Published in UT San Diego, January 12, 2015
Friends, family and fools are usually the first money for your business. Let’s assume you do not have any of those. The next best thing is to grow your business organically. That is a $5 concept that means reinvesting the net cash flow from one month into the next one, often building your business more slowly — and keeping the ownership primarily under your own control.
Meet structural engineer Simon Wong, who started Simon Wong Engineering on Dec. 3, 1986, in a 120-square-foot windowless office in a Mission Valley executive suite. He was 28 years old and had only a few years of work experience. As he recalls, “I was young. I thought that if I don’t make it, I could always find another job.”
(Neil’s note: The time to take the risk is when you can most afford it.)
Flash forward to 2015, and you find that Simon Wong Engineering has participated in many of our region’s biggest construction projects and has 120 employees. Projects include the new construction at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, the Carlsbad desalination plant, the San Diego Metro Biosolids Center, and the Oceanside to Escondido Sprinter rail project. The company’s three divisions are structural engineering, bridge engineering and construction management.
To ensure the continued success of the company, Wong decided to merge in 2012 with Kleinfelder Inc., an employee-owned, multi-discipline engineering firm with offices all over the United States and the world. Wong believed that the cultures of the two organizations would blend well and that the combination would fuel continued growth. After the merger, Kleinfelder moved its corporate headquarters to San Diego, and Wong currently serves as vice president of the company.
(Neil’s note: A great way to scale is to find the right strategic partner. It is not always raising more money.)
When he was 17 years old, Wong emigrated from Hong Kong to Reno, Nev., where he finished high school. Next he majored in engineering at the University of Nevada-Reno, where he also earned a master’s degree.
He decided to move to San Diego in 1985, and a year later, started his own company. To drum up business, he “cold called” potential customers. No job was too small, and every customer’s satisfaction was important. Through referrals from happy customers and more outreach, his business grew and by the end of the first year, he employed a drafter and a junior engineer.
Wong was always active in the community, and in 1992 he was a co-founder of the Asian Business Association of San Diego. “For a long time the Asian community in San Diego was divided into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese groups. A few of us thought that having a group that represented the business interests of all Asians was a good idea. There were similar organizations in Los Angeles and San Francisco,” he said. “Giving back to the community is vital for every business person since the community gives you the opportunity.”
Through the ABA, he made connections that helped his business. But what’s important is that his focus was always on helping others
Over the years, he brought in five partners who owned a share of the business because Wong believed that it would make the company more successful. Being willing to share the pie is one of our most important rules.
Another part of his philosophy — his willingness to work as a subcontractor on large government contracts — has also been important. “It’s how we got our first government business. Part of a job is better than no job at all. As you start accumulating experience and learning more about a particular agency, you can become a prime contractor,” he said.
Wong understood that different customers have different priorities. Some customers focus on price. Others need a job completed by a specific date. He believes that a large part of his success is having the flexibility to adjust. Listening to the customer and then understanding what they really want is key.
Wong’s story is classic — an immigrant, smart, hard work, a couple of lucky breaks, community, coupled with being both patient and passionate. That is a tough combination to beat.