His belief that “there’s no downside to anything” shaped the business philosophy of Dr. Satnam L. Sethi, president and CEO of Jackie’s International, Inc., headquartered in Canton, Mississippi. The hospitality corporation employs approximately 1,800 people and includes almost 60 restaurants, hotels and convenience stores in Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana, with upcoming expansion into Alabama.
“It’s relative,” observed Monica Sethi Harrigill of her father’s tolerance for risk. “He has never had a fear of a downside.”
Understanding what’s relative requires the imagination to picture 10-year-old Sethi and his family living as refugees in a 10-foot by 12-foot tent, home for six years after the 1947 partition of India. The Sethi family’s home village, Nowshera in western Punjab, became part of newly-created Pakistan, and as sectarian violence raged, the family— members of a Hindu minority in Nowshera — escaped with few possessions to relative safety in the Indian state of Punjab.
“Have you seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire?” asked Sethi. “That will give you a good idea of how we grew up.” For the bright, optimistic young boy who worked three jobs to help his family survive, life in India was, however, “all upside.” Eager to learn, Sethi received his high school diploma (1954), bachelor of science (1958) and master’s (1960) degrees from Panjab University in India. Exchange professors had kindled his desire to study in the U.S., and he earned a Ph.D. in entomology from Oregon State University (1968).
Returning to India in March 1968 Sethi “found my wife but not a job.” By year’s end both of the well-educated newlyweds had teaching positions at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Raksha in sociology and Doc, as he became known, in biology.
Imbued with restless energy, Sethi and his nephew decided in 1972 that “it’s time to venture out.” Still carrying a full teaching load, Sethi worked for five months in a local SONIC drive-in to learn the fast-food business. Thanks to a wrong turn leaving Natchez, Mississippi, the place recommended by the Oklahoma-based SONIC franchisor for Sethi’s first franchise, he found a more promising location in Brookhaven, bustling with “more emotion and commotion in people walking around town.”
On December 18, 1973, the Sethi family opened the Brookhaven SONIC, netting $5,000 in profits by the end of the year. Sethi also incorporated Jackie’s International in 1973, adding 24 SONIC franchises within three years. “The banks were turning crazy with our profits,” said Sethi, recalling that the banker who took a chance with a $50,000 loan on his first franchise warned, “You’ll lose your shirt, but I’ll recover my money by garnishing yours and your wife’s teaching salaries.”
In 1978 Sethi opened a Pizza Inn division, becoming “the largest Pizza Inn franchisee in the world” with 38 restaurants, which he sold in 1988, clearing $8 million on the deal. He added a Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse division in 1981, and the Sethi family traded in its SONICs in 1983 for its own food service concept, Bumpers Drive-In of America.
The septuagenarian Sethi, still working seven days a week, diversified for economic stability and developed strong leadership in the next generation. Monica Sethi Harrigill, Doc and Raksha’s daughter (a Millsaps College graduate and now trustee), vice president of Jackie’s International, oversees operations, training and marketing. Sunny Sethi, their son, manages the construction company, which has built 15 owner-operated hotels. Other divisions include 26 Bumpers Drive-Ins, six Western Sizzlin’ restaurants, five Super Saver convenience stores and two additional original concepts: three Fresh Market Cafes and two Fresh Market Grills. The numbers are rarely static as the company keeps growing.
To what do you attribute your success?
s: The American system of free enterprise. What that means is the harder you work, the luckier you get. It’s also the people who work in this company. A book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, helped me to initiate my life in the business world.
Was there ever a significant downside?
s: The last five years have been difficult (spanning the Great Recession). The downside was realizing I should have put some money aside for cash flow.
Who have been the influential people in your life?
s: My drive came from my hard-working parents. My father didn’t have any education, but wanted us (his children) to have educations. Lina Hunt, who rented a home to us in Greenwood, became a sort of mother, and gave me a book, How to Win Friends & Influence People. She helped me think about starting a business. She said, “People will have clothing, food, shelter and medicine. It takes a lot of money for the clothing and housing businesses. You’re not a pharmacist. The food business will be easiest.” That’s why we chose food.
Have you diversified beyond hospitality?
s: Our construction company builds properties for Jackie’s and other clients. My younger daughter, Manisha, is a doctor, and I’ve invested in her clinic, Internal Medicine and Pediatric Associates of Ridgeland. I own 8.5 percent of a start-up bank, State Bank of Georgia, and it’s growing (good news for Sethi after a 2007 bank investment went south). We have made a lot of money buying and selling land.
What about profits and revenues?
s: We’ve been profitable every year except 2011 and 2012. In the first seven years Jackie’s International’s profit was never less than 20 percent of our annual revenues. Its 2012 revenues were over $60 million. Our construction company has annual revenues of $40 million to $50 million.
How did you choose Jackie’s International as your corporate name?
s: I have so much respect and love for Lina Hunt that we named the company for her daughter, Jackie.
What are your thoughts about education?
s: My profession has been education, but I enjoy the informal teaching I do now more than college teaching because so many in our company are people left out of society. When I go into one of our properties, I start cooking with employees, washing dishes with them, talking with them. I’m not a strange boss in a white tower.
m: He’s a role model.
s: My education came more from the school of hard knocks. The degrees are good, but not as good as what I’ve learned from my daughter, Monica—to be more a human being than a businessman. And from my wife to be more patient.
What would you tell a class of aspiring entrepreneurs?
s: Set your realistic goal, and make sure that you have a burning desire for it.
What was your burning desire?
s: To make money so I could provide for my poor family in India.
s: Have a good attitude, and work hard. You must have unwavering self-confidence. You get what you expect, but you have to work hard for it.
What’s your approach to philanthropy?
m: My father, whom Millsaps College honored in 2006 with an Honorary Doctorate of Law, believes in giving back to communities at the state and local level.
What are some highlights?
m: He donated 18 acres valued at $2.5 million to the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation for the Raksha Sethi Women and Children’s Clinic, and over $300,000 through the Bumpers Discover Mississippi Scholarship Contest. He set up a million dollar-plus Raksha Sethi scholarship endowment at Millsaps College (alma mater to all three Sethi children), and since the 1970’s he has paid tuition every year for at least one student to attend college.
s: That’s part of America. We enjoy doing that.
Published by Cat Island Books LLC and distributed by University Press of Mississippi. If you would like your own copy of Mississippi Entrepreneurs, which includes profiles of over 80 of the state’s diverse and visionary enterprise creators, can be purchased from your local bookstore or ordered online from University Press of Mississippi.