Neal St. Anthony
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The late Randy Kissoondath, a dirt-poor immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, began his entrepreneurial journey in the 1970s as a dishwasher at Nye’s restaurant on the edge of Northeast.

He was in his 20s. Bright, energetic and handy. He could fix and make things.

Within a few years, Kissoondath started Randy’s Booth Co., a small shop that designed and made restaurant booths and interior furnishings.

“Dad was a guy in jeans and a T-shirt, with a pencil behind his ear, who could figure things out, the angles and the radiuses, in his head,” recalled his son, Bert.

The customers eventually ranged from local restaurants such as O’Gara’s, Nye’s, Tiffany’s and Mancini’s Char House to regional chains such as Perkins and Country Kitchen and hotel restaurants.

Randy Kissoondath employed a few workers at a small converted bakery in Northeast, where he would design and manufacture booths for repeat customers, many of whom became friends.

“I grew up with this,” recalled Bert Kissoondath, 36. “Dad would design with the customer, make things with our three or four workers, and then we would load up the truck and go install.”

Randy sold Randy’s Booth Co. 25 years ago, after he had a heart attack and open-heart surgery at age 45. He started refurbishing the interiors of classic cars. Bert went into community banking.

In 2006, at 58, Randy, somewhat bored, bought a small, vacant building in Northeast and revived Randy’s Booth Co. And he talked Bert, who is not particularly handy, into joining the business. It took about a month to start generating business from old customers and a few new ones.

“We were rocking, and Dad was working harder than ever,” Bert recalled. “He was excited about making handcrafted booths and upholstery. He did it with such pride. I was so busy, doing everything, including putting the rubber on the bottom of the booths, that I could barely learn the business. Dad said I would get it. He said, ‘I planted the seeds of the business in you.’ ”

Randy Kissoondath died of a heart attack in 2009.

“I promised him at the funeral that I would work hard and make him proud,” Bert Kissoondath recalled.

It was not easy. And it took awhile for Bert, who was depressed by his dad’s death and unsure of his own abilities, to master the business.

However, Randy would be very proud of his son and growing company.

Earlier this month, Randy’s Booth Co. was named Minnesota’s Family Owned Business of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Bert Kissoondath, credits the company’s success to his now 25 employees and his financial adviser at Meda. Last year, Randy’s Booth Co. left its cramped space in Northeast for a plant and showroom in Crystal. It’s a refurbished former auto parts warehouse, about a $1.2 million investment thanks to an SBA-guaranteed loan through Highland Bank.

Sales have grown 20 percent annually for four years and should top $3 million a year.

CEO Bert Kissoondath, still not very handy, has grown into a pretty good salesman and business manager.

“Bert had to transition since his dad’s death from being a ‘doer’ to the leader,” said Antonelli Lindsay, Kissoondath’s business consultant for the past few years. “He came to Meda to find out what he needed to do to take the business to the next level.

“He’s very smart and he acknowledges there are things he doesn’t know. He learns from the experts and his employees. He also works hard.”

Randy’s Booth Co. still prides itself on handmade products for a growing list of customers, include Nye’s, Crave, Cove, Davanni’s, Keys and other restaurants from here to Las Vegas. The products are more expensive than mass-produced competition but they last longer. No springs or fillers in the seats. Hardwoods. Solid-deck foam. No sagging or breaking.

“Randy and Bert also like to help people,” Lindsay said. “I also told Bert that he needs to sometimes say no, to the employees.”

Kissoondath pays competitively, with bonuses, and sometimes no-interest hardship loans. He loves to take employees to eat at restaurants where they’ve made and installed equipment.

“I am nothing without the employees,” said Kissoondath, who also has become better at staying within budget.

Kissoondath also hires former inmates who are trained in the upholstery and woodworking training programs of the Minnesota Department of Corrections industries.

“I don’t care if they have a record,” Kissoondath said. “Dad believed that people who work with their hands build their dignity. I also give every employee a set of keys to show I trust them.”

The morning in 2009 that Randy had the heart attack that killed him, Bert arrived at his parents’ home as emergency medical technicians left. After family and friends quietly mourned, Bert carried Randy’s body to a waiting hearse. Customers, designers and workers had arrived at the house. They touched Bert and told him they would help him carry on in the spirit of Randy Kissoondath, the once-penniless immigrant with a can-do attitude.

“My dad was my hero,” Bert Kissoondath said. “And he believed we could do this.”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.