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Automobile Aspirations: Sitting Down with Tolga Tarak

From a struggling car salesman to the CEO of his own luxury concierge company, Tolga Tarak has paved his own path to success. With contacts in the business and his knowledge about cars, he built Emilia Motors, a luxury car company, from the ground up.

We had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Tarak as he took us through his journey to becoming a self-made billionaire.

Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us today.

I’m happy to be able to talk to you. I miss my university days, and I’ve always wanted to connect with college students from around the world.

So you’ve gone from being a salesman to the CEO of your luxury concierge company. Tell me more about your humble beginnings and the dire circumstances you initially faced. How did you end up in Miami?

I left home at a very young age. I was living in Italy in my early twenties, and at that time, I was working for a ceramic tile company for international sales. Halfway through, I realised that I wanted to be more alive. It was my twenties, so we’re talking about the early nineties, here. The time was completely different. We didn’t have the opportunities that you guys have today. Present day education and enterprise feels so far out and refined, it’s like a Star Trek movie to me. And I’m only talking about the nineties, that was less than thirty years ago. Even if it isn’t fifty-sixty years, it makes a huge difference, you know?

Anyway, I was working in Italy, and I was sent to the United States, to work in some factories. Not going back was completely my own decision, and a hard one at that. I stayed in the United States, and had a very humble and difficult beginning. I didn’t have my papers and legal documents after a while, so I felt like I was here all on my own. Luckily, I had great friends who helped me along the way. I could get all my resources back and move to a better city, which helped me with my university education. Around 1994, my first year or two here were a difficult time, but I’d decided that I wanted to finish university while I was still young. I ended up doing both- my undergrad and postgrad at Tennessee Tech.

Ending up in Miami took a long time. I was visiting Miami often in the early and mid-nineties, so I gained a lot of connections there. But back then, the city was very expensive, and I knew I couldn’t live there. Tennessee, in comparison, was more accommodating, when it came to finances. So I got a great education at a decent cost. I don’t know how things work in India, but in the United States, the cost of education has now become unattainable for most people.

Back to Miami- I’d gained some momentum going back and forth to the city. Finally, in 2002, after my postgrad, I went to Miami, and I got a job there.

Did you fund your own education? Or did someone else fund it for you?

No, I did it all on my own. I actually didn’t particularly want to do business. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I’d always had an interest in classical music, and if I had the resources and if I could afford it, I would’ve pursued a degree and career in it instead. I also had great luck when it came to education. I wanted to study business, but I knew that just an undergrad in business studies would amount to nothing, especially in the US. You have to have a specialisation in a certain field or category. I knew that in Tennessee, my opportunities were extremely limited.

I decided to talk to my dean, and I asked him, ‘Is there anything I can do that is more international?’, and he told me that the college didn’t have international business faculty, but that they were starting a new course called World Cultures and Business. He said that I’d be the perfect student for it, and would be the first person to register for the course, and also perhaps the first graduate. ‘Would you consider this?’ he asked me, and I very enthusiastically agreed. So I got to study World Culture and International Finance separately, which is how I got my education.

You’ve expanded into real estate as well, now. What other realms of business are you planning to get into?

I also want to venture into selling private planes and luxury yachts to my already existing network of high-end clients. This will help me expand my network as well, the way real estate did. Did you know that you don’t need any sort of licence to sell a sixty million dollar plane? It sounds ridiculous, considering how it is the United States – you need a licence just to fish here. Somehow, the private jet and chartered plane industry isn’t very strictly regulated, which is very interesting. I want to learn more about this and explore this field. I want to create a simplified and affordable system to make private planes available to regular people, too. Like the crisis in Puerto Rico.

I want to facilitate the movement of goods and materials during disasters, so that I can play my part in helping people when they’re in need. Instead of big companies handling the flights like airlines, the private owners lend their jets to people, like Airbnb, at an affordable cost. This is an avenue that I want to work on, but it’s extremely difficult. I have a lot of initiatives that I want to pursue – I started writing my own book, but I couldn’t finish it because I didn’t have the time. I also do want to start my own classes, and teach people the skills that I’ve acquired over my life. That’s definitely on the list. I really want to connect with college students.

What advice would you give to college students who want to enterprise in the future?

I want to be very specific about something. Lately, many people are popping up all over the place, claiming to be insanely successful over a very short period of time, and they try to sell their ‘success secrets’ to you. Here’s something I want to tell you all – the younger generation – you should have an MBA, or a PhD, specialising in one field. All these instant rags to riches stories on the internet talk about how you don’t need a degree are not genuine. What I believe is that nothing can replace real academic education. My mentor is a billionaire, he’s number 57 in the world, and he told me one thing- ‘Anybody can make money. But to sustain that money, you need an education.’

Shaquille O’Neal got his PhD in economics only last year, he owns a growing company worth a 150 billion dollars, and he doubled it within a couple of years. In his PhD speech, he said exactly what my mentor said- ‘You’ve got to understand what education gives you. There are no quick-fixes.’
Here’s my piece of advice- there is no fixed script for entrepreneurship. Everyone is different- they have different working styles and different ways to approach problems. Do not fall into the category of people who drop out of college to start an online business. Not everybody is Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs. We don’t have their talents or visions.

Some of your fellow students might have this aptitude, but I know I didn’t. I have a firm belief in formal education. With a four year undergrad degree, but no masters or higher studies, in today’s world- you’re nothing. I’d insist that you all finish your degree to the end, but enterprise and come up with ideas on the parallel.
It’s true- without money, we are nothing. Our goods and resources would not amount to anything. Money is important. But, your money could go away the next day. Meanwhile, your education would never leave you.

How did you come up with the idea of Emilia Motors? Did you think this up while you were pursuing your education?

While growing up, I loved my bicycle a lot. I had a fascination with wheels. I had a really nice bicycle when I was in high school, and then somebody stole it. I was devastated, because my family wasn’t in the position to buy me another one. That bike was my everything. Back when I was six, my mother bought me a tiny, black Formula One matchbox car. I think that’s when my fascination with cars began.

When I was in Italy, in my early twenties- I realised I wanted more from life. I didn’t want to be a slave. I didn’t want to work from 9 to 5 and hate my job. I had nothing planned, though. I’d never been one of those kids who would have their life laid out ahead of them at age fourteen. I never had the kind of guidance that would help me set goals at an early age.
Anyway, when I was in Italy, I used to live in a region called Emilia Romania. Here you’d see all the big brands of cars like Ferrari and Lamborghini. I’d ride my bike past a Ferrari factory every morning as I made my way to the supermarket, which was my first job. This only fuelled my interest in cars and strengthened my resolve to make it big. I said to myself, ‘Someday, I’ll have a company and I will name it Emilia’.

Like you said, you didn’t know what you wanted to do in the future, when you were young. At this point in life, most of us too don’t know where we’re headed. Is there a road map that we can follow to figure out what we should make out of our lives?

I’ll give you an example. When I was in my senior year in university, I asked my history professor, Dr Roberts, ‘How did you know that you wanted to be a professor? How did you decide what you wanted to do your PhD on? I’m studying, but I don’t know what I’m studying for. I don’t know what the future holds for me.’ He said- “I got my PhD at the age of 55. I’ve been a student all my life. I chose to get a PhD in a subject that clicked with me- something that I felt passionate about.’

So, the road map is- your college education is extremely important. Learn as much as you can- but you have to be specific. You have to have an area of expertise. You have to know the one thing that you’re good at. While you’re still in college, start trying to understand the dynamics of world economy. You can connect with a lot of sources and start making small profits.

I’ve always been a salesman, because I wanted to profit from selling things. I liked it, but I wasn’t good at it. I wasn’t good at it, at all. To be honest, as far as the car business goes- I personally hated it. I hated working in the corporate world like that. I had trouble believing that I would have to follow a script that would guide me through sales. I still don’t believe that. Is human psychology and marketing predictable? Yes, it is. Can we put all those variables and facts onto one piece of paper to guide us into being successful at what we do? Not at all. The road map I would preach would be- what is your intuition? What are you good at? What’s your niche? You need to understand yourself. And for that, you need an education that helps you discover your strengths and weaknesses.

How did you get your first clientele?

‘Tell me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.’ Have you heard of this proverb? In order to get clients, you have to expand your horizons. You have to do so without getting too influenced by the people you meet, because not everyone is genuine and real. In order to stop limiting yourself, you need to ask questions. You need to read. If you’re not reading- be it entrepreneurship books or economics books- you won’t understand how the dynamics of global economy work.

You have to be humble in order to learn more, and to learn more, you need to connect. To connect with people, you need to be knowledgeable, but humble. Cockiness translates to overconfidence, which makes you less appealing as a person. You need to talk to more people and put yourself out there. If you attend a seminar, don’t sit at the back and just listen to it. Get actively engaged in the discussion. Interact with your peers and the lecturer. Ask questions and trust your intuition.

In university, I used to talk to my dean a lot. I’d also hang out with my professors. We really underestimate the networks and priceless knowledge that our mentors and superiors possess. They helped me gain a perspective that I didn’t have before.

Another thing is that anybody can sell products. To sell yourself as a future prospect is where the difficulty increases. It also mattered a lot how I sold myself to my first client, because word-of-mouth is the primary way to gain a good reputation.

Of course, there’s no particular recipe to all of this. To put it broadly, to get my first clients, I did all of the above. Every new person you meet is an opportunity to gain experience, regardless of their financial status. I was successful in understanding just that.

Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Suruchi Narang in conversation with Mr Tolga Tarak.


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