How An Old Westbury Couple Built A Credit Card Processing Empire

Photo by Bruce Adler
Leo and Jennifer Vartanov. Photo by Bruce Adler

Leo and Jennifer Vartanov are two entrepreneurs. In 2001, they fell in love. In the years since, they have built an empire. 

Leo and Jennifer’s story begins around a blackjack table at the Atlantic City casino formerly known as the Trump Taj Mahal. Jennifer was trying her luck when a young Leo struck up a conversation. Little did they know at the time that their gamble would pay off in a much more interesting way. 

They both had similar upbringings and a mutual Georgian heritage. Leo immigrated to the United States from the Eastern European nation with his family at age 9, while Jennifer is a first-generation American. Their families came to the U.S. in the 20th century seeking a better life and the opportunity of the American dream.  

In so many ways, they became it.

While they did not walk away with a jackpot from the Taj Mahal, what they did leave with was something much more valuable. Leo, who resided in Brooklyn at the time, and Jennifer, who lived on Long Island, kindled a relationship. Both at college age, they were able to keep in touch and see each other between classes while attending St. John’s University.   

“I knew immediately that we had something special,” said Jennifer. “I saw something in Leo that I could tell that we would have a bright future together. Our relationship escalated quickly and soon thereafter we became engaged and started planning a wedding. Even though we were very young, and the odds were against us, we came out on top in every single way.”

They shared mutual interests, admired each other’s drive, and knew that together there was a foundation for love and lifelong friendship. In 2002, after just over a year of dating, Jennifer and Leo married, laying the groundwork for not only a family but for various business ventures that would prove to be successful and thriving. 

“I consider myself very lucky to find a life partner who shared mutual interests and family values,” Leo said.

In a small Brooklyn kiosk, they first found their entrepreneurial spirit. The early 2000s were a time when cellular technology was emerging and began to change the world. The Vartanovs decided to get in on the action at Brooklyn’s iconic Fulton Mall. 

In a booth next to a jeweler and a clothing rack, they began to sell mobile devices. As demand for their products skyrocketed, they emerged as a main provider of the products, when mobile sales hit their peak and prime.  

“From our wedding, we took our gifts and we invested them into our first retail location for cell phones,” said Jennifer. “It was only a few thousand dollars, but it was enough to open the doors and give us the jumpstart we needed to be successful.”  

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Leo and Jennifer Vartanov with their kids Jessica, Jonah, and Jayden.

And then, everyone was buying cell phones. The Vartanovs wanted everyone to be buying from them.

So they expanded. Their mobile phone business took off, and they were able to expand from their Fulton Mall booth to a retail store. Then another opened. By the late 2000s, Jennifer and Leo were overseeing operations for 17 T-Mobile and AT&T stores across Long Island and Queens.  

By that time, the constantly changing world of technology evolved again. The industry transitioned so that retail sales were becoming a thing of the past, especially with large giants like Apple entering the mobile device industry.  

“When Apple came out, we were at the peak with our 17 stores,” said Leo. “From behind the counter, the little credit card machine opened my eyes to a whole new business world. I quickly learned that there was a new world for us beyond the magnetic strip.”

So, from the back of one of their retail stores, they launched Merchant Industry a credit card processing company that would catch the wave of the plastic revolution in spending. 

Leo and Jennifer were new to this industry. Their experience, though, in retail sales helped them understand that there was a void in the field and the need for a more reliable credit card processing company in the New York Metro area. They hired a few staff members, arranged for several cubicles between storage racks at their mobile store, and got to work. 

They saw opportunity with their business partners, Chris Benabu and Frank Kotlar, to build something bigger and better. So this team, who together share a bond that dates back to Leo’s high school years, got to work. 

“Trust has always been a key part of our organization, and while business might get tense, on the weekend we remained the best of friends,” said Jennifer. “In hindsight, what was so amazing is, around this business we were building one big family and this is nowhere more apparent than when we are all gathered around the dinner table with our children running around us.’

The group began Merchant Industry with one client. But soon thereafter, they outgrew their backroom office and needed to expand. They relocated to Long Island City, where they remain today, with Leo and CEO and Jennifer as CFO. 

The Vartanovs, Benabu, and Frank set goals, committed themselves, and began pursuit. They faced challenges, but overcame them. 

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The Vartanovs are actively involved in Concerned Jericho Parents.

Fast forward 14 years: Merchant Industry LLC employs 50 full-time employees in Long Island City. It also manages nearly 250 sales agents located in cities across the nation. 

More than 15,000 companies rely on Merchant Industry and Swipe4Free Processing for each and every transaction in their businesses, ranging from small mom-and-pop restaurants and bodegas to some of the largest names in auto sales. 

Despite their company’s rapid growth and success, Jennifer and Leo have never let business interfere with the importance of family. They have always maintained that family is their top priority. They have three children: Jessica, 16, and 9-year-old twins Jonah and Jayden. The love remains strong between Jennifer and Leo to this day. 

“My husband is a wonderful partner and has taught me so much,” Jennifer said. “We have been married 18 years, and he still pushes me to be the best person I can be whether it comes to business or personally. We always share family time together, despite how unbelievably busy we are at work, and we encourage each other to follow our passions, but Leo is the support structure and I am so lucky to have him in my life.”

Jennifer and Leo also have never allowed their business success to interfere with their desire to give back to the community and advocate for a fairer and more just Long Island.

In 2020, Jennifer cofounded Concerned Jericho Parents, an organization that seeks to stop the housing site of an illegal homeless shelter, and took it upon herself to lead an advocacy arm in the local community. The organization, which has quickly risen to become one of Nassau County’s largest civic groups, she says, has made headlines and been seen as a local leader on issues facing Jericho families. Jennifer has largely been the voice of the organization, booking media appearances in many of the region’s largest and most well respected news outlets. 

Jennifer and Leo have also taken up philanthropic endeavors through their business, such as leading the region’s efforts to support the United States Marine Corps Toys for Tots, and they conduct toy drives to ensure that all local families have toys for the holidays. The Vartanovs’ efforts helped land Jennifer the role of vice chair of the organization and their toy drive within the Jericho Community yielded one of the region’s most successful efforts for Long Island’s underserved communities. 

“Giving back to my community has opened my eyes to so much,” said Jennifer. “I am thankful that I have the ability to be part of this wonderful community and give back as much as I can.”

And so the Vartanovs are just getting started, united as ever in family, in business, in philanthropy, and in community. As luck would have it, they won more than they gambled for at the Taj Mahal.