From Refugee to Successful Business Owner

From refugee to successful business owner in just nine years. Read how Mohamed Jalloh did it.

Mohamed Jalloh and his family fled Sierre Leone, then ravaged by civil war, about 10 years ago, fearing for their lives. Targeted by rebels because he was chairman of a bank, Jalloh first escaped to nearby Guinea, then applied for political asylum in the United States and moved to Los Angeles, where a childhood friend lived. Drawing on his accounting background, Jalloh found work as an assistant controller at a small company, eventually becoming controller.

But in his spare time he started doing tax preparation—and he really liked the experience of running his own show. Finally, in December 2009, Jalloh bought an H&R Block franchise. He already has 16 employees and, he says, the business is “very profitable.”

Here’s his story:

Coming to America

After civil war broke out in his country and his life was threatened, Jalloh knew he, his wife, and their four children had to leave the country—fast. But Jalloh figured the troubles would blow over quickly. So, taking with them only a few pieces of luggage and without letting anyone know where they were going, the family traveled to neighboring Guinea. “I thought we’d be there briefly, until everything settled down,” says Jalloh.

But things didn’t settle down. Six months later, he and his wife decided to make a more permanent move to the U.S. The most likely place was Los Angeles. Jalloh had not only visited the city and liked it, but longtime friends from home had settled in the area. And there was a large African community. Jalloh had some money in a bank account in London, where he had gone to school as a young man and obtained his chartered accounting degree. Drawing on those funds, the family made the move.

Initially, Jalloh came on a visitor’s visa. But, almost immediately, he applied for political asylum, which was granted after about four months. Not long after, Jalloh registered with a temporary employment agency and got a job doing low-level accounting work. A second position, however, led to a full-time slot as an assistant controller for an engineering-design company—lowly work for the former chairman of a bank, but something with potential. After several years, he was promoted to controller.

Becoming an H&R Block Franchisee

At the same time, Jalloh became an enrolled agent able to represent clients at the Internal Revenue Service. With that credential, he started doing tax-preparation work on the side and built up a sizable part-time practice. It wasn’t enough to support his family, but Jalloh enjoyed the work.

Finally, in 2009. he got a call from recruiters at H&R Block to see whether he’d like to buy a franchise. Jalloh had approached the company years before, but “I had a family to take care of and needed a salary,” he says. “But this time I decided it was the way to go.” In fact, it seemed the perfect solution to his entrepreneurial aspirations: Building his part-time practice into a full-time business would be tough going, Jalloh knew. But by buying a franchise he’d have a brand name and a support system to draw on.

Getting Going

Jalloh went through a one-week training program. The company helped him find existing H&R Block locations near his home that were for sale—the better to cut down on commuting time—and using his own savings to fund the purchase, he bought two franchise units. In December 2009, he opened for business.

Getting Customers

To attract business, Jalloh:

  • Approached his existing clients; about 90% of them moved their business over to H&R Block.
  • He tapped the local African community, putting on seminars on tax issues for community groups.
  • He made sales calls on local businesses, offering to do their bookkeeping and accounting tasks.

Those efforts have paid off. Jalloh’s business is already profitable, and he’s almost matching his previous six-figure salary. Revenues at his two locations are up 32% from the year before.In fact, although the civil war in Sierre Leone is over, he has no intention of going back and is thinking about buying another location.

Says Jalloh: “This is my home now.”

Advice from Mohamed Jalloh

How did being an immigrant help you?

“There’s a large African community here, and I have a good number of clients from it. We often have meetings where we talk about our businesses, let each other know what we’re doing. I actively market to them.”

How did franchising help you realize your goals?

“When I was a controller, I worked more hours than I do now, especially with traffic. I had to spend a lot of time away from my family. I made sure my franchise locations were close to home.”

How did H&R Block help?

“It would be impossible to do as well as I am doing now without the help that H&R Block provided. They have the resources—technical, tax and legal support—to help you get to the next level.”

What advice would you give immigrants who want to be a franchise owner?

“Make sure you can get appropriate training. That’s very important.”

What’s the best way to evaluate a franchise opportunity?

“Look at the numbers. I’m an accountant, I analyzed my fixed costs, did all the important ratios. And I looked at the location. H&R Block gives you a three-year history of the location, so you have enough information to see if you can develop it in a profitable way.”

A Day in the Life

  • 6:45 a.m. Wakes up, heads for home gym in his garage, and works out on the treadmill for 20 minutes, then showers.
  • 8 a.m. Turns on computer in his home office and starts going over his e-mail; there are at least 50. As he reads, he makes a to-do list with tasks to address that day: call an IRS agent regarding an audit, complete an amended return for a client in New Mexico who just bought a condominium, get back to another client who wants to talk. Then Jalloh e-mails the list to himself so he can see it at work.
  • 8:30 a.m. Watches economic news on TV.
  • 9:30 a.m. Leaves the house.
  • 10 a.m. Opens the office, along with his two employees. The first thing Jalloh does is check his computer for software updates. There’s one for tax preparation and another for doing corporate taxes. Then he reviews his appointments for the day: one at 11 with a client who needs his 2003 and 2004 year taxes reviewed, another at 11:45 with someone who received a letter from the IRS about his earned-income credit and needs advice.
  • 11–noon Meets with clients, works on his to-do list.
  • Noon–5 p.m. Spends most of the time working on bookkeeping and payroll-processing for several clients, inputting information from bank statements, checkbooks, and other documents. There’s a lot of data—one of his small-business clients has eight locations—and it’s pretty slow going. But Jalloh is trying to develop a payroll business for small companies, acting as their back-office operation.
  • 5 p.m. Jalloh closes out the day, heads for home.
  • 6 p.m. He goes for a long, vigorous walk with his wife, returns to the house to have dinner.

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