From college jobs to successful career

Sales: As a UM student, Joe Naidu sold plants and spring break vacations as side jobs. Now, he owns the companies.

September 10, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | By TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Joe Naidu was always selling something in his college days at the University of Maryland - tropical plants from the back of a van in the summer, spring break vacations on campus in the fall.

Ten years after earning his economics degree, he's still doing the same thing. But now he owns the companies.

Premier Foliage, which sells palm trees and tropical plants to East Coast beach hotels and resorts, and Endless Summer Tours, which sells spring break vacation packages to college students, had a combined revenue of more than $5 million this year, Naidu said. And with a little help from the Internet, each of the companies could grow a little more.

Endless Summer Tours will begin targeting travel agents at and around universities where students are familiar with the company and launch a new user interface to allow the agents to tap in directly to the company's network to book trips.

Web site upgrades are also in store for Premier Foliage, to make it easier for customers to order online, Naidu said.

"My hopes are that the implementation of technology will allow me to broaden the amount of customers I can serve at any given time," Naidu said from his Ellicott City office.

Both businesses started as side jobs while Naidu was a student at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Premier Foliage began in 1989 with Naidu peddling small plants for offices, but he launched into selling palm trees when one of his customers in Ocean City inquired about getting some. After looking into the business and making contacts, Naidu launched into it full force.

And because the trees cannot survive the mid-Atlantic's cold winters, each year the clients came back for a new crop of feathery Queen palms and dwarf King Sago trees. "My clients just kept growing," Naidu said.

This year, the company had $1 million in revenue - up 40 percent since 1999, Naidu said - eight employees and customers throughout Ocean City and Dewey Beach, Del.

Bob Chamber, purchasing manager for the Harrison Group, which owns 12 hotels and restaurants in Ocean City, has been buying trees from Naidu for about five years. The group buys six tractor-trailer loads of trees and plants each year, Chamber said, and they're often looking for specialty trees.

"He always seems to locate the ones we want," Chamber said.

In 1992, Naidu started Endless Summer Tours.

With $4 million in revenue this year - up 80 percent since 1999, Naidu said - the 20-person company has become a more important focus. Naidu hired a chief operating officer last month to help with the increased business flow.

The company spends thousands of dollars each year advertising on the Internet and papering college campuses with fliers, brochures and direct mail.

This year's focus, to target travel agents, will expand the business and could double the number of travelers the company sends to the sandy beaches.

"It's going to be a key factor of expanding our business," Naidu said. "Not only will we be trying to sell to students and groups on our own, we'll have a wholesale division that will be getting business that we'd never get."

Mark Perry, former vice president for sales and marketing for Vacation Travel International, joined EST last month, bringing a clientele of travel agents, student groups and campus organizations.

The move was necessary "for us to expand and be a bigger company and handle new venues like travel agent business," Naidu said.

Even if both businesses flourish like a palm in the sand, Naidu has no plans to back away from either venture. He'll probably dabble in other areas - say, plans to build a mortgage company that have been simmering on the back burner.

"My whole vision was to have four to five unrelated companies in totally different industries," said Naidu. "I wanted to have different cash flow machines. I don't want to have all my eggs in one basket."

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