How they got to the top: John Lam

John Lam, chairman and CEO, the Lam Group

As told to Melissa Dehncke-McGill

I was born in China and moved to Hong Kong at the age of 9. My family was poor and scraped by to make ends meet. My parents always told me to work hard and to take care of the family. My father had a small handbag business, producing them at home and selling them on the streets. At age 11, I helped out in the family business and went to night school through junior high. At 14, I started to make change purses.

My first real job in the U.S. was working in a kitchen for three weeks washing dishes and helping with food preparation. I did not see a future as a cook.

I wanted to work in government but did not have the education. I went into manufacturing, where it was not as demanding. I realized that New York was one of the largest manufacturers of garments. Everybody needed clothes.

Once I embarked on that path, I worked at it for a while. My company kept growing and more orders kept coming in, so I hired my siblings to watch over certain divisions. My wife was very understanding and supportive of me. We worked long, hard hours. I eventually had more than 2,500 people working for me. My family, team and great workforce gave me more freedom to work on future projects as they handled the operations. And with a growing business, I needed more space, so I started to buy real estate.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

I used my garment business to support that investment. In the 1980s, we were doing $80 million in business. Domestic goods were being imported from overseas, but we wanted to concentrate on the U.S. and started to slowly shift to a different kind of business in 1990. I tried fast-food chains, banking, and in 1996 I bought a hotel in foreclosure. When we gained experience in hotel operations, we started constructing hotels in the New York City market.

It is harder to succeed as an immigrant. Business practices are completely different than in the country you are from, not to mention the language barrier. In the beginning it is extremely difficult, but once people start working with us, they see our dedication and willingness to go above and beyond the norm. We built many good relationships this way. Real estate, for immigrants, is the same as every other profession. It takes hard work, dedication and passion to succeed.

My proudest accomplishment is that I have gained the trust and respect of the community to see my vision and support me along the way. The garment industry has lost many jobs overseas, but with my transition into the hospitality industry, we have created jobs in that sector.

Timing is everything. You need to do market research, see what people desire in the market and provide a product that people need and want five-plus years from now. I developed everything from condos to retail, hotel and office space. After Sept. 11, many people were selling in Manhattan. Hotel owners and developers switched to condos. Land owners were selling. Our group recognized New York City as a major tourist haven, and we continued to focus the majority of our resources on hotel developments to replace the hotel rooms that were being lost to conversions. We saw that the return for hotels in the future was greater than the money upfront for selling condos. I think I was the first to open a hotel shortly after Sept. 11, when many were telling me to postpone the opening. That opening turned out to be a major success. We saw opportunity in New York City when many had a bleak outlook.

In 2008, our group will have more than 1,500 rooms coming to New York City, which will create over 500 jobs. In the next three years, we will have approximately 1,000 rooms coming up each year.

Everyone holds onto a dream. If you do not have a dream, you have nothing to aspire to. Your dream is your drive.