A dollar and a dream
He left poverty and torture to find a new life. With the help of friends and his own hard work — he built success.
By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published May 30, 2006
The phone call came out of the blue. The man on the other end of the line asked Dae Shin to visit him in Venice, where he had a great condo on the beach.
Shin, a recent Korean immigrant who cleaned vegetables and chopped chicken legs in a small Baltimore grocery store, put it off.
Three months later, the man, a lawyer Shin had befriended at an event for the Asian community in Baltimore, called again, insistent.
So Shin scraped up money and flew into Tampa International Airport in September 1979. He drove his rental car down U.S. 41 and saw palm trees for the first time in his life. Under a bright blue sky, Shin thought to himself: “This is the next closest thing to heaven.’’
He drove up to the address the man, Edward Coleman, had provided, expecting beachfront property. Instead, it was a small factory. The sign out front said: “Balimoy.’’
After brief greetings and a quick tour of the machine factory, Coleman handed Shin a legal pad and a pen and instructed him to take dictation:
“I, Dae Shin, agree to purchase Balimoy for one dollar.’’
And that is how Balimoy landed in Shin’s hands, hands that slowly built the company into a multimillion-dollar corporation based in Tampa that in 2005 received one of the two biggest contracts for small businesses in U.S. Army history.
Dae Shin, who now makes his home in Pinellas County, was the oldest son of seven children, born in a farming town in South Korea in 1944.
His father died when Shin was 14, making him the man of the family. He took all kinds of jobs to help his mother. They subsisted on donations, living off dried milk powder, grains, home-grown vegetables and home-raised chickens and rabbits.
Most of the country was poor, devastated by the Korean War.
“Most of the time we were hungry,’’ said Shin, now 62. “Life was tough.’’
While in college, Shin became a leader of the local chapter of the Korean Christian College Student Association, which held protests against the regime. Each time the student dissidents led protests — some of which turned violent — Shin was apprehended and interrogated.
In 1971, Shin, whose expertise was in mechanical engineering, was working at a Korean plant that manufactured explosives when a phone call lured him to a nearby coffee shop. There, Shin was forced into a black limousine, blindfolded and driven to a torture cell where he was interrogated for days.
His captors showed him documents, inches thick, that contained photographs of his protests and other activities. They wanted to know everyone behind the movement.
Shin cannot get himself to talk about the torture techniques used on him but said the stories out of Abu Ghraib are all to real to him. Finally,
Shin said he decided not to talk at all.
“If you did all of your investigations on me, you’d also know I’m a million times more patriotic that you can ever be,’’ he told his captors.
They eventually let him go, giving him money for a cab ride home. A few months later, with $200 in his pocket, he left for America.
He headed straight for Seattle, hoping for a job at Boeing. But the Vietnam War was ending, and Boeing was laying people off. So Shin moved to Baltimore, where a distant relative lived.
He married in 1973 and searched for a mechanical engineering job. Because he did not speak English, no one would hire him. He slowly learned English and got a job as a translator at a job placement company. Then he and his wife, Kim, a former actor in Korea, purchased a tiny store called Hawkins Supermarket.
Shin built a life in Baltimore, representing the Korean community at various functions. It was at a meeting at the Asian Cultural Center that he met the man who would one day hand Balimoy over to him.
Coleman, who has since died, was an attorney who took a liking to Shin. Although Shin ran a grocery store, his heart was in engineering.
Where other people saw steel as cold and hard, to Shin, the material was like clay.
“I can shape it, make anything out of it,’’ he said.
When Coleman handed Shin the legal pad and offered to sell his share of the company for $1, the lawyer said: “This is not a joke son, I’m serious,’’ Shin recalled.
Shin had no money to buy new equipment; he had no experience in business. Coleman sensed his hesitation.
Then Shin saw a fire in Coleman’s eyes and an expression he will never forget. “I’ve met enough people,’’ Shin recalled Coleman saying. “You will make it.”
The Shins moved to Venice a couple of months later, borrowing seed money from friends.
He took over the company, with one shareholder among the original five still on board. Just as he was learning the ropes, the country entered a major recession. That was in 1981.
Despite sagging business, Shin kept all 30 employees, borrowing money from banks to pay them.
As a novice businessman, Shin did not oversee the company’s finances as he should have. The company got in trouble with the IRS in 1981 over tax issues, resulting in the IRS padlocking the building.
Shin drove to the tax office in Sarasota and begged one of the agents for help. He asked that his company, which at the time was manufacturing construction hardware and auto parts, be allowed to reopen and that he be given the chance to repay the taxes owed. The agent gave Shin 10 months to a year to repay the taxes. On the same day each month, Shin drove to the tax office and handed the agent a cashier’s check as promised, paying off the debt early.
“He’s an extremely honest man,” said Edward Hill, a consultant in Illinois who has worked with Shin for more than two decades and has witnessed the building of Balimoy. “He doesn’t double talk. When he says something, you can believe it.”
Soon after, Shin was awarded a government contract for manufacturing tank parts, which meant he needed to buy a large amount of alloy. To qualify for a bank loan, he needed a letter of credit, which he did not have. Instead, he provided a credit reference: the IRS agent. He got the loan.
Coleman pointed Shin toward the Small Business Administration. With help from the SBA, but with little experience with government work, Shin applied for a defense ammunition contract.
His bid of $3,900 got him the job, but it ended up costing him $30,000 to complete. He didn’t know he could request more money from the military. He just sank into debt.
Throughout the early ’80s, Balimoy struggled. Shin moved the plant to its current location on S West Shore Boulevard in 1987 and bought a home in Pinellas County the following year for his wife and three daughters, now 32, 29, and 23. In 1992, he created a holding company for his business called DSE Inc.
Things started to turn around for Shin in the mid ’80s. The economy bounced back, and he started winning more government contracts to manufacture ammunition and weapons parts. Those eventually paved the way for his largest contract ever, in 2005. The $600-million contract over five years to produce ammunition for the U.S. Army was among the two largest contracts the Army had given to a small business.
Shin now oversees 150 employees and three factories, in Tampa, Mulberry and Auburndale.
“(Shin) is extremely hardworking,” said William Slavens, another consultant who has known him for 15 years. “He has an uncanny ability to look ahead in business and predict what ought to be done today to position ourselves for two years from now. He’s shrewd and is always willing to take chances.”
Shin, who lives in Dolphin Cay, said he owes a lot to this country for giving him the chance to flourish. He is living the American dream.
“This is the land of opportunity,” he said. “I work hard, I treat people the way I want to be treated. I have been blessed.’’
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)269-5312.