait for our meals, Tambajang goes into the history of the restaurant and why he had to buy it to rescue it from extinction. "It is for the community, and I like to support small businesses," he says, darting his eyes around the crowded room.
Soon our meals arrive, and our plates are looking elaborately delectable. He eats, but at a snail's pace during phone chats, presumably with his clientele. His phone is constantly abuzz. I finish mine way ahead of him. But as soon as he catches up, he walks up to the counter and pays out our bill. I wondered if anyone, including some of his employees, knew who he was; that he was actually the owner of this place. Tambajang seems pretty fine in his anonymity. He does not exude any pretense of self-adulation.
Back to his office at the store, it is a return to the familiar: phone calls and folks (employees and vendors) streaming in and out. I marvel at his endurance. "I pull in 12 to 14 hours a day, Monday to Saturday, and half of that on Sundays," he discloses, leaning over his swivel chair. He says even though he is the boss, he still gets busy with the normal routines of the job. "I still get behind the machines to cut meat for the customers ... I am always helping out." Even though he is a busy man, he says he still does find time to mingle with his family and to drive the kids around town and to amusement parks. But like all other business people, Tambajang is constantly cocooned in the world of products and strategies. He is constantly on the imaginative, marshalling ideas on how to expand and diversify the business.
In 2003, he and a partner took a big gamble to invest in The Gambia. They bought a 65-foot-long, 110-passenger boat from Trident Florida Trading Co., a well-known boat maker in the US state of Florida. Spurred on by some seemingly plausible business proposals from The Gambia, Tambajang and partner launched a transport service between Banjul and Dakar. Calling it "Gambia-Senegal Express," the boat's first voyage to Dakar ran into technical trouble. "It took the boat nine hours to get to Dakar. We found that the boat had a manufacturing defect ... it was meant for river and not ocean waters," he bemoans. "It was a total disaster ... we spent about $800,000 on that boat, excluding the freight to the port of Banjul and the taxes we paid in both countries," he recalls with some anger.
But in June of 2003, and during the time the boat's transaction was finalized, Tambajang sounded like a satisfied customer. He had met with and reposed confidence in Robbie Cunningham, the owner of the boat manufacturing company. Tambajang told the Florida-based Orlando Sentinel newspaper at the time of sale: "He [Cunningham] went to my country to see the waters before building the boat, and that really impressed me .... I knew he was more than serious." After an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Florida manufacturer, and convinced that their business venture was going nowhere, the partners sold off the boat at a cheap rate to some businessman in The Gambia.
Tambajang is cognizant of the fact that as a businessman, he will have to be a risk-taker and hedge his bets - and be ready to accept that sometimes you gain and sometimes you lose. He is undeterred. But he is also buoyed by his overwhelming success with New York Meat & Fish Market. The business is booming here. The phones are ringing off the hook. Orders are pouring in their plenitude, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Trucks come in incessantly, loading and unloading goods. Tambajang is the main supplier for all the African and most of the Caribbean restaurants in New York and beyond.
Tambajang: "I am always helping out."
In 1998, he started from scratch, uncertain about the future but determined to create a pathway of success in a marketplace brimming with tough competition. "I am not afraid of competition, my services and products speak for me," he says with an air of confidence. "In business, you have to be honest, that's why I am not afraid of competition." But he reckons that in the business he is dealing, good customer service is the key to continued growth. "I don't hide from the customers. I am always responding to their inquiries and complaints. I build my customers up."
A well-known commodity in New York City, Tambajang is currently the chairman of the New York chapter of Better African Business in America (BABA). He has been invited to many media functions, especially on the African and Caribbean radios in New York, to talk about his experiences and to share his business wisdom with aspiring immigrant businesses in the city. He has also donated generously to Gambian causes in the city. On his office wall, hangs a plaque presented to him by the New York-based Gambian Youth Society. On another side, is a giant photo showing a cheerful Tambajang flanked by two New York City off-duty cops. They were at a function together.
Given his enormous success and how far he has come, from the dreary fields of Kuwonku to the gleam of New York City life, Tambajang must be thinking that he is very much the quintessence of the American Dream, a truly inspiring American success story. He bats away the suggestion. "It is not easy getting that dream," he demurs, reflecting on himself but perhaps speaking with a tongue-in-cheek. "For me, the dream is about putting people together, giving them jobs, paying them on time and making them happy. I don't want to leave anybody behind."
Taking a short break from work, Tambajang relaxes in his car outside
At 9 p.m., he is now busy reconciling the invoices from the drivers returning from the field. Both Bintou and Haja, his point-persons on the management side, have long gone home. He meticulously pores over the documents, looking for any transaction errors. He finds quite a few and calls out the respective drivers into his office through the intercom. He seeks clarity without admonishing. For those invoices he is unable to square up, he shoves aside. He is going to work on them first thing tomorrow.
I have now spent about 10 hours with Tambajang; and I am getting fatigued. It has been a long day. But he is about to close the store anyway. I thank him profusely for the time and for the willingness to open up to me. Ever the gracious fellow, he thanks me in return and bids farewell as he and a couple of his workers drive off in his SUV. As for me, I start to walk down the back road heading to the train station. It is going to be a long ride home.
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