By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Thirty years after his father gave up everything to give him a better future in the United States, Tien Ha can finally help him to get back home again.
“I’m buying my father a plane ticket,” said Ha, 37. “He’s going to spend the Lunar New Year in Vietnam.”
It has not been an easy journey—for either father or son.
Ha was born in Vietnam in 1982, one year after his father was released from prison. After he was born, his father used to say, “Everything started to go right for the family.”
He gave his son the name “Tien,” which means “forward” or “heaven.”
Before that, everything had gone wrong.
His father was the captain of an artillery unit in the South Vietnamese army. At the end of the war, the communists put him in prison for seven years. There, he did hard labor, cutting down trees by hand and digging in rock-filled fields.
His mother had to choose between sharing the few pieces of meat or fish she was able to get each month with her young children or delivering them to her husband.
She chose her husband to sustain his life in prison.
“My brothers and sisters would tell stories of watching her take the few pieces of meat and pack them up to take to prison while they were so hungry,” said Ha.
“My mother is a very tough woman.”
All of the children survived (Ha has six siblings). When Ha’s father got out of prison, he found that his wife had also saved up enough money to buy him a bicycle—a lifesaver in that it could launch a new career for a former prisoner, who would be blacklisted from other jobs.
“You would have to go for a year without eating to afford a bicycle,” he said.
But somehow his mother did it.
Hardened by his years in prison, Ha’s father carried passengers and goods on his bicycle, pedaling up hills sometimes with loads of 600-700 pounds.
But still, at the time, there seemed to be no future in a country ruled by a communist regime bent on revenge against its former enemies.
That all changed when his father was contacted by a distant relative that was on the communist side.
“He said come over, and work with me in the construction division,” said Ha.
That was the year Ha was born.
“So my dad believed I brought him luck,” he said.
With his relative, the elder Ha started to work on hospitals, roads, schools, houses, and other construction projects.
Before a little over a decade had passed, he was a rich man. The family owned a house. The kids had all the latest electronics. The booming of Vietnam’s economy, coupled with his construction work, had given him and his family a comfortable life.
But the elder Ha knew that despite how much money he made, his children would always be branded as coming from a family that was an “enemy” to the government. They would never have the connections necessary to become entrepreneurs or government officials or anything else, really.
“So my dad made the decision to leave everything behind at the best time of his life and come to the United States,” said Ha.
They lived in a basement in Kenmore for several years while the kids went to school. Then his parents started janitorial work in nearby office buildings.
Growing up, as he skipped one grade after another and his English improved, Ha joined them in some of their work, working a paper route with his father and helping both parents clean up the neighborhood Red Robin. He also took on a variety of other jobs to help his family, from mowing lawns to painting to building block walls to ringing the bell for the Salvation Army.
Eventually, his father was hired by a neighbor, also from Vietnam, to do some construction work. Ha joined him. Eventually, they sought work in the mainstream community.
When Ha got to college, he studied construction management, a natural fit. But he was more interested in politics.
He became the head of the Vietnamese Student Association at Washington State University (WSU), which he chose over Johns Hopkins University. He wanted to be closer to home.
He put on one event to share Vietnamese culture and food with the surrounding community that attracted 500 people.
“We had vans that would go out and pick up older people if they wanted to come,” he said.
His big break came when he was walking down a street in Pullman and saw a construction site. He saw from the way a window had been put together—it was at the wrong angle and not caulked properly—that it would leak.
He took it upon himself to seek out the project manager and tell him.
“This is not a good way of putting together a window,” he said.
That led to the foreman offering him the chance to bid on a project in Lynnwood, where his father lived.
Ha helped his father make the bid, which he won, and then renovated the project. It was then he decided to launch his own company—HACT construction.
Today, he laughs that if he knew then what he knows now about running a business, he might not even have started one in the first place.
“He who knows nothing, has no doubts,” he said.
Wearing a light powder blue shirt and cream trousers that he elegantly crossed over his legs, showing a pair of stylish loafers, he appeared boyish and frank.
His office was flooded with light that streamed in through a window fronted by pine trees, caressing several potted plants, which freshened the interior. It seemed to be a reflection of his casual intensity.
The first and most important lesson he had to learn was the importance of nurturing employees.
“You learn best when you go through a challenge,” he said.
He had always been good at getting clients and completing jobs quickly and to their satisfaction.
But about four years ago, he woke up to just how dependent he was on the superintendents of his construction projects.
“I did not understand the sense of dominance of white males in this industry,” he said. “Most superintendents are white males and if you are young and Asian, they don’t necessarily give you respect. I did not understand that aspect.”
Projects slowed. Quality suffered. Money losses built up.
Thus, he began a process of self-examination.
“In my world, initially, I thought that workers just have to treat you right because you’re the boss,” he said. “I just focused on getting the job done.”
But the problem became so acute that while he was in charge of seven or eight new projects, there was a 90 percent turnover in staff, and delays became so severe that he was losing huge sums of money.
In one case, for instance, an electrician came in to work on one of his projects. It passed inspection, but in the end, he found that 70 percent of it was not wired correctly. Electrical outlets didn’t work.
“The key thing I learned as a business owner was it wasn’t just about bringing in a client. My culture was that the client is the king. But that’s not true to me anymore,” he said.
“Now what is true to me is that the employee is the king.”
“When I changed the model, I became more resilient and more flexible,” said Ha, as he sipped green tea.
“If an employee has something going on in their personal life, instead of pounding on their door, I say, ‘What’s going on?’ I try to have them share that with me.”
When asked, he gave examples of an employee telling him about a separation with his wife, and another dealing with a difficult former spouse.
And the trip for his father?
Originally, Ha planned to meet him there immediately after doing some charity work in Myanmar and Thailand.
But at the last minute, things changed.
“He’s decided he wants to spend more time there—at least a month,” said Ha.
His father’s luck still hasn’t run out.
Ha will be honored at the 2019 Entrepreneurs of the Year luncheon on Oct. 25 at China Harbor Restaurant in Seattle, from 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to https://apientrepreneurs.bpt.me.
Mahlon can be reached at editor@ nwasianweekly.com.