Minding Their Own Businesses : Entrepreneurs: Up to 40% of the Southland’s Korean immigrants own their own companies. They run 70% of Orange County’s dry cleaners and 27% of its neighborhood grocery stores.
Ten years ago, Seo Jun (George) Ma opened a dry-cleaning business along a bustling strip of Garden Grove Boulevard--an occupation the 49-year-old electrical engineer never dreamed he would have when he left South Korea in 1971.
Ma had become frustrated with his lack of career advancement at the Los Angeles company where he designed power motors for 15 years. He had concluded that he would never land a top management job at the firm.
“My promotion within the company wasn’t clear,” Ma said. “Language has been a barrier, and I didn’t have a degree from a U.S. university.”
Ma’s dry cleaners is among more than 600 Korean businesses along a two-mile stretch of Garden Grove Boulevard between Brookhurst Street and Beach Boulevard in Garden Grove. Though smaller and less-congested than the Koreatown district in Los Angeles, the area is home to Korean barbecue restaurants, grocers and furniture stores.
Koreans own more small businesses in Orange County than does any other group of Asians, according to federal government figures released last month on Asian-owned businesses. Koreans operate 3,925 companies in the county, compared to 3,278 Chinese-owned businesses and 3,074 businesses run by Vietnamese. The Census Bureau statistics are for 1987, the latest year for which figures are available.
Many of the merchants, like Ma, were well-to-do professionals and merchants in South Korea before moving to the United States.
“It’s somewhat tragic because most of the Korean immigrants have university educations and previously worked for large Korean companies,” said Andrew Ahn, an assistant editor for the Korea Times newspaper in Garden Grove. “Because of the language barrier, the skills they acquired in Korea are not applicable in the United States.”
Southern California is one of the nation’s largest melting pots for Asian immigrants. For many years, Koreans have had the highest percentage of small-business ownership among any Asian group. A Korea Times survey last year found that 40% of the 300,000 Korean immigrants in the Southland own or operate a business.
In Orange County and elsewhere, the businesses of choice for most Koreans are restaurants, dry cleaners, neighborhood groceries and other businesses in which fluency in English and prior experience in the field are not required, said Ho Young Chung, president of the Korean American Assn. of Orange County.
About 40% of the small groceries and liquor stores and roughly 70% of the dry cleaners in the county are run by Korean immigrants, he said.
“Running a grocery or a dry-cleaning business allows a new immigrant to earn a living, study American buying habits and learn about the American way of doing business,” said Young L. Ahn, vice president of the Korean trade group. Ahn, who used to work as a high-school math teacher in Seoul, supplies janitorial equipment to Garden Grove’s Korean business community.
The failure rate among Korean small businesses varies according to industry, said Chung, of the Korean American Assn. He estimates that fewer than 5% of Korean-owned dry-cleaners and groceries go out of business. The failure rate is generally higher in the restaurant business, for Koreans and non-Koreans alike, he added.
A major reason for the low failure rate among Koreans is the cohesiveness and support within the various businesses, Ma said. For example, the Korean Drycleaners and Laundry Assn. of Southern California publishes a Korean-language newsletter, Cleaners News, in Fullerton. The newsletter has information about new technologies and legislation affecting the business.
Many Koreans go into the dry-cleaning business because they can take Sundays and holidays off. Grocery and restaurant owners--and their family members, who are often the only other employees--often must work on those days.
Moreover, said Ma, “Koreans view it as a very safe business where we seldom experience theft and robbery.”
Like others in their businesses, Korean restaurant owners are concerned about the new state sales tax on alcohol and snack foods. And Korean laundry owners are worried about air pollution regulations that could prohibit the use of a common cleaning compound.
Despite those concerns, many Koreans feel that the business climate in Orange County is more attractive than in parts of Los Angeles, where there have been racial clashes between Korean merchants and African-American residents. Earlier this year, for example, there were two fatal shootings of African-Americans by Korean storekeepers in South-Central Los Angeles.
To help foster good relations among minority business people in the county, Chung meets regularly with representatives of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Orange County and the Black Business Alliance of Orange County.
But like other business people in Southern California, Korean merchants are concerned about the growing cost of doing business here. Some are looking to move or expand their businesses elsewhere, Korean business officials say.
“I don’t believe California is as attractive for Koreans as other parts of the United States,” Park said. “Because it’s tougher for Koreans to do business here, there’s a trend among Korean immigrants to move out of California to other Western and Southern states like Washington, Oregon and Texas.”
Market Concentration Koreans own more than one-fourth of the retail grocery stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to a study by the Korean American Grocers Assn. of Southern California. The trade group also found that the number of Korean grocers in the Southland grew by 27% between 1989 and 1991. Top Problems Cited by Korean Grocers Alcoholic beverage control and government regulations: 33% Crime and petty theft: 31% Hiring and employee relations: 14% Long working hours: 11% Bad checks: 6% Other: 5% Former Careers of Korean Store Owners White-collar workers: 43% Small-business merchants: 26% Students: 8% Other: 23% Korean Ownership Los Angeles County Total: 6,970 Korean: 2,666 Orange County Total: 1,639 Korean: 447 Riverside County Total: 1,322 Korean: 216 Note: Above figures include chain grocery and convenience stores. Source: Korean American Grocers Assn. of Southern California survey