The irony was unmistakable as Mike Dolabi dined at a posh restaurant near the top of a Dallas high-rise in 1997.
He was the guest of a bank that had recently loaned him $1 million to build a warehouse for his growing auto body parts business. A few years before, he had sat outside that same skyscraper as a taxi driver waiting for his next passenger. The Iran native’s rise from ground floor to penthouse is the quintessential American success story but not the only paradox in an improbable journey.
Seeking a brighter future for their oldest child, Dolabi’s parents sent him to the United States at age 16 shortly before the Iranian revolution. He couldn’t speak nor understand English but managed to hail a cab after landing at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Seconds into his ride, a car sideswiped the taxi.
“That was my first experience in America,” he says with a grin. “Now I’m in the business of replacing parts for cars that have been in accidents.”
Dolabi moved to Greenville, Texas, to be near his cousin but was soon on his own when the cousin went back to Iran. With help from a Greenville High School counselor who became his guardian, he graduated in 1979 and eventually came to UT Arlington in 1982 to study electrical engineering.
He lived near campus, walked most places, and worked at a gas station and as a cook at Bennigan’s to pay for college. He remembers UT Arlington as a welcoming place, even for someone from Iran in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.
In 1993 Dolabi and his wife, Sunny, sold most of their possessions—including their car—to start National Autobody Parts Warehouse Inc. What began with 12 pieces of inventory, a Rolodex of customers, and a Toyota pickup has burgeoned into one of the largest auto body parts distributors in Texas.
Certified by the International Organization of Standardization, the company ships parts throughout the United States from its 150,000-square-foot facility in Grand Prairie and a satellite location in Round Rock. Row after row of hoods, bumpers, and fenders line the Grand Prairie warehouse, which houses 54,000 types of parts.
As president, Dolabi has steered National Autobody Parts Warehouse down the road to success by emphasizing consistency, integrity, hard work, and creativity.
“In this country the sky is not even the limit. Think big. Don’t be afraid to do things differently,” he says. “Believe, stay focused, and treat people right. If you do that, you can’t lose.”
You may even win big.