If you were to look up the word “entrepreneur” in the dictionary, it wouldn’t surprise us if you saw George Liaskos’ picture and biography. George is the owner of Hotel, LLC dba Holiday Inn Express Peekskill and his remarkable story is the reason why he’s our third “15 for 15” Outstanding Entrepreneur Award honoree. We first met George in 2010 when he was looking to obtain SBA 504 financing to realize his dream of building and owning a hotel in his hometown of Peekskill, NY. As you may recall, the financing environment for new hotels was bleak during the Great Recession, especially for someone who had no previous experience as a hotelier.
We continued to stay in touch with George and in 2012 after more than 2 years of searching for a permanent lender, as well as overcoming numerous hurdles, Mercantile partnered with New York Business Development CDC and Home Loan Investment Bank of Rhode Island to close on a 504 loan structure to build a 76-room Holiday Inn Express. Now you are probably aware that Mercantile has participated in the financing of close to 100 hotels, but it is George’s journey that makes him one of our 15 for 15 award winners.
George entered the business world at the young age of 15 (yes, what a coincidence!) when he obtained a job on a Merchant Marine’s ship based out of his home country of Greece. Against his father’s wishes, he left school to become a busboy on the ship. His father, a chef, preferred George to finish school and then enroll in a Swiss hotel management program. George was very inquisitive and always wanted to learn the jobs of those around him. George also discovered he had a passion for serving others and soon progressed to passenger ships and ultimately to a bartender on cruise ships. After a few years of working on ships in the Mediterranean, George became restless and jumped at the opportunity to join some of his neighborhood friends who had previously migrated to America.
His first job upon emigrating to the U.S. was with a painter where he learned he also enjoyed construction, constantly learning new skills while painting. After working for a couple of years as a painter, George moved to Peekskill, NY where another friend was opening a restaurant and asked George if wanted a job since he knew of his previous experience in the service industry from his time on the cruise ships. Once again, George started at the bottom and began to work his way up from the “back of the house” first as a busboy and dish washer, then to the “front of the house” as a server and ultimately, bar manager. George was always looking for opportunities to show he could be trusted with more responsibility and when the restaurant owner decided to take a vacation back to Greece he left George in charge to manage the restaurant. Like a son who is entrusted by his father with the car for the first time, George wanted to take care and improve the place he loved so he put his painting and construction skills to work and completely repainted and repaired the restaurant interior before the owner returned home. Needless to say, the owner was happily surprised upon his return.
George dreamed of owning his own restaurant so when he was approached by another Greek friend who told him he had just purchased a building in the adjacent town of Cortlandt and planned to open his own restaurant and wanted to know if George was interested in being a partner, he jumped at the opportunity even though he had no funds to contribute. The partner knew of George’s work ethic and struck a deal where if George would take just what he needed to live on, the rest of his share of the profits would go towards the purchase of his ownership interest. Once again, George was willing to sacrifice today, to achieve his dream of owning a restaurant tomorrow.
George recalls the building “was a dump” and with almost no capital, he once again put his limited construction skills to work and refurbished the building, learning from other tradesmen who were restaurant patrons and where happy to answer George’s questions. After some years, George had the idea to expand the business by opening a catering division. This required another renovation and expansion. It took him some time to convince his partner of the wisdom of taking on this project, but one day when his partner was in a “good mood” he said “yes” and George quickly left before he could change his mind. To save money, George took on much of the design work himself, even designing the complex structure to support the roof. When he took his plans to an engineer friend to have him finalize the drawings to submit for permitting, the engineer was amazed at the quality of the design and had minimal changes to George’s plans. Soon George was working full speed ahead on the construction of the addition, including the gardens and events area of the restaurant, as well as learning more construction trades, all while keeping the restaurant open for business; something his partner thought would not be possible.
The gardens and event area of the restaurant became “The” venue in which to host weddings and special events in Cortlandt. With that success under his belt, George wanted to fulfil his ultimate dream to own his own hotel. To expand the parking lot, George had previously purchased the adjacent vacant lot, but there was just one issue – it had a massive shale hill that encompassed the majority of the property – not exactly ideal for either for building anything. The light bulb went off, again, and George thought… “If I take down the mountain, I would have a lot to build a hotel.” George’s plan was to hire a site contractor to take down the shale hill or “the Mountain” as he affectionately referred to it and offset the cost with the sale of the shale, which could be crushed and was in demand as base for the construction of new roadways. George hired a contractor who began excavation of the Mountain, blasting small sections and then crushing the shale.
As with all things that he was involved in, George was naturally curious and began to dabble in operating some of the site contractor’s equipment. Soon an idea began to form in his mind that he could purchase the equipment necessary to excavate and crush the rock and then sell it at a profit that would more than pay off the cost of the equipment. So George established the only mining company in Cortland, in the process creating a lucrative business that would later fund his hotel. After he bought the equipment, George could be seen quarrying the rock in the mornings and evenings, before and after the restaurant opened. What a sight it must have been to see George dressed in his tuxedo having just closed the restaurant, busy operating heavy equipment to fill an order for crushed shale for pick up first thing in the morning!
Finally, after 5 years, the majority of the parcel was levelled and it was time for George to go after his biggest dream yet – build his own hotel! He found a franchisor, Intercontinental Hotel Group, who was willing to take a chance on an individual who had no previous experience in operating a hotel and he was awarded a Holiday Inn Express franchise with the provision that he would hire a top-flight management company.
The only problem now was the town where the parcel was located would not agree to extend to George the PILOT tax abatement program that many other NY hoteliers had used to their benefit. So after all of his grueling work in leveling the parcel, he was again looking for a new location in which to build his hotel and see his dream come to fruition. He found a piece of property in nearby Peekskill, but when he discussed the site with his architect, the architect said the property only could accommodate 54 rooms based on the number of parking spaces that could be fit on the parcel with the proposed improvements. This was not a sufficient number of rooms for a Holiday Inn Express. Once again, George was facing a major hurdle, but he remained undaunted. He stayed home from the restaurant one day and worked until 3:00AM to devise a plan to find sufficient parking spaces to meet the minimum number of rooms required for a Holiday Inn Express franchise. When George submitted the plan to the architect, the architect said he did not want to waste his time reviewing George’s drawing as there was no way to fit the number of spaces on the property. After much back and forth he agreed to take a look at it and had to then sheepishly call George later to tell him the calculations were correct and the concept would work.
George’s dream was still alive, but by now the economy had taken a sharp downward turn and banks were not making loans to construct new hotels, especially for someone with no experience. This takes us back to the beginning of the story when George reached out to Mercantile and we would like to say it was just a walk in the park from that point on. As with many construction projects, George faced some hurdles along the way, but he had faced bigger obstacles before and delays during construction would not keep him from fulfilling his dream. Friends in the community who believed in him and his dream invested in George’s hotel to help complete the project.
Now it was time to see if George could successfully operate the hotel that he had dreamed of for such a long time. The hotel opened with one of the highest levels of reservations to be loaded on the system that the Franchisor had ever experienced. Almost immediately, the hotel was performing above projections and after the first year, George’s hotel was recognized by the Franchisor as “New Property of the Year.” George attributes much of his success to his loving wife, Kathy, and his son, Evan, who were quick to take over the restaurant while George was busy pursing his dreams.
Today, the hotel remains highly successful and the profits have generously rewarded the investors who had faith in George. It is for his “never quit” attitude that Mercantile is proud to recognize George Liaskos and Hotel, LLC as one of our “15 for 15” Award winners.
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