PROFILE: Ronnie Mah--The Heart of Downtown Rossland

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
July 9th, 2009

A welcoming beacon and an institution on Columbia Avenue, Ronnie Mah has been a friendly face in downtown Rossland for over 20 years. Often the only store open on a dark main street, Ronnie is going into his third decade of business as a dedicated and hard working entrepreneur. This week I sat down with the owner of Best Food Mart to learn more about the man behind the mart.

What brought you to Rossland?

I was born in Taisan region of Canton Province in China. Taisan is a region like the Kootenays. All of my family in the first two years came to Canada also. My brother came first and then he started to apply to bring the rest of them over, my mom my dad,everyone we brought to Canada to Nelson. Nelson is really the origin for my family.

My oldest brother about 50 years ago bought his papers. He bought fake immigration papers with a name, age and address but with no photo. The address was in Nelson so he had no choice but to come to Nelson. Then my brother qualified to come here. At that time everybody did the same thing to get to Canada. My brother came 50 years ago and he started applying one at a time to bring the rest of our family over and he is still in Nelson today.

My original professional job was as an electronics technician when I was single and I worked at that for eight years. Then I got married and my family got bigger and bigger so I wanted to create a family business for them.

From Nelson I moved to Trail and I bought a little building and opened Mah’s Restaurant to start. A couple of years later because I knew the restaurant business very well or maybe because I was lucky I was doing really well and I expanded it to two restaurants. Right now I still own the buildings in Trail but someone else runs them. I’m getting older and I only have two hands so I couldn’t run it all. At that time I was only 30 and I had lots of energy.

A couple of years later I expanded again to Rossland. At that time Rossland was a small community of 3,000 people and we only had three or four restaurants and I loved to work with the public so at that time I opened the restaurant up here. First I came up here and studied the market and I spent ten months on the weekends coming up here studying the market.

I noticed specifically on Friday and Saturdays we only had the Sunshine Cafe on the main street and the Uplander Hotel open and nothing else. That’s why I said well I might as well try it. So I occupied this building I’m in now and opened the Chinese restaurant and I made it successful. I still own the building now but somebody else rents it and runs the restaurant now. I opened that restaurant in 1988, 21 years ago.

At first I also opened two convenience stores in town and I had two full time employees. I ran this store first as a grocery store and it was so good that I made the decision not to run two at one time as I was overworked so I sold the other one to different owners. Right now I still run the convenience store. At this moment I don’t see as much success here. I’m fading out a little bit but I’m still here, so I give myself credit for surviving here for 21 years.

How have you seen Rossland change since you first set up shop in 1988?

Many years ago when I first came up here Rossland seemed really empty but right now it is all full of stores and colourful and it looks like a nice little town. It’s like a little bird. It has eyes, wings, legs, nose and it’s a little bird, a little town with all of the parts you need to live.

You’ve become somewhat of an institution in town and someone that everybody seems to know. How did you do it and what is your secret to building relationships with your customers?

You see how I talk with people like they are my friends. Even people who moved out of town many years ago they come back in to see me when they come back on vacations. One high school kid moved away to Toronto for 12 years and he came home last year and his mother and father are not in town anymore and he came in and said “Hey, Ronnie you’re still here.”. I said, “Yes, I remember you. How are you?” He told me about his family and kids and we talked for ten or twenty minutes. He sees me and he connects to his old home. He was surprised to see me still here 12 years later but when he comes back we talk like old friends.

Customer service is most important but not just customer service between a customer and an owner. It’s like a family here and it’s like my family members come in to the store so I have a better relationship with my customers than just owner/customer. We are all friends. I rely on them and they trust me. I never question my friends, so I don’t give customers a hard time.

The best thing I do is with the young people. If a kid did something wrong and stole something they feel guilt if I catch them but I don’t give them a hard time. I sit down with them and talk to them and I say “That moment you made a mistake but not for your whole life, so you see what you did a few minutes ago? You understand? Then I’ll let you go home no problem,” and they respect me and they go home and come back again. I can’t call the police like some stores when a kid just steals a candy or something. They are just kids. Some stores you steal a little battery or something and they take your fingerprints. I was a kid one time so I treat the kids with respect. They often ask me after, “Can I come back to the store?” And I say, yes, no problem, and they don’t do anything bad again.

I think the kids in Rossland have really good values. I see lot of tourists come through and lots of people from different places, but Rossland kids they have the best values because the parents all know each other and the friends all know each other. It’s a really good environment with 3,000 parents for everyone’s kids. They know the important things in a good life.

When the rest of downtown is dark, your light seems to be always on. You seem to work more than anybody else in town.

I will tell you in my whole life I made one big mistake. I have worked three human lives already in my life because I don’t take holidays and I don’t take Saturday or Sunday off. I do strictly 13 to 14 hours a day for the last 21 years. It’s a long time. Certainly I escape out sometimes later in the evening and the afternoon to go to the bank and personal things but that is my big mistake I work too much.

My job is not physical work so I’m working but it’s not like working. The window here is like my living room so it’s not boring. At night time I play music in the store and occupy my time to have some fun.

When you’re not at work, what do you do for fun?

I have lots of fun. First I love art and second I love music. Thirdly I enjoy my electronics background. Anything high tech or magazines and equipment I am really serious about and study it. In my spare time I like to learn lots of things. I like photography and each year I take the Canada day picture on Mt. Roberts.

You’ve been a successful business man for several decades. What advice would you give other aspiring entrepreneurs?

To run a business first, you have to have ambition. Second you have to not give up until you really have no hope left. I have seen lots of businesses come and go in Rossland and I’m still here through bad times and good times. Another thing is when you run a business always try to follow the market changes. In the same location I have changed my store’s image many times. First it was a grocery store, and then it became a convenience store. I used to have many vegetables and coolers and produce in the store.

When you run a business you have to always try to stay ahead you cannot say “Good now things are good,” I’m here 21 years because I try to adapt to change. The latest change now is to be a video rental store with the same name but different image.

Has all of the hard work been worth it?

One thing I can tell you is that all of my family is happy. That’s how I know I am doing a good job. I give myself some credit sometimes. I came from China. I came here for a couple of years of education in Canada. I learned Canadian culture and I can fit in now in the culture. Then I used the old traditional style of just working hard 13 to 14 hours a day. I came here with very little. I had nothing in my hands and now I have a life and a business on my hands. I came from little and now I have something so I will never give up and I will work hard to make sure I still have that.

Sometimes I wish I could have a better opportunity, but this is the life I created for myself from nothing. In Canada if you work hard, you can do anything here.

Categories: General

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