Published in UT San Diego, August 3, 2015
Notwithstanding The Donald, the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy is a theme we write about often. And usually it includes the value of education and the entrepreneurial spirit. Herewith the story of Chun “Charlie” Bin Yim.
In 1969, Yim arrived in San Diego from South Korea, speaking only a little English and of course with no money. Since then, he has owned more than 30 businesses, including hotels, restaurants, gift card shops and real estate. How did he do it?
Yim was born in 1942 in Seoul into a wealthy family, but his life was turned upside down by both World War II and the Korean War. “Food was hard to come by. We were lucky to eat one meal a day, and that was usually a rice ball my mother prepared for us,” he recalled, adding that this was where the malnourishment that led to his small stature began.
Eventually, Yim earned a degree in archaeology and anthropology — subjects that didn’t really interest him but which he was compelled to study by the university. After serving in the South Korean army and training Peace Corps workers, he was offered a scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan. On his way there, he serendipitously stopped in San Diego to visit a cousin, who recommended that he stay and instead study business.
Note: Luck plays an important part in all great stories. Plan for it. My hero, Dan Kaheneman, says luck is a tangible force that comes through a life like a freight train — the only difference is there is no set timetable for its arrival.
“The moment I determined to stay in San Diego and change the course of my life was a revolutionary turning point,” he said. “I had the spirit of an entrepreneur and I realized that I could become a successful business person.” To support himself while attending San Diego State University, he worked as a janitor and a waiter.
His business career began in 1973 when a new shopping center opened in Encinitas. He started Yim’s Accounting Office, which provided bookkeeping, income taxes and other services to small businesses. The landlord offered him adjacent space to start a restaurant. He kept his costs down by buying used equipment, and “hired experienced restaurant employees and empowered them to design an attractive product,” he said. He sold the restaurant at a profit.
Note: He hired someone who knew how to run a restaurant. He did not try to learn it.
His favorite business rule: When the market comes down, you buy. When the market goes up, you sell. This sounds a lot like Warren Buffett, who says he buys when everyone else is scared.
“You don’t have to know the minutia of a business to operate that business. I felt confident that with my business, management, finance and marketing education, I knew how to run a business, and how to hire, trust and empower people who do understand the details. That’s what I did with all the businesses I bought including my current business, Sierra Padre Mill Company,” he said.
A true entrepreneur — he knew that what he didn’t know would kill him, so he empowered and delegated to others. He hired experience and gave them room to achieve. Classic.
Always seeking to learn, Yim earned a Ph.D. in business from USIU in 1996. His doctoral dissertation was titled “An Assessment of the Management Problems of Small Business: A Case Study of Korean Immigrants in the United States of America.” His thesis: “Research reveals that the growth of small businesses owned by Korean immigrants may be constrained because of the lack of management skills. Korean businessmen face problems of managing their businesses in a foreign culture.”
In the results section, he noted that Korean small-business owners were deficient in three key areas: financial planning, marketing promotion and personnel management. He recommended a framework for implementing and improving business management skills so these owners would have a far better chance of surviving and succeeding.
Yim is the rock star of management. Not only did he do this for himself, but he has reached out to teach others of his country. He was not afraid to “hire up,” to let go and to trust. For an immigrant to find and create trust is daunting and risky, but in so doing, Yim’s business growth curve became exponential.
I love his story, because it speaks to a fearless embrace of the unknown — and conquering it.
Rule No. 421: Inspiration comes from many shores. Welcome it.