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Entrepreneurship Runs in the Family

Tom Wong’s business plan doesn’t necessarily include five- and 10-year sales and growth projections. He runs his successful used-car business with common sense and a good dose of salesmanship.

“I just kept growing and growing, and I was flying by the seat of my pants,” said Wong, who owns two lots on the east side of Des Moines.

His daughter, China Wong, 35, has inherited her father’s sense of entrepreneurship. She built an upscale hair salon in Des Moines’ trendy East Village eight years ago called Salon Spa W. A year ago, Elle fashion magazine named Wong’s business one of the top 100 hair and beauty salons in the country.

The Wongs agreed they’re kindred spirits: tough, determined, and not afraid of challenge. But their views on running a business vary dramatically. He still uses paper and pen to track sales; she relies on technology to do the same thing. He’s a self-made high school grad; she’s a college-educated former investment researcher who relies on detailed business plans.

It’s a generational thing, said Donna Fenn, author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business. People in generation Y grew up with technology and are all about starting traditional businesses, adding their own spin using branding, social media, and creativity.

“They are a generation determined to drive their own destiny and not about getting rich,” she said.

They don’t have the expectation of staying in one job their entire career, unlike their parents, many of whom stayed with the same company. They may get bored and start many companies, Fenn said.

Starting and staying in business is tough. Seven out of 10 new firms survive at least two years, half at least five years, a third at least 10 years, and a quarter 15 years or more, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Today’s entrepreneurs have all kinds of help to get started, including training, education, and capital, said David Hensley, executive director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Iowa. “The young entrepreneurs have more of an idea of what they want to do and go after what they love to do.”

The older generation faced more challenges with the lack of technology. They had to rely on building their brand and reputation face-to-face instead of through social media, he said.

Tom Wong owns Tom’s Auto Sales, 2136 E. University Ave., near two local landmarks, Tursi’s Latin King restaurant and Anderson Erickson Dairy. He also owns a smaller car lot six blocks east called U-Save Budget Lot, which specializes in vehicles selling for less than $5,000.

Wong got the itch to start his own company after working at a local used car business for several years when he was a teenager. He graduated from East High School and went into the welding program at Des Moines Area Community College, a plan that seemed mature and responsible. He then assembled furnaces at the Lennox factory for a short time.

“It didn’t fit,” he said. “I had been in the car business, and that’s what I liked. I’m a car nut.”

He persuaded Denny Murray at Murray’s used car lot at 25th Street and University Avenue to hire him. He stayed there 14 years, sopping up all he could about selling and buying cars and managing people and inventories. Murray had become like family to the Wongs. They spent holidays together and Tom Wong considered Murray a mentor. And still does.

Murray helped set Wong up with a small dealership down the road. Five years later, Wong was ready to grow and bought the dealership where he is now, which was considered the premier used car lot in that part of the city.

His mentor questioned the move. “He thought it was too big, but he’s always been very conservative,” Tom Wong said.

Murray is proud of what Wong has done with the business. He has counseled him many times over the years. “He takes the best of what advice I have to offer and leaves the rest,” said Murray, who at 76 works part-time at his own dealership, Denny Murray Cars.

Tom Wong has used that same philosophy with his daughter, China.

“She will air out a lot of her business plans, or she’ll run a scenario past me like she’s having trouble with this or that, or that she’s having a great year,” Tom Wong said. He doesn’t always give advice but shares his own experience.

“He usually tells a story that includes a lesson,” China Wong said. “And if you fail, you learn the lesson. But I usually take his advice or some version of his advice.”

China Wong went to Southeast Polk High School and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in economics and political science.

“It was never ‘if you go to college,’ but ‘when you go to college,’ ” she recalled of conversations with her father. “And A’s were expected, B’s accepted.”

She found a job at a Chicago investment research firm. She took the train from her fabulous apartment to a job she soon discovered wasn’t feeding her creative and entrepreneurial cravings.

“I liked the numbers side of it, but it lacked a sense of making a contribution to people,” China Wong said. She called her father and told him she wanted to quit her job and attend cosmetology school, with a goal of opening a salon.

“I thought her job at the investment firm was cool and neat, and now she calls and says she wants to go to beauty school. What?” Tom Wong said. “I knew 10 people who had gone to beauty school and only one was working in a salon.”

China had written a business plan and researched schools where she could train to become a stylist. She decided on the prestigious Aveda Institute in Chicago and needed tuition money.

Tom Wong told her she’d have to finance beauty school. He had already paid for her ISU education.

“It was then I decided I might as well support the idea because it was the real deal,” he said.

China Wong finished the year-long cosmetology training and got a job at Van Michael Salon, a premier shop in Atlanta. There she soaked up as much about running a business as she did honing her hair-styling skills.

“I saw how demanding owning a business can be. You have to wear every hat and be committed to spending the time on the business,” she said. “I also began to really appreciate my dad’s commitment to his business and holding his dream and aspirations.”

After some hesitation about leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city, she decided in 2005 to come back to Des Moines, where she built Salon Spa W in a new trendy building in the city’s developing East Village.

She has 17 employees and has worked hard to build a good reputation.

“Being an entrepreneur can be lonely,” China Wong said. She relies on what she calls an informal board of directors that includes her father; Murray; her husband, Joel Fortney, who is a financial professional; a dance instructor from her youth; and others for advice in bits and pieces.

Tom Wong concedes that while his years of experience have resulted in a successful business, there are things he can learn from his daughter.

“I have a hard time delegating,” he said.

He struggles with technology, something China Wong relies on for maintaining and promoting her business. He spent little time away from the lot when his children were little; China has trained her staff to manage the business if she wants to spend time with her young daughter, Arden.

“I sometimes think China’s way is a lot better.”


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