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By Stephanie Doyle
Landmark news service
George Saliba was 21 and spoke no English when he stepped onto a college campus in Ohio on May 29, 1979 – just three months away from the first day of classes.
A new friend gave Saliba some 33-RPM, vinyl records, the kind with the song lyrics written on the back of their jackets. Armed with a French-English dictionary, Saliba began putting the English words back into his native language. Saliba, born in Beirut, Lebanon, was educated by French nuns, his French accent still well apparent today as he speaks with customers at the McDonald’s he owns in La Grange.
After days and nights of English-to-French translations, he turned on the record player. Easy listening tunes filled the air. Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Barbara Streisand, John Denver and Air Supply became Saliba’s new best friends. He was determined.
“Failure was not an option for me,” he said of his three-month fast-track to English. “Failure for me was going back to Lebanon.”
There was, however, a problem. Saliba’s courses at the University of Dayton included accounting and business law.
“None of the stuff the teachers were talking about had been in any of the songs I had listened to,” said Saliba, then enrolled in seven classes. “I couldn’t understand one word the teacher was saying.”
So he began translating whole textbook chapters and studying for hours. It paid off – with a bachelor’s degree in two years and his master’s of business administration two years later.
A faraway land
Long before becoming a successful McDonald’s franchise owner, Saliba’s father began mixing liquids at his kitchen table in Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually, that enterprise would become the third-largest beverage company in the country.
“My dad and I used to own a diversified beverage company – wine, vinegar, liqueur, alcohol for hospitals,” George Saliba said. “I grew up as an entrepreneur working with my dad and learning the business.”
George Saliba said he felt certain he’d run his father’s business one day.
However, civil war struck the country of Lebanon.
“The war got very, very bad. I didn’t believe in the war and what was going on,” Saliba said.
Eventually he decided to apply to University of Dayton, with a friend who knew English filling out the application for him. He was granted a student visa and moved to Dayton on May 29, 1979.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon.
“The situation there continued to get bad. I decided that after graduating I would work in the United States until they stopped fighting,” he said.
The Lebanon Civil War did not end until 1990.
The Golden Arches
In 1995, after he had worked at various places, a new McDonald’s opened in Beaver Creek, Ohio.
Saliba started his McDonald’s career as a manager trainee.
“I liked what I was doing, I liked the people,” he said. “I really liked the United States. This is truly the land of opportunity. It didn’t take me long to realize that this where I wanted to raise my family.”
Reluctantly, he called his father to say he would not be returning to Lebanon.
It wouldn’t be long, though, until his four siblings and his parents would join him. By 1986, all were living nearby in Ohio.
Meanwhile, Saliba began working as a full-fledged McDonald’s manager and in 1989 became a business consultant – a liaison between McDonald’s owners and the company. He held that position for six years.
“I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what was inside of me,” he said. “Inside of me I had a dream of becoming an owner/operator one day.”
Then he met Paul Groen, whose father, Lou Groen, is the Cincinnati businessman who invented the Fillet-O-Fish sandwich.
“I knew Lou was going to retire,” Saliba said. “Paul was going to buy two of his dad’s stores, and I told him I wanted to be director of operations.”
In 1997, both Groen and Saliba moved to Northern Kentucky, growing Groen’s businesses from three McDonald’s franchises to 12 by 2011, including those in Carrollton and Owenton.
“We had four McDonald’s in the top 100 in the country – out of more than 40,000,” Saliba said.
After 14 years of partnership, Saliba told Groen he was ready to go on his own.
In 2012, the stores in Pendleton and La Grange became available.
“I saw a great opportunity to come to Henry County and to Oldham County,” Saliba said.
He bought both franchises and by the beginning of 2013, sales and profit already had increased.
“We also get graded all the time – by company people and mystery shoppers,” he said. “They were extremely happy with all of the grades, with what I was doing.”
So McDonald’s awarded him the brand new franchise in Eminence.
“At the end of the day, they want to partner with the person who can sell the most hamburgers,” he said.
Saliba said it all starts with people. “If your people are happy, the customer is going to be happy. The morale is my No. 1 priority,” he said.
At the La Grange McDonald’s recently, Saliba provided cleaning tips to a new employee and prepared the play area for a visit from Santa.
“Don’t be surprised if you see me sweeping or mopping or working on fries,” he said. “I am very hands on. People will follow what you do, not what you say.”
Part of that includes giving back to the community, a tenet of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.
“If you want to be successful in any community,” Saliba said. “You need to be part of that community, and give back.”
Leaving a legacy
Saliba works six days a week, traveling 50 minutes from his three and a half acres of nut and fruit trees in Boone County. Sundays are spent in Dayton with his siblings and parents.
During the work week, Saliba practices what he preaches. A typical day includes an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, McDonald’s salad for lunch and a McDouble for dinner.
“I eat McDonald’s all the time,” he said. “I eat oatmeal – we have a great oatmeal with raisins and all the good stuff. The wraps are very healthy. We have the Egg White Delight right now.”
Now that Saliba has reached his dream of McDonald’s ownership, his next goal is to leave that opportunity to his grown children. His 24-year-old son, Richard, works at La Grange and his son-in-law, David, works in Pendleton. His daughter, Emily, 30, had been working at Proctor & Gamble as a recruiter specialist. She told her dad recently that she wanted to help him at his Eminence McDonald’s. Saliba said he reminded his daughter that her schedule would include a lot of hours and working weekends and holidays.
“I asked her why she would want to do that,” Saliba said.
“Dad,” she said, “Because, I am you. I love people, I am an entrepreneur.”
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