It began on top of a Ping-Pong table in 1982, when eight members of the Chin family, recent arrivals from the Portuguese colony of Macau near Hong Kong, crowded into their condominium garage.
Serenaded by Chinese music, they laid out tiny electronic parts on the tabletop and began assembling them piece by piece onto circuit boards.
Today the Chins run one of the largest electronic assembly operations in the state.
Their Santa Ana company, Express Manufacturing Inc., employs more than 800 people who assemble components for 300 customers, including Xerox Corp. and computer-memory maker Kingston Technology in Fountain Valley.
“We never thought we’d be this big,” says C.M. Chin, 36, a vice president and one of the four Chin brothers who run the company. Each brother owns 25% of the business. C.P. Chin, 37, is president; Tony, 33, is secretary, and Jacky, 50, is treasurer.
Express Manufacturing’s revenue hit $20 million last year, says C.P. Chin. “We’ve never had a down year,” he boasts.
In many ways, the Chins are a classic immigrant success story. They came here with little money, pooled their resources and, by dint of hard work, family ties and some good fortune, built a mom-and-pop operation into a multimillion-dollar business.
In an example of the importance of families in the explosion of immigrant-owned businesses in Southern California, a family link with AST Research, the big maker of personal computers in Irvine, helped lead to the order that launched the Chins’ company in the condominium garage.
In 1982, C.P. Chin was working at AST as an assembler. An older sister, Lia, was married to one of AST’s founders, Albert Wong.
AST signed up the Chins to assemble computer boards that year. After producing 2,000 in the first six months, the Chins invested $30,000 of their family savings to start Express Manufacturing. They moved into a 1,200-square-foot facility--just slightly smaller than the condo where four brothers, two sisters and their parents lived together.
“We shared everything,” C.P. Chin says in recalling those days. “It was pretty tight.”
Chin had planned to be a tailor when he arrived in Orange County in the late 1970s. But like many other Asian immigrants, he was drawn to electronics. It was high-tech, relatively clean, required minimal English and offered opportunities.
“We felt that in the United States, the future was going to involve electronics,” Chin says, noting that the computer industry was already booming. He was right.
By the end of 1983, Express Manufacturing had moved into a bigger plant and employed 90. AST Research, which was becoming one of the nation’s largest personal computer makers, accounted for 90% of Express Manufacturing’s business.
“They [Express] provided an enormous amount of help to AST,” said Tom Yuen, an AST founder. “They were a very dedicated contractor.”
But Chin worried that the company was depending too heavily on one company. When AST began looking overseas to do its assembly work in the late 1980s, the Chins sought new customers.
They had little trouble. Express Manufacturing had built a good reputation with AST and the electronics industry was increasingly turning to outside contractors to assemble their circuit boards.
Chin says his company hasn’t had a contract with AST since 1989. Now, no individual customer accounts for more than 20% of the business. Express Manufacturing’s biggest client is Kingston Technology, another Asian immigrant business that has become a powerhouse in the computer peripherals industry.
Ron Seide, a general manager at Kingston, says his company, which opened in 1987, decided from the start to use outside contractors such as Express. Kingston didn’t want to set up its own electronics assembly operation, which would have required a substantial investment. Outside contracting also reduces the impact of “the peaks and valleys of our demand cycle,” Seide says.
Though many outfits still assemble components in small shops, Express Manufacturing has invested several million dollars to install automated assembly equipment from Japan and to put in specialized, anti-static floors at its two manufacturing plants in Santa Ana, which now occupy about 50,000 square feet. The latest technology is necessary to compete with companies that turn to cheaper labor overseas, C.P. Chin says.
He figures there may be 300 electronics assembly businesses in the state, but says that few are equipped to produce as many boards as quickly as his company. Express Manufacturing assembles more than 400,000 boards a month and has the capacity to do much more, Chin says.
Although his brothers look to Chin to make most of the key decisions, the company’s management structure can get cumbersome at times because each brother has an equal share.
The company must contend with high employee turnover in assembly jobs that pay an average of $6.50 to $8 an hour, a cyclical industry and increased concerns about security.
Express Manufacturing was robbed of $250,000 worth of computer parts last year when bandits hijacked a company truck. As a result, the company has tripled its security force and installed 20 additional surveillance cameras at its plants.
Despite the challenges, the Chins expect continued growth. C. P. Chin says he believes that the recent slowdown at some high-tech companies may ultimately help Express Manufacturing because many of them will find it cheaper to farm out the assembly work now done by the companies themselves.
“The moment they downsize, they will be searching for companies like us,” Chin says.