Poster boy for the American dream? Quite possibly. Born in the Soviet Union, Oleg Firer arrived in Brooklyn, New York, at 12 and grew up in the borough's Brighton Beach neighborhood. He worked hard, avoided delinquents and drugs, and at 17 started his first business, a cell-phone retailer. Barely into his 20s, and without a college degree, Firer was serving as a vice president at a publicly traded communications company. In 2007, at 29, he co-founded Unified Payments. The company now processes $10 billion worth of transactions for 100,000 merchants a year--and it's still growing fast. Now 35, Firer and his family live in Miami. He drives to work in a Bentley. Life, he says, is good. As told to Darren Dahl.
I was born in Ukraine. But my family, who is Jewish, decided to flee the Soviet Union. My dad was a gym teacher there, and my mother worked for a bank. We had a challenging trip that took us through Austria and Italy before we finally got to Brooklyn.
My family didn't have much money when I was growing up. My dad worked as an assistant physical therapist, and my mom worked for a nonprofit. I was always working, taking odd jobs whenever I could. Fortunately, I am a quick learner and have a photographic memory, so I remember things in great detail.
"I always had to prove myself—because of my age and because I don't have an Ivy League degree."
I grew up living in small apartments in Brighton Beach and Coney Island, which are rough neighborhoods. Growing up there made me stronger. I always set higher expectations for myself than those around me did. Rather than get into drugs or crime, I focused on working hard and learning.
My first real job was working for The Wiz as a salesperson when I was 16. By the time I was 17, I was the youngest manager the store had. After Cablevision bought the company, I started my own company selling wireless devices. I thought about going to school for business, but I was already making too much money.
The CEO of a large company called SpeedUS recruited me to help with its marketing programs. I worked there for several years and became a vice president and ran my own division. I learned a lot about mergers and acquisitions. But I felt like I had to constantly prove myself—because of my age and because I don't have an Ivy League degree.
In 2002, I was looking for a new business opportunity when a friend told me about the payment-processing industry. I thought it looked interesting, because you work with recurring revenue, which means you don't start off with zero dollars every month. A year later, I partnered up with my friend to start a payment-processing company.
When I do something, I want to learn a business inside out. If one link in the chain breaks, I want to know where to step in. That meant I needed to learn the business from the ground up, including sales, underwriting, and risk management. If I do something, I commit to it 100 percent.
About five years later, I got together with a former colleague who worked for a private equity group, and we started the company that is now Unified Payments. I wanted to do something really, really big. We committed significant capital to making strategic acquisitions.
We were looking for distressed equity situations—other payment-processing companies that couldn't service their debt or had grown too fast. We acquired eight businesses. We shut most of them down and rolled their merchants into our existing service. We were in the right place at the right time, and we had the capital to make it happen.
We continued to grow organically through the recession as well. As our society has become more and more cashless, payment processing has become economically agnostic. We make money no matter what the economy is doing.
I got where I am because I wouldn't take no for an answer. I always remember where I came from and that I could end up back there with nothing. A few years ago, my wife, who is a refugee from Moldova, our two daughters, and I moved to Miami. My parents, who still live in Brooklyn, are very proud.
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.