Sunnie S. Kim
Hana Financial Inc.,
From: South Korea
When Sunnie S. Kim left South Korea in 1974, it was a society that would have locked her out of nearly any career.
Single women could join the workforce – but only with the understanding that they would resign when they got married.
As she had recently gotten married, Kim knew she wasn’t leaving much behind when she came to the United States.
“I had no intention of moving back,” she said. “My desire was to make my mark in America.”
And she did.
She’s a co-founder of two local Korean banks. And now she’s in the corner office at her own finance company.
It’s not a career path she planned. But once she latched on, she never let go.
“I never thought about becoming a banker or a financial company president,” she said. “I just wanted to do my best in everything. I’m the kind of person who, if I’m given something to do, I do my best.”
Once she was in Los Angeles, Kim started out in trade finance at the L.A. office of Korea Exchange Bank, then owned by the South Korean government. In 1982, she and a handful of other Korea Exchange Bank employees left to found Hanmi Bank, one of the nation’s first Korean-American banks.
Four years later in 1986, she co-founded California Center Bank, which later became Center Bank and now part of BBCN Bank.
She said too much of Hanmi’s capital had come from Korean investors rather than local Korean-American business owners.
“We wanted to create a bank where the money was earned in the United States,” she said.
By the early 1990s, the number of local Korean-American banks had grown, and so had competition. But Kim saw another opportunity – offering financing to companies that were too young or too small for the Koreatown banks.
“The banks weren’t traditionally lending to those companies newer than two or three years old,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I create something different from the banks?’ It was a risky venture, but if you understand someone’s business and see the owner has the vision to run a business, we can lend them money.”
In 1994, she founded Hana Financial Inc., which started out by offering equipment financing to small businesses. Later, Hana started to offer factoring, a form of financing common in the apparel trade. It’s now one of the biggest factoring firms based in Los Angeles; it also originates home mortgages and Small Business Administration loans.
She had studied psychology in college and admits she’d be an architect or perhaps a fashion designer if she could do it all over again. She attributes her success not to any Warren Buffett-esque financial acumen, but to working hard and, just as importantly, paying attention.
“Understanding your surroundings is paramount to building a successful business,” she said. “To do business in a community, you need to know that community. You have to study how others are doing. Some people focus only on their job, but you have to look up.”
After 40 years, she said she knows Los Angeles better than she ever knew Korea. Most of her family – including her mother and all but one of her seven siblings – is in Southern California, but Kim still goes back to Korea about once a year.
When she does visit, it looks nothing like the country she remembers. When she was a child, the country was still recovering from the Korean War and a recipient of U.S. aid; now it’s one of the most modern on the planet.
“Even 80-year-old grandmothers have cellphones,” she said. “Korean culture has radically changed since I lived there, so much so I almost feel like a foreigner when I visit.”
– James Rufus Koren
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