In 1985, civil engineer John Lee left his native South Korea and arrived in Los Angeles with barely enough money to pay his first month's rent.

His dream was to start his own engineering company, but his first concern was making enough money to put food on the table for his wife and 8-month-old son.

So Lee began buying women's and children's apparel every week in L.A.'s downtown garment district and selling it on weekends at a swap meet in El Monte. People used to comment that the young engineer had good taste in apparel and soon he was making nearly $1,000 a week.

Lee's success in his first business venture eventually provided the resources he needed to get a start in engineering and construction. In 1987, he founded Ace Engineering Inc., and his first jobs were repairing and paving parking lots in Koreatown.

He would find work by sitting down with the telephone directory, leafing through the Yellow Pages, and finding all the general contractors in Koreatown. Then he would send out marketing packets that contained his resume and information on how he would work for the contractors.

As part of his strategy, he didn't make contractors pay for his services until the job was done and they were satisfied. Amazingly, he said, everyone paid him in those early years.

Thirteen years later, the 44-year-old engineer's company is posting $20 million in annual revenues, and Lee is being honored on Oct. 16 by the U.S. Small Business Administration in Los Angeles as its minority small business person of the year.

Coming to America

The strides that Lee has made in the United States are a far cry from his modest upbringing in South Korea. His father used to own a coal mining company there, but went bankrupt in the late 1950s when many industries switched from coal to natural gas and other fuels.

Despite being raised in a family of modest means, Lee was able to attend Sung Kyun Kwan University in Seoul, where he received his civil engineering degree in 1980. Immediately, he landed a job with Samsung Corp. The Korean conglomerate sent him to Iraq to set up a branch office and oversee construction of a highway from the Syrian border to Baghdad. But five years later, Lee decided to quit and come to this country, where one of his older brothers had been living.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.