Immigrant's Sweet Success -- He Has A Taste For Business

To those it offends, it is the Tacoma waterfront of fruits - best avoided when the wind blows the wrong way. One writer likened it to eating custard in a sewer. The stench can be so overpowering that it's banned from hotels throughout Southeast Asia.

But for Duc Tran, the durian - a strong-odored but sweet-tasting fruit that enjoys cult status among its Southeast Asian connoisseurs - has the unmistakable smell of money about it.

Around these parts, Tran is the King of Durian. This year, the Seattle businessman will import 37 ship containers - $1 million worth - of the spiky, melon sized fruit, grown throughout Southeast Asia, to durian-crazed customers from Houston to New York to Los Angeles.

The story of how Tran found hefty profits in a fruit few Americans have ever heard of is, in microcosm, the story of how he built the most visible business empire in Seattle's Vietnamese-American community.

And it is a tale, as time-worn as America's immigration history, of how one group carves out its own economic niche and feeds upon that success.

In 1985, Tran, working as a refugee counselor, approached the owner of an abandoned furniture-store building in the International District and asked if he could lease the space for a grocery store. The owner laughed, telling Tran he wouldn't talk to him unless Tran had assets of $2 million.

But the owner's son - perhaps tiring of an empty building - relented a year later so that Tran could open Viet Wah. The grocery store has become one of the biggest draws in the two-block concentration of Vietnamese businesses at 12th and Jackson known as "Little Saigon."

Along with Tran's wholesale Asian food distribution business , VW Trading Co., it is part of what he said has become a $13-million-a-year industry.

Tran's ambitions have grown apace.

His newest plan - still in the dreaming stage - is to build another Viet Wah in a large Asian shopping center in South King County, following the migration of newly affluent Vietnamese immigrants to the suburbs. If such a plan goes forward, Tran said he'll be the developer this time.

"That's where my future is going," said Tran, 42, a Vietnamese of Chinese descent. "I will be more than a little tenant."

Unlike many in the Vietnamese community, Tran talks openly about his success and is unusually blunt - a trait he acknowledges doesn't always set well in a community often divided by old political feuds.

But Tran has been hatching grand plans for himself and the community since arriving in Seattle 19 years ago. Several have become reality.

"Everything he's accomplished has been within the Vietnamese and Chinese community," said friend Hiep Quach, a senior vice president at U.S. Bank. "That's where he makes his money, that's where his success helps build other businesses. I can't even get him out to join the Rotary Club."

Tran sees it a bit differently. "I'm in two business worlds right now," he said. "The Asian one and the American one."

The former is depicted by his office, in a nondescript warehouse just south of the Kingdome. Displays of Southeast Asian goods - endless varieties of chili oils, shrimp pastes, Vietnamese fish sauces and canned fruits such as litchi - line the walls. Even office hours are on Asian time, extending into evening so Tran can contact suppliers by fax and phone.

Ties among overseas Chinese throughout Asia, built in part by his family's long experience in the grocery trade, helped Tran build his business. When he was starting out, he said, suppliers extended him credit based on the reputation of him and his family.

There were no marketing studies, no letters of credit.

"We do business on trust"

He expands his own customer base the same way. When a Vietnamese grocery opened recently near Olympia, Tran said he provided about half the store's inventory on credit.

Asked if most American food wholesalers would do that, he laughed.

"No way. The banks want a financial statement and your house put up for collateral," he said. "In the Vietnamese community here, everybody knows everybody else. We do business on trust and reputation and how people look. If we checked credit ratings, nobody would qualify."

The future of Tran's family in Saigon, where they had prospered for two generations, became painfully obvious within weeks of the Communist victory in 1975, when the government confiscated their seafood-processing factory.

His father, made a refugee three decades earlier by civil war in his native China, was out of South Vietnam when Saigon fell. He never went back.

Tran, one of 11 children, said his mother insisted he leave to ensure the family could start over. Tran fled by boat to Thailand, where he paid local police all his money - two bars of gold - for the right to land. In 1976, he came to Seattle.

A few years later, most of his remaining family left Vietnam when the government expelled much of the ethnic Chinese population.

"When you're in a position where you don't have any choice, I think the results are better," said Tran, explaining his success. "And the Chinese, unlike the Vietnamese, have had hundreds of years to learn to live in other people's countries."

Lesson in self-sufficiency

Twenty years after the fall of Saigon triggered a mass exodus, this area's Vietnamese community - estimated between 30,000 and 40,000 people - has spawned a vibrant commercial life with hundreds of small businesses.

Tran's brothers own three other grocery stores in Seattle. Another relative operates a travel agency.

But in the early days, most of the money in the Vietnamese community flowed from the U.S. government's unprecedented refugee resettlement efforts into cash benefits and social-service programs.

Tran landed a job as a counselor for fellow refugees at the Chinese Information and Referral Service, then later at the Washington Association of Churches. Some days he would translate for women having babies. Late at night, he'd respond to panicked calls from newcomers who had locked themselves out of their apartments.

Out of that experience, he played a key role in creation of the Southeast Asian Refugee Federation, the first local effort by refugees to control their own social programs.

"He was one of the leaders who realized early on that Southeast Asians needed to eventually find self-sufficiency here," said the Rev. John Huston, Tran's boss at the Washington Association of Churches.

Moonlighting as grocer

While working as a counselor by day, Tran started his first grocery in 1981 - a tiny 800-square-foot store on Jackson Street. The business was built literally refugee-by-refugee.

"All the newcomers I helped in the refugee program would come to my store," he recalls. "After work, I'd deliver 50- or 100-pound bags of rice to their apartments in my small car."

As the local Southeast Asian population swelled with the exodus of the boat people in the early 1980s, so, too, did opportunities. Tran began his wholesale business in 1984, supplying dozens of new Southeast Asian restaurants and groceries from Alaska to Oregon.

At the time, it was impossible to import goods from Vietnam. So Tran and other Asian food dealers on the West Coast helped start a new industry in Thailand, teaching processors there to produce Vietnamese staples such as fish sauce or rice-paper wrappers. It has had an ironic effect: Tran said Vietnamese Americans now shun the taste of authentic Vietnamese versions.

Farm-fresh, but smelly

Tran found his way into the durian trade about four years ago, figuring - rightly - he could turn a big profit by cutting out the middleman and dealing directly with farmers.

He returned last month from his annual trip to Thailand, where he supervises processing. To meet U.S. standards, each durian must be vacuumed for bugs and soaked in water before being frozen for shipment.

In the process, Tran has become as durian-obsessed as his customers. He can explain why Malays like it ripe and the Thais crunchy, why certain sizes are more delectable than others. He shows visitors an album filled with pictures of himself climbing a tree bent over from the heavy fruit.

But even in Tran's family, the durian is a source of debate. Both Tran and his wife love the fruit. His 13-year-old son, the oldest of three children, has a different attitude.

"He can't stand the smell," said Tran. "He's Americanized."