Jacksonville Business Portrait
The business community in Jacksonville hopes Kahn can deliver more than just a better football team.
Born in 1950, Khan grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, a city of 10 million near the border with India. His parents were considered middle class — his mother a math professor and his father a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur. He is the second-oldest, with two sisters and a brother.
Khan calls it a “great childhood.” From an early age he had an entrepreneurial bent, building transistor radios and selling them. “That was very unusual. Nobody did that,” Khan says.
Ultimately, Khan’s parents saved up to buy him a one-way ticket so he could study engineering in the U.S. Khan, accepted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, arrived in late January 1967 at age 16, staying at a YMCA for $2. The next day he encountered two feet of snow and a blizzard that shut down the city.
“For me, it was a challenge, an adventure,” Khan says, interviewed at his wood-paneled, windowless office inside EverBank Field.
Khan landed his first job in America as a dishwasher making $1.20 an hour shortly after arriving. “In ’67, that was big money,” he says. “When you convert that to Pakistani rupees, that is more money than 99% of the people over there are making.”
At the University of Illinois, Khan set out to assimilate. He didn’t hang out with other immigrants and pledged at a fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. “He immersed himself completely in the U.S. culture,” says friend David Sholem, an attorney in Champaign. “Those were the most fun and exciting times,” he says.
> Revenue: More than $3 billion
> Employees: 12,450 worldwide
> Operations: 48 manufacturing plants in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Spain and the U.S.
> Customers: Every major automaker in the world, including BMW, GM, Chrysler, Acura, Toyota, Lamborghini, Volkswagen and Ford.
Khan, who became the firm’s chief engineer within five years of joining the firm, helped solve the puzzle. In 1978, at 27, he decided to start his own company focusing on a one-piece bumper. With $13,000 and a $50,000 government loan, Khan started Bumper Works. The first vehicle to wear one of his bumpers was the Chevy Luv pickup.
Two years later, Khan bought Flex-N-Gate for $1 million. Today, the company posts revenue of more than $3 billion a year.
Learning American culture included mastering the art of winning people over. “I had a very active social life,” Khan says with a laugh. “I look back fondly on those years to this day.” He met his wife, Ann, at a college bar. They have been married for 31 years and have two adult children. He also had his first encounter with American football, attending games with his fraternity brothers, some of whom played for the Fighting Illini.
Khan graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1970, with the U.S. in the middle of an economic recession. Looking for work meant encountering a lot of doors shut in his face. “Obviously, rejection is a part of life, whether you are asking somebody out or asking for a job,” Khan says. His job-seeking strategy: Rather than just mailing out resumes, he angled to get past a secretary and talk to a manager directly. “Then you would try to sell them — ‘I can do this for you,’ ” Khan says.
The shoe-leather approach paid off, and a small auto parts manufacturer in Urbana named Flex-N-Gate hired him to help engineer custom bumpers. After becoming the company’s chief engineer within five years, he left to start his own business. In 1980, he purchased Flex-N-Gate for $1 million — and has spent 30 years building it into one of the largest auto parts manufacturers in the world.
In addition to Flex-N-Gate, Khan also owns two other companies, Bio-Alternatives, a biodiesel fuel company that his son, Tony Khan, helps manage, and Smart Structures, which monitors the structural health of bridges.
As Khan’s business grew, he and Ann continued to live and raise their children in central Illinois. They were generous donors in the community, giving $1 million to a local YMCA. Khan also bought an aviation service company and bought and renovated the Urbana Golf and Country Club. He’s also donated more than $18,000 to Illinois-based candidates for Congress — from both parties — and was an early backer of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The Khans have given generously to the University of Illinois, donating to the school’s library and a performing arts center. Last September, they gave $10 million to build an annex to the building that houses the College of Applied Health Sciences and have also funded endowed professorships. “He picks his interests pretty carefully,” says Peter Fox, a Champaign-Urbana area real estate developer.
The school’s athletics program has benefited as well. In addition to buying a suite at the football stadium, Khan funded an outdoor tennis facility that bears his name and gave money toward a stadium renovation. “They are very, very generous,” says Ron Guenther, a former athletics director at the school.