Pat Yan came to L.A. and built a meat empire. Now he's ready to take his business back to China
By David Pierson
May 12, 2017 | 10:55 AM
Pat Yan is the owner and founder of Commerce-based AA Meat Products Inc., a meat supplier to some of Southern California’s most popular grocery chains, including Ralphs, Vons and 99 Ranch Market.
An immigrant from China who landed in Los Angeles with just $5 and a plastic bag filled with clothes, Yan now oversees a company with 1,200 employees, facilities in North America and Asia and more than $1 billion in annual revenue selling American meat.
And, after a Trump administration announcement Thursday that a ban on U.S. beef sales in China will be lifted, his business stands to gain even more. Yan built a meat-processing facility in China two years ago in anticipation of the rule change.
Yan, 46, was born and raised in Kaiping, a rural city in China’s southern Guangdong province. The region is famous for its diaspora, much of whom formed American cities’ first Chinatowns. Yan dropped out of high school to sell rice grown by his parents. There was little hope of escaping a life of poverty for his family. Yan’s older sister was first to leave, ending up in Canada under refugee status. At age 18, Yan tried to do the same, arriving in Los Angeles.
Rising in the U.S.
After three months in a refugee camp, Yan found work apprenticing at a Taiwanese bakery in El Monte where he worked long hours making cakes. “I did five years of training in one year,” said Yan, who became lifelong friends with one of his co-workers at the bakery — a friend he’d eventually make chief financial officer of AA Meat Products. After learning the baking business, a cousin on the East Coast persuaded Yan to move to New York’s Chinatown. There, Yan soon found enough friends and investors to help him open his own bakeries. “I dreamed about being a business owner,” Yan said. “It’s what motivated me.”
From cake to meat
Through the same cousin, Yan developed contacts with wholesalers in the meat supply business in New York’s Chinatown. Serving mostly Chinese stores, he began distributing popular meats such as chicken feet and a breed of chicken called Silkie, known for its white, puffy plumage and prized for soup. When meat prices would soar, Yan didn’t always pass the added costs on to his customers. Instead, he decided it was worth shouldering some of the costs if it meant gaining customer loyalty. The meat business is “dominated by big players,” Yan said. “I knew the way to be successful was to gain people’s trust and offer better service.”
Yan also knew there was a much bigger and younger market to tap on the West Coast. So he moved back to L.A. and founded AA Meat Products in 1995 in Maywood before opening a bigger plant in Commerce. There are now also facilities in Vernon. “The idea in the beginning was to call it Asian American Meats,” said Yan, whose English remains a work in progress. “But it was so long and so tough to spell, I just called it AA.” The move back West paid off as Yan’s reputation grew and he scored business with Unified Grocers, one of the nation’s largest grocery suppliers, and Sysco, the country’s largest food service industry supplier. Yan’s company sells meats including beef, pork, chicken and lamb — as well as a variety of cuts, including steaks, tripe and tongue.
I dreamed about being a business owner. It’s what motivated me.
— Pat Yan, owner and founder of AA Meat Products
In addition to four facilities in Southern California, Yan has plants in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and China. The latter is located in his native Guangdong province. Yan secured the 100-acre campus two years ago, confident China would eventually lift its 14-year ban on U.S. beef. Yan was rewarded Thursday when the Trump administration announced it had struck a deal with Beijing to lift the ban in exchange for allowing cooked Chinese poultry to enter the U.S. “Right now, people in China have so much money that they’re eating richer food and drinking more wine,” Yan said. “They will want American beef.”
Learning a lesson
Yan says he’s a conservative businessman, even more so now after taking heavy personal losses during the financial crisis in bank stocks. At the time, the experience was so upsetting that his family did everything they could to shield him from TV and newspapers lest he read more bad economic news. “I learned to really look more carefully into any investments and not rely on experts. You have to do your own due diligence,” said Yan, who lives with his wife and four daughters in San Marino.
Deprived of higher education himself, Yan has directed his philanthropy at underprivileged students in China’s poorer provinces. Starting three years ago, he launched a foundation that has sent about 30 students from far-flung regions of China to Peking University. Yan pays for tuition and housing for high-achieving students who would ordinarily never consider one of China’s most prestigious schools. Yan has plans to expand the foundation to other countries and universities and is in talks with UCLA. Yan also purchased a nonprofit, K-8 private school in Temecula last year and renamed it Oakhill Academy. The school will be run by the Yan Family Foundation and offer scholarships to students in the Temecula Valley.
Frugal and sentimental
His humble beginnings made Yan loath to waste money. Despite owning a $1-billion business, he only recently agreed to start flying business class during his biannual visits to China. When he’s there, he almost never ventures beyond his office and his hotel. Yan still works long hours, as he has since his days at the Chinatown bakery. “He works so hard, we don’t get family time like most other families do,” said Yan’s wife, Kitty Jiang, who also manages the family business. And he still bakes cakes — he considers it relaxing.
So that he never forgets how far he’s come, Yan makes a point of visiting his Maywood offices every Sunday after lunch. He’s often the only person there when he visits, but he still allots himself an hour to sit and reflect. “I’m so emotionally attached to the place,” he said.