George Yap: Changing lives through employment

Business Leader nominee #3

BY MOSES JACKSON

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

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LEASA Industries Ltd, south Florida's prolific manufacturer and distributor of health food products, is the most memorable chapter in the story of one man who has lived multiple lives.

With steely grit and iron will, George Yap exorcised the ghosts of his political and economic misfortunes in Jamaica, learned new skills and started afresh at the bottom of the pile in a foreign country.

"I did not know what I was doing," Yap confesses. "In the first year I had revenues of US$5,000 and lost US$30,000. I was bankrupt and could not go back to Jamaica."

This was the inauspicious circumstance facing Yap and his wife Einez as they struggled to make a living in 1977, one year after their self-imposed exile to Miami.

The Jamaican immigrants managed to pull together US$15,000 from family members and friends to pay for a hydroponic farm that another couple — a Chinese man and his Cuban wife — had already ran into bankruptcy.

Yap's first misstep was to take at face value the promise of the Chinese to "stick around and show us how to operate the business".

Once he collected his money, "he was gone".

It is a testimony to Yap's unyielding determination that an enterprise with such a shaky beginning, and for which he bore sole responsibility, could have survived at all, much less to be the foundation on which he has built his highly-regarded family business.

LEASA Industries Ltd, of which Yap, at 70, remains executive chairman, is the largest employer of labour in Liberty City. The entire organisation is regularly held up as an exemplar of conscientious corporate citizenship, even while several of its products and manufacturing processes are regarded by many as the gold standard within the niche health food market.

Within its 65,000 square foot warehouse and production facility, 80 Americans, mostly the classically unemployable and underprivileged minorities, are able to find work, and importantly for Yap, a sense of self-actualisation.

"These are rehabilitating drug addicts, ex-convicts and welfare mothers, who nobody wanted to employ," he declares. "But I say to them, 'I don't care about your past and what you have done before. I am giving you a second chance because everybody deserves one'.... and they love me for what I have done and they help me build my business."

The hydroponic system is one that allows products to be grown in specially treated water under temperature-controlled, laboratory-like conditions. It requires minimum amount of land, and produces very high yields per space utilised.

At the LEASA facility, some 15,000 pounds of bean sprouts are churned out each day, while 5,000 pounds of tofu are manufactured from beans procured in the state of Ohio.

Last year, sales climbed to US$9 million, doubling the output of five years ago, making LEASA branded products — from value added fresh cut vegetables, herbs, bean and alfalfa sprouts, speciality onions, to soy products and Chinese foods — among the most popular in this niche health food market.

Yap says that the millions of dollars that he has invested in plant expansion and upgrade over the years have enabled the company and its products to attain the highest levels of food and process certification.

"The FDA and USDA come to his factory for training," he says. "We are able to share with them what the process is all about so they can better understand what to look for during their inspection."

The products — about 80 different types, sourced from all over the world — are within easy reach of consumers. They are on display at Publix Supermarket, and Winn-Dixie stores, two of the leading supermarket chains in Miami. WalMart supercentres, Sedanos supermarket, and Sysco Food Service, are among the retailers that stock them.

They can also be found in specialty stores as far away as Alaska; while they are sold in selected supermarkets in the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Aruba, Jamaica, The Virgin Islands, and The Bahamas.

It should come as no surprise that LEASA is a family business — given the way in which family members and friends pooled to raise the start-up capital.

While Einez passed away five years ago, Yap's son, Andrew, who teaches marketing at Florida International University, is the president. He oversees the day-to-day operation and strategic direction of the company.

Yap's younger brother Richard, an engineer, ensures that the equipment are in good working order, while his sister-in-law Joyce Johnson is an accountant at the firm. His son-in-law Joe Munard and nephew Christopher Yap are also employees.

Yap's strong sense of family would have also been shaped by childhood events that long preceded his arrival in America.

He is the seventh of eight children born in Kingston to Chinese emigrants who settled in the island after fleeing the brutal China/Japan war of the 1920s.

They brought with them to Jamaica their indomitable spirit of entrepreneurism and culture of hard work, and within years were the owners of a haberdashery in Kingston.

In 1949, the family faced economic ruin when fire swept through the building housing the haberdashery, reducing the business to rubble.

But the dogged entrepreneurs managed to get back on their feet, and started a bakery, but this venture suffered a similar fate to the haberdashery with the passage of Hurricane Charlie in 1951.

They were unable to recover from this second body blow, coming in such quick succession to the first.

"My father was never able to get back on his feet and start another business," says Yap.

These events marked a sudden and catastrophic change in the life of the eight-year-old. The first casualty was his education.

"I never got to finish high school," he says, with a slight hint of nostalgia.

While elder brother Eric Yap did his best to support the younger siblings, the burden was simply too overwhelming, so George left his uncle's house where "five of us had to squeeze into one bedroom" and became a business partner with his mother.

The arrangement was simple: she would cook, and he would take the food to various Chinese groceries to solicit sales. Later, when she added patties to the menu, he did a thriving business selling them to high schools within the Corporate Area. He remembers for example, when he crossed an important milestone, selling 600 patties in a single day, and discovering in the process, that "I love to sell".

He would, however, soon make the wretched discovery that even this talent had its limitations. Buoyed by the success of the patty business, Yap decided it was time to expand, and that baking seemed a close enough fit.

The business was a disaster.

Apparently he never caught on to the nuance of the art, and his products failed to win favour with the market.

"I would deliver the products and by the next week they would all be returned," he says.

There were consequences. One supplier seized his delivery van to help recover outstanding payments, while a hire purchase retailer repossessed the warmer that was used in the patty business.

At that time in Jamaica, the gaming business was risky, but the potential for profit was a powerful lure, especially to those with an appetite for risk taking.

Yap tiptoed into this business with a single machine in 1969, in partnership with two friends. By 1972 they had 100 juke boxes and slot machines playing one-arm bandit, and 'drop pan' in gambling dens, bars, hotels — just about anywhere that Jamaicans congregated after sunset.

"Some of these machines were illegal, but I had to do something to live," he remarks.

In this business, there was always a constant threat of seizure, and a constant need to keep one step ahead of the confiscatory policemen.

They thought they were spreading their risks, having decided to transfer 25 of the machines to Haiti, to take advantage of the casinos, only to have them seized by the Government and his partner declared persona non grata.

Yet it was victory at the polls of his political nemesis — the Michael Manley People's National Party in 1972 — that set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Yap's hurried departure from the island in 1976.

His cousin Ferdie Yap, a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) politician, was among several individuals who were detained under the State of Emergency that was declared by the Manley administration ahead of the 1976 elections.

George himself was a political activist for the Opposition JLP and had assisted his cousin in his campaign.

"After they sent Ferdie to camp (Up Park Camp) I heard that they came to my house looking for me, because they wanted me too, so I packed up and skipped," Yap explains. "I had to leave all my assets behind because I needed my freedom more."

Among the assets was 160 acres of land at Long Bay in Portland that he and his partners had planned to subdivide and develop.

Once in America, Einez found herself two jobs so she could support her husband during the lean early days of his venture.

"My wife allowed me to stand on her shoulders," he notes reflectively.

By 1992, having successfully scaled the costly learning curve, Yap felt comfortable enough to invest in a large factory and again, in 2004, spent US$4.6 million to expand the factory and cold storage facility.

Growth throughout the years has been largely unbroken, except for a brief period between 2007 and 2008 when LEASA responded to a softening in the market by laying off seven employees, and imposing a 10 per cent pay cut in the salaries of management. The company bounced back during the past two years, adding more individuals to its payroll and increasing sales.

It is important to note that LEASA's philosophy of not just doing well but doing good has not gone unnoticed; the company has the awards and accolades to show that their good deeds are indeed appreciated.

Among the many:

* In 1989, the company copped Small Business of the Year Award for community service

* In 1998, Welfare to Work - Small Business Owner of the Year South Florida District from the Small Business Administration.

* In 1999 and 2000, 100 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies in America's Inner Cities from Inc Magazine and Harvard Business School Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.

LEASA has also been the recipient of several awards for its entrepreneurial success. They include:

  • * 2007 Supplier of the Year Award, Florida Regional Minority Business Council

* 1999 Manufacturer of the Year Award, Florida Manufacturing Technology Centre and the Florida Business Journal

* 1997 National Minority Manufacturer of the Year Award, US Department of Commerce and Minority Business  
   Development Agency

Moses Jackson is the founder of the Jamaica Observer Business Award programme. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

    


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