Mehul Sheth’s life story is a classic American tale: Boy sets out to make his fortune with nothing more than a can-do attitude. He works long hours, takes menial jobs, learns everything he can, picks himself up when the chips are down, and keeps on going. He never gives up.
Our country was built on these principles: With hard work, tenacity, and an unwavering belief in yourself you will ultimately find success and riches.
I have to admit that I didn’t recognize these qualities in Sheth when we were both students at URI. To me he was a skinny Indian guy with a friendly smile and high energy. Sheth was majoring in accounting, and what’s more, he was excited about it. This was incomprehensible to me, a dreamy music major. Hanging out all those years ago in Bonnet Shores, watching football (Sheth was a huge sports fan), and drinking beer, I had no thought for the future.
Reconnecting with Sheth after 26 years, I didn’t immediately comprehend the magnitude of his achievements. In actuality I was amused that he was traveling from his home in California to New York City specifically to attend a Jets game, an annual pilgrimage for him.
Not surprisingly in this era of digital socializing, he found me through Facebook. In retrospect it says a lot about Sheth that he looked me up. An extroverted networker, he understands the power of connections. Sheth’s interest in people is genuine and is probably the secret behind his success.
Today Sheth is president of VMS Aircraft Company, Inc., a supplier to the aircraft industry. The company recently broke the $8 million mark in sales, an impressive feat in a down economy when so many airlines have been hard hit.
The story of the company’s creation is even more impressive: Sheth started the company from a desk in his parent’s basement. He had no contacts, no customers, and nothing to trade.
“I had just been fired from my job,” Sheth recalled. “I had been working for a company located in the World Trade Center. I had a job on the trade desk in gold options, and while I was there I met this guy on the 55th floor. He was teaching a course in how to export products, and I decided to take it.
“After six months at my job, my boss let me go because he said I was no good. But I was still taking this course, so I went to my last meeting and then went home and told my dad I’d been fired. He said, ‘you have a desk, you have a company, so you have a job.’”
After his firing in 1991, Sheth focused his efforts on his career: “I spent all my time working on leads and looking at various products. For three years I tried out different things. I was completely broke and was delivering food as a roadrunner to make money. You know those warmer bags with food? I had to do it to survive.”
In early 1994 he finally got his first break: “My dad had a close friend in India, a real genius in every way. I’d just met a Fel-Pro representative who said they were looking to export so I said I had this major contact in India. I guess the Fel-Pro guy liked me because he connected me to a guy looking to sell solvents to the Italian air force. It took some time, but their first order was for $20,000. The order came in a week before I married my wife, Vipashi.”
From there on, Sheth’s story progresses from New Jersey, where he and his wife were living with his parents, to California: “We were completely broke, but I knew we needed to move out. I’d always wanted to live in California so I convinced my wife to move to San Diego.”
Because his first customer had been in the aircraft business, Sheth decided to change the company name to VMS Aircraft Company—V for his wife, Vipashi, and MS for himself. Sheth spent the next 18 months calling on a factory in Tijuana, Mexico, to get his second big customer. He succeeded, landing a $50,000 contract with an ex-Chicago policeman he met there. That satisfied customer helped Sheth land a major customer in Asia who was looking for a business that could supply directly to airlines.
Sheth’s days of being broke are far behind him. VMS Aircraft Company just celebrated 17 years in business, has 15 employees, is an authorized distributor for companies such as 3M, Bostik, and Permacel, and supplies aerospace and aviation chemicals for both military and commercial aircraft.
After years of hard work, Sheth is now truly flying high.
But Sheth has never followed a straight path. As a teenager he was torn between his love of sports and his desire to be a businessman. In high school he had broadcast football reports over the school PA system and written sports columns. He was accepted into Syracuse (the same school that produced Marv Alpert and Bob Costas) for sports journalism, but his dad urged him to consider other options.
Originally Sheth enrolled at URI to study journalism and business, but knowing the stellar reputation of the College of Business Administration, he decided to concentrate on business: “My uncle owned two youth hostels in London, and I spent summers in England helping out. That’s when I decided I would like to own my own business.”
Sheth was a marketing major until he took his first accounting course: “I did really well, and decided accounting is a better background for business.” Besides, Sheth already knew that he had a knack for marketing: “When I was 13 years old, my family went to the Montreal Summer Olympics. My dad wanted to see the field hockey game between Pakistan and India. We bought three tickets, but no one else in the family wanted to go. So my dad turned to me and said, ‘what are we going to do with this single ticket?’
“I took the ticket and sold it on the side of the road. That is the only time my father gave me a compliment. He said, ‘you will never starve; you are a born salesman.’ I believe that with sales you either have it or you don’t; accounting you need to learn.”
By Jennifer Gaul ’89