The Best or Nothing: Armina Stone Founder Emre Basman
The native of Turkey fell in love with Pittsburgh and decided to build a business here.
Emre Basman grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and might have stayed there forever had it not been for a father who encouraged his son to seek his own path.
Emre’s father owned a company making electrical outlets that employed about 150 people. “Turkey is a very modern country. I could have had a beautiful life with a wealthy family in Istanbul,” says Emre. “My father said to me, ‘Son, you have an ambitious character. I know I cannot stop you.’”
It was a path that Emre had been groomed for. When he was 10 years old, he started attending summer school in England. Emre later earned a scholarship to Eastern Mediterranean University and played professional soccer for a year. “I was good at soccer, but my feeling was, I wanted to be the best or nothing,” he says.
Faced with the reality that if his son stayed in Istanbul, he would be required to join the military, his father asked Emre to bring him a map. Studying it, he told Emre to pick a country — Japan, the United Kingdom or the United States — where he would go to earn his master’s degree. A sports lover who enjoyed American nature shows, Emre didn’t hesitate in selecting the United States. Boston was a common destination for Turkish immigrants at that time, but Emre had friends in Washington, D.C. So, in 2000, at age 22, Emre moved to D.C. to complete his education at American University and, later, Strayer University.
“My friend picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to the DMV. I passed the exam on the spot and got a permit,” Emre says. To him, the message was clear, there is no life in the U.S. without a car. There were more tests to come and the pressure was on; Emre also had to score well on the SAT and TOEFL to be allowed to stay and study in the United States.
Emre and his father had an understanding that, once Emre graduated, he would look for a business opportunity in the United States. Once he found one, his father would visit. If his father agreed there was potential, he would provide Emre with the capital to start a business. Three years after Emre graduated from college, and six years after he came to America, his father arrived for that fateful visit.
Emre saw the importing of stone as a good opportunity, as Turkey produces about 40% of the world’s marble supply. Emre tapped his family’s connections in the quarry industry to start importing marble, learning quickly that four containers of marble could net him $20,000. A U.S. stone company in D.C. hired Emre; he was the first immigrant it had ever employed.
Emre asked his boss if his father could visit him at work. To the surprise of his coworkers, his father proceeded to come to work with Emre every day for a month. His father gained an understanding of the business and saw firsthand that Emre was correct about the opportunities of importing stone. In 2008, Emre’s father provided the capital to help lay the groundwork for a company that would import stone and other products to sell to fabricators. Meanwhile, Emre continued his work as a sales representative for the D.C. stone company. In 2011, he traveled to Pittsburgh with his boss — a Steelers fan — to sell to fabricators. In 2013, Pittsburgh caught his attention again when it hosted the G-20 summit. Later that year, Emre came to Pittsburgh and “fell in love” with Downtown. “It felt like a small version of Chicago,” Emre says. “Pittsburgh is a hidden gem, a unique city. [It’s] hospitable and welcoming, unlike big cities.”
Emre had made a decision.
“Have you seen the movie Back to the Future? They get the winning lottery ticket numbers in the future and then go back in time? Well, it was like that. I had the playbook from the D.C. market, which was 15 years ahead of Pittsburgh. I decided to take over the Pittsburgh market.”
It took him a year to find the property in Cheswick where he would open a warehouse. He then hired four people and began bringing containers to Pittsburgh. “At this point, I was coming to Pittsburgh once a week,” he remembers.
Then, Emre believes, fate intervened: There was a fire, and the fabricator to which he had been selling burned down.
He “cashed out” in D.C. and reserved a booth at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show to start to build his brand as a stone wholesaler. “I saw the crowd and thought, ‘This is a lot.’ I decided to convert my business plan to the fabrication business.” Four months later, in May 2015, Armina Stone was officially born.
Today, Armina Stone does 40 to 50 projects a day.
“I never gambled in my life, but I took a risk,” Emre says, noting he did his homework. “I studied the history of Pittsburgh, of Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie.”
Emre points to role models, including his father and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a fellow immigrant, as well as the founder of Chobani yogurt, Hamdi Ulukaya, who is Turkish, as his inspiration. “I admire him (Ulukaya) for two specific reasons: He is successful despite people laughing at him. He believes we are blessed to live the American dream. And he helps refugees from Syria who are seeking asylum to find a trade.”
When Emre’s father was diagnosed with cancer, Emre brought him to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to try new therapies. They were able to extend his life for a time, Emre says. Before he died, “My father told me two things: Bury me here and put an American flag on the Armina Stone building.”
Emre did both. Then it was time to move on to his next chapter.
“I feel I am living the American Dream, and I love this country,” he said. “But when you come to a certain time in your life, it’s time to give back – first to your family and then to your community. The younger generation is the future.”
Emre’s family has recently grown to include his wife, Andrea, and their son, Arda, who was born in 2022. They have settled in Pine Township, where family time and exercise are priorities.
On the community side, Emre’s focus is on supporting and growing a nonprofit organization called Steel City Impact, which is providing “classroom-to-career” programming for about 36 students at Sto-Rox Junior/Senior High School. “Mind, body and spirit” activities include after-school tutoring, mentoring, college/career preparation, physical and mental wellness and cultivating personal development in life skills and faith. A six-week summer program includes weekly field trips designed to expose the students to a broad range of experiences.
“Regardless of the activity, we are teaching them that you have to work for things you want in life,” said Tyra Grant, executive director of the Steel City Impact. “We are preparing them for the real world.” Leaders of the nonprofit include Simon Arias, president, and Emre, vice president. Ryan Shazier and 2023 Ultimate House developer Bobby Steele are on the board, among others. “It is awesome to feel the aura they bring to this organization,” Tyra said. “They understand what these kids need, someone to lean on to make their lives better. They are all about the students and effecting change in their lives.” https://steelcityimpact.com/
Emre reports that a recent fundraising gala at Rivers Casino raised almost $200,000 for Steel City Impact. “We want these 40 kids to become 400 kids in the future,” Emre said.
Armina Stone has also served as a longtime sponsor of Pittsburgh Magazine’s Ultimate House project, which since its inception in 2015 has raised more than $370,000 for UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s Free Care Fund.
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