By Ashley Andrews, 700 Club Interactive
CBN.com As the CEO of Baja Fresh, La Salsa, Sweet Factory, Ignite Enterprises, and numerous other companies, David Kim is the epitome of a business man. Corporate savviness runs in his blood, so to speak. He's been dubbed the "Empire Builder," but he didn't earn that nickname for just being a good franchiser. Kim is also somewhat of a renovator. He has a knack for taking companies in distress and turning them into "high-powered profit centers in record time." His genius has made him a billionaire, and his book Ignite!: The 12 Values that Fuel Billionaire Success has enlightened blue-collar wannabes everywhere. Distressed businesses seek his counsel constantly, but Kim isn't one to brag. As he explained, "Most of what we've done in the past is take companies that were struggling financially and turn them around." Sounds simple, but for the many companies that are now "turned around" because of Kim and his investment team, it's their second chance.
Kim's story starts in South Korea. When he was a teenager, his family abandoned their home and fled to the States. His father, a former diplomat, went from traveling to city after city to selling goods at a local flea market just to make ends meet. Looking back, Kim shared that, "I felt really bad for my parents having had a very prestigious life as a diplomat to come to the United States and give everything up and have to start over again...and that is where I made a very passionate decision to work very hard so that my parents would not be forced to work for the rest of their lives." His passion has paid off. Kim has gone from selling toys at thrift stores to selling whole franchises and running entire companies. But for Kim, it's not about the money or the title. "It's not about turning companies around anymore. That is not where I define my successes...Success," he insists, "comes from making sure that your children, the next generation, does better than you do." His sincerity and passion is why Baja Fresh is currently one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the US. "We opened 40-50 stores in the past 18 months, creating hundreds of jobs," he shared. And the chain's success has led to daily requests from dozens of people "wanting to know more about how they can open a franchise."
FROM BEHIND THE DESK TO BEHIND THE COUNTER
Kim's success has gained him the respect of his peers, but it also caught the attention of TV producers. After several requests for him to participate in CBS's "Undercover Boss," Kim finally said yes. And it was his participation on this hit show that caught the public's eye, as viewers all over hailed his appearance as "the most surprising episode yet." Kim went undercover as "Ken," a reality TV show contestant competing for a job. He left his office (or cubicle rather) and traded in his fitted suit for a Baja Fresh uniform. As the company's top executive, Kim oversees 400 locations in nearly 30 states - so he knows a thing or two about the business. But getting behind the register and wiping down tables isn't something that you would normally expect an "Empire Builder" to enjoy. But Kim isn't your typical CEO.
Each day, he took on a new position. His first assignment: a general manager in a high-traffic restaurant smack-dab in the middle of Las Vegas. He went from making salsa verde, to washing peppers, to mopping the back room. Despite his efforts, his supervisor of the day, Jose, asserted that he would "never even think of hiring him." His second assignment, unfortunately, did not go much better. Working as a cashier under the watchful eye of twenty-year-old Anthony, Kim was "extremely slow" and did the worst thing any cashier can do - "cause a long line." At his third job, Kim worked behind the counter with store manager Rami. There, Kim became the only CEO on the show to ever try to "eat his way out" of trouble. Ironically, years of burrito eating did little to help him replicate them. And as every attempt literally fell apart, Kim did his best to do away with the evidence in the least wasteful way possible. "I must have gained five pounds that day!" he laughed. "We take food very seriously here. I couldn't just throw it away." Rami, however, was not so amused, and by the end of the shift, Kim had made his way back to cleaning the bathrooms. His fourth and final role was as an operations manager with instructor Carrie. During this assignment, he learned how to check produce, make salsa and running out deliveries. In between dropping the whisk in the salsa mix and carting burritos over to customers across the street, Kim stumbled upon on a few new ideas for the franchise - one: catering...and two: a value menu. Both ideas he credits to Carrie.
BEYOND THE COMPETITION
While he didn't relish scrubbing floors or darning rubber gloves, Kim made quite an impression on his employees - and vice versa. On his first day, Kim and Jose formed a special bond. As it turned out, they both immigrated to the US, and they both set it in their hearts to make something of themselves. On top of managing the restaurant, Jose shared that he is also working on earning a degree. His dream is to own his own restaurant, and Kim made Jose's dream come true, when, at the end of the show, Kim gave Jose his very own Baja Fresh Franchise - a $50,000 value. At hearing the good news, Jose was moved to tears.
On break, Anthony, the oldest of six siblings, shared with Kim that he is the caretaker for his family and has been ever since his father left. Having only been in the States for two years, Anthony has had to move from place to place in order to find work. The young man's testimony upset Kim, as he heard him describe his life as a "blessing." Anthony's story forced Kim to think about his own life. And, in the end, he decided to bless Anthony and his family in ways they never would have imagined. Kim gave Anthony $15,000. Now, thanks to Kim, Anthony is now reunited with his family.
With Rami, Kim saw potential. After the pretend competition ended, Kim offered to personally mentor Rami. He gave him $5,000 to continue night classes. Then, he gave him another $5,000 to use on a golf trip for just him and his father. Hearing Rami share about how much he missed his dad touched Kim, as his own father was recently diagnosed with an incurable lung disease. For full-time manager, wife and mom Carrie, Kim was impressed. She took initiative, and Kim liked that. He offered her a spot on the company team, so that she could fully implement her ideas. Kim also began a $7,500 scholarship for her two-year-old daughter.
BEYOND THE CAMERAS
At the end of the show, Kim walked away feeling blessed. "I am so blessed to live in this country," he said. "Sure, we have our problems, but this really is the best place to be. This truly is the land of opportunity." But one thing Kim believes over everything else is that he owes his success to God. Before the show and even during the show, Kim prayed on and off camera. "My family and I, we pray. My kids pray more than I do. But it's natural for us to pray," he said. And it is just what viewers wanted to see. After the show aired, tens of thousands of viewers wrote in, expressing how thankful they were to see a man unafraid of showing his faith. But while letters and emails from all over the country poured in with people wanting to share their gratitude, Kim insists that "All I did was pray..." As he sees it, his faith is who he is, and no undercover show would compromise that. Outside of work, Kim supports several charities, including Faster Cures, Liberty in North Korea and World Vision. He live in Anaheim, CA, with his wife and three kids.