Wea Lee: Chal­lenges come with op­por­tu­nity BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

At this year’s Texas Lu­nar New Year Fes­ti­val, while pre­sent­ing a con­gres­sional recog­ni­tion cer­tifi­cate to South­ern News Group CEO Wea Lee, Con­gress­man Al Green sum­ma­rized Lee’s life in Amer­ica as fol­lows:

“He is the epit­ome of what the Amer­i­can suc­cess story is all about. He did not come to Amer­ica rich, he is now rich; he did not come to this coun­try with a com­mand of the English lan­guage, he now has a com­mand of English. He came to this coun­try with the un­der­stand­ing that Amer­ica em­braces all who work hard and are will­ing to put what­ever re­sources they have into their dreams. Now his dream has be­come re­al­ity.”

Wea Lee, born in Yun­nan prov­ince in South­west China in 1948, grew up in Myan­mar af­ter his fam­ily moved there in 1949. In 1965, Lee went to Tai­wan for col­lege and upon grad­u­at­ing in 1974 with a de­gree in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, came to the US with roughly $500 in his pocket on a stu­dent visa.

“I at­tended La­mar Univer­sity in Beau­mont, Texas be­cause they wanted to at­tract in­ter­na­tional stu­dents and did not charge me any tu­ition,” Lee said.

While at La­mar, Lee fell in love with Cather­ine Chu, a fel­low stu­dent from Tai­wan, and soon they got mar­ried.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from La­mar, Lee vis­ited the nearby big city of Hous­ton and asked a lawyer what he had to do to stay in the US. The lawyer said that if he was will­ing to start a Chi­nese news­pa­per, he could help Lee get a Green Card.

Lee took the ad­vice, found five in­vestors who put in $500 each, and started to put out a weekly news­pa­per with his wife in down­town Hous­ton in 1979.

And 35 years later, Lee’s ticket to a Green Card has blos­somed into a chain of businesses housed in two large of­fice build­ings in Bellaire right out­side of Belt­way 8 — the South­ern News Me­dia Cen­ter and the In­ter­na­tional Trade Cen­ter.

Un­der the um­brella of South­ern News Group, Lee op­er­ates Chi­nese com­mu­nity news­pa­pers in 10 cities around the US — week­lies in Seat­tle, Port­land, Chicago, St Louis, At­lanta, Bos­ton and Cleve­land; and dailies in Hous­ton, Wash­ing­ton and Dal­las.

He also runs In­ter­na­tional Tele­vi­sion which airs pro­grams 24 hours a day; Dsign In­ter­na­tional, a por­ta­ble, free-stand­ing and in­ter­ac­tive dig­i­tal sign; and the Hous­ton Chi­nese Yel­low Pages.

Be­yond the me­dia sec­tor, Lee part­nered up with other in­vestors and started South­west­ern Na­tional Bank 14 years ago. He es­tab­lished ITC more than 10 years ago to pro­mote In­ter­na­tional busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties for US-based businesses.

Seven years ago, Lee and other com­mu­nity ac­tivists suc­cess­fully pushed the Texas State Leg­is­la­ture to es­tab­lish the In­ter­na­tional District (ID) — a 12-square-mile zone bor­dered by Belt­way 8, High­way 6, Bellaire Blvd and Bis­son­net Street.

As chair­man of the ID, Lee said: “We have three goals for this zone: im­prove the se­cu­rity of our com­mu­nity; pro­mote our businesses; and beau­tify the area. We have done a lot over the last five years, and I am hop­ing to make it into a free trade zone to at­tract en­ter­prises from China and Latin Amer­ica.”

Lee at­trib­uted his suc­cess to his abil­ity to turn crises into busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. “We started the news­pa­per out of the ne­ces­sity of sur­vival,” he said. “When we pub­lished our first news­pa­per in 1979, it was weekly.”

Lee said at that time the Texas econ­omy was boom­ing and there was in­creas­ing de­mand for news and ad­ver­tis­ing. A weekly was not enough and they in­creased to two is­sues a week, but the printer re­fused to print the paper be­cause they could not han­dle the work­load.

So in 1981 Lee bought his first printer at the hefty price of more than $700,000 and the pay­ment was daunt­ing. “I only needed to use it twice a week to print my own paper, so I went out to get other print­ing busi­ness, and now I am print­ing more than 100 pub­li­ca­tions in dif­fer­ent lan­guages such as Korean, Span­ish and Viet­namese,” he said. “It was hard work. I was ba­si­cally com­pet­ing with the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle and other big play­ers.”

Look­ing back, Lee con­sid­ers the pur­chase of the first printer his big turn­ing point. “If I did not buy the printer, my busi­ness would have ended up like many small oper­a­tion news­pa­pers — very limited,” he said.

An­other turn­ing point came 14 years ago when a busi­ness­man blocked Lee’s way to a two-story build­ing on Cook Street and tried to ne­go­ti­ate him down.

“I thought to my­self, I can’t go on like this, so I started to look for an­other piece of land and fi­nally I found these 6.2 acres right on Bellaire Blvd. If he had not blocked me, I might have stayed there for­ever with­out ex­pand­ing. Then I might not have de­vel­oped ITC and other branch businesses.

“Over the years, I have over­come many sim­i­lar ob­sta­cles. Cri­sis brings op­por­tu­nity,” Lee said.

Now 35 years later, Lee is still on a fast track to ex­pand his busi­ness. He is plan­ning a sixs­tory in­ter­na­tional tower on the re­main­ing lots of his 6.2 acres “to pro­vide both res­i­den­tial and commercial space for in­ter­na­tional busi­ness people who come to Hous­ton for op­por­tu­ni­ties”.

Lee also plans to fur­ther de­velop the In­ter­na­tional District and his ITC. “The re­cent boom in the en­ergy in­dus­try has made Texas the fu­ture of the Amer­ica, the Hous­ton econ­omy will soar in the next five to 10 years. We’ll have in­com­ing im­mi­grants look­ing for op­por­tu­nity, Hous­ton and our ID will have a bright fu­ture. The tim­ing is just right,” he said.

“We call on Chi­nese en­ter­prise to come to Texas be­cause we are also a gate­way to Mex­ico and the Caribbean, where there are a lot of busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Lee said.

ITC houses nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions such as lo­cal of­fices for the He­nan Tourism Bureau, Yueyang City, Guang­dong pri­vate sec­tors, the United Na­tion As­so­ci­a­tion and the Ethiopian Con­sulate Gen­eral.

“Over the years, we have re­ceived count­less Chi­nese del­e­ga­tions and con­nected them with US en­ter­prises,” Lee said. “It’s im­por­tant for the US and China to have more pri­vate ex­changes.”

Di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion is the key to Lee’s busi­ness growth and suc­cess and his oper­a­tion has gone be­yond the me­dia sec­tor, yet me­dia re­main the core of his busi­ness. “It’s not easy to make money with me­dia out­lets now, but we are still do­ing it af­ter 35 years be­cause I love it,” Lee said. “Me­dia have so­cial im­pact that

WEA LEE

Pub­lisher, South­ern News Group

Age: 66

• Na­tional Cheng-Chi Univer­sity, Taipei, Tai­wan, BL in diplo­macy (1965-1969) La­mar Univer­sity, MA in Govern­ment – Beau­mont, Texas (19721969) Ex. Ed, Har­vard Busi­ness School, Har­vard Univer­sity, Cam­bridge, Mass (1997) Founder, In­ter­na­tional Tele­vi­sion, Hous­ton (since 2009) Founder/pres­i­dent, In­ter­na­tional Trade Cen­ter, Hous­ton (since 2008) Chair­man of Board, In­ter­na­tional District, Hous­ton (since 2007) Founder/ex­ec­u­tive board mem­ber, South­west­ern Na­tional Bank, Hous­ton (since 1998) Pub­lisher, South­ern News Group (since 1979) money alone can’t buy. This is why at elec­tion time we have may­oral can­di­dates in­clud­ing mayor her­self wait­ing out­side of our TV sta­tion for air time. Me­dia are so­cial tools.”

Lee is not ig­nor­ing the new trend of smart­phones and tablets ei­ther. “We are pre­pared to en­ter the new me­dia. I am talk­ing to some po­ten­tial part­ners about how to use this new plat­form. My motto is win-win for all in­volved.”

MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Wea Lee stands by his first printer which set him on the path of build­ing his own me­dia group out­side of the South­ern China News Group of­fice build­ing.

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