In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic was sending people home and shutting down the economy, Kooline Plumbing Heating & Air President Mohammed Nazeem received some bad news. His general manager and two other employees foresaw the difficulties small businesses would have during the lockdown, decided the odds were just too stacked against his business and decided to take their chips elsewhere.

As Nazeem watched a significant chunk of his workforce walk out the door, he had some hard decisions to make about the future of the company. Maybe they were right. Maybe a small-time operation like Kooline had no chance in the face of a global crisis. But in the end, he knew he was going to make the same choice he always has. He was going to bet on himself.

That, after all, has been the story of Nazeem’s life. That is how in less than a decade he went from earning $1.15 an hour digging ditches for plumbing lines at resorts in Fiji to owning a business in Maricopa that now employs 25 people. And it’s how, despite the odds, his small business not only survived the pandemic but grew exponentially in the process, including taking on huge projects from across the state.

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Nazeem talks fondly of the life he had in Fiji. It’s the place that made him who he is today, where his family grew strong, and where he met the woman who is now his wife and business partner, Farzana. He managed a decent living, but it came from working 60-80 hours a week in manual labor on big projects like the resorts. The economy in Fiji relies much on tourism, so there was always work in that regard.

“It’s island life, less stressful,” Nazeem said. “But I found this girl here, and she didn’t want to live in Fiji with me, so I had to move.”

With Farzana already living stateside, Nazeem got his immigration papers in order and in 2010 moved straight from the tropical islands to the desert of Maricopa. It was a culture shock, for sure, and an economic one. He migrated in the heart of the Great Recession, which hit Maricopa as hard as anywhere, and found there weren’t any jobs for a new guy like him.

So he decided to expand his skill set, scraping enough together to attend the RSI school and become an air-conditioning technician. Finally, a door opened and he got a job in maintenance at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, where he worked for six years and eventually became a supervisor. It was a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a business while meeting a lot of people in the process.

But Nazeem was always stuck on the graveyard shift and working holidays, and with two kids at home he started yearning for more control over his own life. So in 2016, he and Farzana started Kooline out of their home, taking a few calls a day wherever they could get them. It wasn’t easy — they both had full-time jobs for those first six months, so the calls had to be in the afternoon and the fatigue was real — but it was theirs.

After those six months, the word of mouth began to spread around Maricopa, and the business was showing real signs of life. Nazeem’s brother became Kooline’s first employee, and there was enough work to go around as Maricopa started seeing homes being built at rates not seen since before the recession.

“Since then, we’ve just said to keep going,” Nazeem said. “I come from a different country, and what I’ve learned on this journey is that when you want something, you go for it and you never look back.”

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Throughout the pandemic, Kooline employees knew their importance as essential workers and even more so because they were entering the COVID sanctuaries of people’s own homes. They were told to always be ready, and always be safe. The company invested in protective equipment and reported no cases of COVID in their office throughout the whole ordeal. It was a challenge, but they got through it.

“Our biggest inspiration and motivation is that we’re a local, family-owned business,” Farzana said. “My focus is that I have employees who have families as well, that depend on us. So when I’m advertising, when I’m marketing, my goal is to ensure that these employees have jobs. So even when we had the pandemic, we were always working to ensure that we weren’t laying off people, or shorting their hours. We made sure everybody had a stable income. And God willing, we’ve been able to do that.”

Not only did they survive, they thrived.

When the pandemic hit locally, Kooline was still almost exclusively servicing residential customers. That began to change when they worked on a building on Kenly Farms, then with the new Maricopa Animal Hospital last year, once again allowing Nazeem to get his foot in the door. From connections he made through that project, he was able to secure a contract to provide plumbing for the new Exceptional Healthcare hospital that will be the first of its kind in Maricopa.

It was by far the biggest contract Kooline had signed, allowing many new employees to come on board and for the company’s reputation to multiply. It wasn’t easy — a project like that requires a lot of capital purchases up front before all the money comes in — but it allows Kooline to compete with some of the biggest names in the area. Now, they are in deep talks with some big names around Maricopa, but they have also expanded their operations around the state, working on other hospitals in Yuma, Bullhead City and Prescott.

How all this happened was simple, according to the business’s owners. They were present for people in times of need, whether that be a person dealing with a crisis at their home they might not be able to afford right away, or a real estate agent who knows they can rely on Kooline to fix a problem before a closing. Eventually, word about that level of service spreads to even big corporations.

“One of the things that I think kept us going was me being out in the field getting jobs,” Nazeem said. “I would talk to people and ask them what they need and how we could help.”

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Kooline long ago moved out of the Nazeems’ garage, first into an office on Garvey Avenue, and now on a lot off Magnolia Road. Inside their building, employees are on the phone with customers, making sure everybody gets the service they need.

After the general manager left at the beginning of the pandemic, Rich Vitiello stepped in to take the job. The city councilman can’t stop singing the praises of the company and its two owners, believing this to be a great Maricopa success story and a stirring immigration triumph to boot.

“The reason I came on board was because of his story,” Vitiello said. “To be part of a family-owned business right here where I love living, it’s great. I remember when I met him, he walked into my house one night at 9 p.m. and didn’t charge me an arm and a leg. I wanted to be right there with him. We’re not scared to work.”

It’s that spirit of valuing work ethic that has followed the Nazeems throughout their long journey to where they are now. It’s something they hope will keep the company strong but will also be passed down to their children, now ages 10 and 7. Life in America, however, has caused that message to get a little more complicated.

“You’ll get a return if you work hard,” Farzana said. “We were born and raised in a Third World country. We’ve seen poverty firsthand, and we’ve seen the struggles of parents working day in and day out to make ends meet. In the United States, our kids don’t get to see that.”

They were planning on taking their children to Fiji to see what life they could have had if their parents hadn’t immigrated. The pandemic put a halt to those plans, but it could be happening in the near future. Nazeem is also part of a nonprofit called Yasin’s Charitable Trust that raises money for the people of Fiji during times of crisis, like when COVID shut down the all-important tourism industry.

The Nazeems speak proudly of what they have built and the increased role they play in the Maricopa community. But it’s been a long journey to get to this point, and the hope is that someday there might come some rest.

“In the last couple of years, it’s been stressful, even if we’ve been successful and profitable,” Farzana said. “I think at some point we’d like a more relaxed life, and hopefully we can achieve that. We don’t want to work all our lives trying to build a bigger company while being stressed all the time. We’d rather retire early while knowing we built a successful but smaller organization.”