How I Made It: Gary Yamauchi, owner of Tri-Star Vending
The gig: Gary Yamauchi, 67, owns Tri-Star Vending, one of the largest independent vending companies in the Los Angeles area, with yearly sales of about $2 million.
He’s also an Alhambra councilman, a position that earns him $875 a month.
“In my wildest dreams, as a kid, I never had thoughts of becoming an elected official,” but he takes pride in doing hands-on community service, said Yamauchi, who also has served as the city’s mayor. “If somebody has a pothole in their front yard or a tree is falling down, they call me. I get it done in two days.”
Heritage: Yamauchi’s parents, who had been living in Gardena, were sent to a Japanese American internment camp in Arkansas during World War II. Yamauchi was born shortly after they were released.
When he was growing up, his parents often told him he had to excel.
“If I did poorly, they didn’t want people to tease me,” he said. “If you’re Japanese, they have an excuse to tease you. If you do well, no one is going to bother you.”
Rolling along: Yamauchi was an A student — and then he found bowling.
In high school he joined a team that could earn prize money. “I went to these national tournaments, and unfortunately, they were all being held during finals time,” he said. Studying took a back seat to the sport. “My GPA just kind of fell off the end of the table.”
He graduated from Gardena High but dropped out of college after two years. By then he was making decent money as part of a pro team. “It molded me,” he said. “Because of the bowling I was pretty independent, and I was extremely competitive.”
Beyond bowling: In 1970 he gave up his dream of becoming a star on the national circuit. After a failed investment in a cocktail lounge, he found some success in real estate.
“I got probably too smart for myself and decided to build some condos in Pasadena,” he said. A recession hit in the early 1980s just as the project was completed.
“We just couldn’t sell them at all,” he said. “Essentially I lost everything.”
Vending: A humbled Yamauchi took a job as a dealer at the Commerce Casino. When a co-worker was looking to sell part of his vending company, Yamauchi bit, and he carefully grew the business.
“It was just six little accounts doing $2,000 a month gross,” he said. “And so I took that over, and in a couple months that doubled, and it kept doubling, and after about a year and a half I thought, ‘I could do this for a living.’”
Expansion: Because his wife had a good job as a manager at Southern California Edison, he was able to reinvest all his profits back into the company.
“The hardest thing to do in the vending business, and the thing that stops everyone, is the difficulty to grow,” he said. “You’re always in debt because every time you get a new account, you have to buy a new machine.”
Yamauchi slowly developed a relationship with Coca Cola, which was expanding its vending program. “If you called them and asked them to put one in your living room, they probably would,” he said.
The giant bottler didn’t want its drink dispensers to stand alone — it wanted snack machines next to them, and for those it called upon Tri-Star.
Yamauchi’s company now operates more than 600 machines and services almost 200 accounts, including Caltech and East Los Angeles College.
Hiring Homeboys: More than a quarter of Tri-Star’s 14-member staff are graduates of Homeboy Industries, a jobs program for at-risk and formerly gang-involved youths.
“They are extremely reliable,” Yamauchi said. “They have a special loyalty to our company. They don’t just show up and do their jobs. It’s more than that to them.”
He’s not as enamored with the three employees who share his name: his sons, David, Trent and Kevin.
“Because we really don’t have any problems with our guys, my sons tend not to supervise them,” Yamauchi said. “Too many times they just let the employees do what they want to do.”
Yamauchi said he is grateful, however, that his sons want to take over the business. “I keep telling them,” he said, “if I’m gone, you’ve got to get in shape.”
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