For Walter and Shirley Wang ’93, the adage “business isn’t personal” isn’t always the case. The Wangs have built two highly successful enterprises and they credit a foundation of strength, faith, and strong relationships for their achievements.
Shirley is the founder and CEO of Plastpro Inc., a fiberglass-door manufacturer, and Walter is president and CEO of JM Eagle, the world’s largest PVC pipe manufacturer. The couple recently shared their story as part of the Family Business Program’s Brown Brothers Harriman Family Business Leadership Speaker Series, telling the audience that resilience is necessary above all else to be successful in business.
Born into a family of hardworking matriarchs, Shirley was extremely focused from a young age on professional success. “My grandmother was a businesswoman even though she was a mother at 17.” Though marriage was the furthest thing from Shirley’s mind, she met Walter two weeks after graduating from UCLA and married him six months later. “I had a plan in my head of exactly what I would be doing at every age, but plans change,” she told the audience with a contagious smile.
After working briefly in advertising, Shirley earned her MBA at Columbia with her sights set on a finance career. But upon landing a job at Citibank, she felt unfulfilled professionally, and pounced when her sister-in-law brought up the idea of getting into the door-manufacturing business. “I said, ‘I’ll do it!’” she recalled, laughing.
Her husband also recounted his path from, to, and into family business. “My grandfather was very poor,” Walter said. “My father only received a sixth-grade education. One day my grandfather became sick, and when my father took him to the hospital they would not treat him, and he passed away. My father swore that if he made it one day he would make a system that treated everyone equally.”
Walter’s father went on to build a thriving plastics business, which became one of the largest businesses in Taiwan and a global success. But when Walter moved with his mother to California, they were cut off from the family business and struggled financially.
As a young adult, Walter returned to Taiwan to work in his father’s factories for a year. “I would eat lunch with the workers from my lunchbox,” he recalled, “I got to know them well, their families, their hearts.”
Walter decided he wanted to make his own mark and began discussing with his father how he might do so. His father made him an offer: purchase the company at 10 percent above market value. Walter took out a loan for $100 million and purchased his father’s company for $330 million – the $30 million surcharge tacked on by his father to show that the transaction was purely business, and that he was not handing him the keys to the family kingdom.
Merely 10 days after signing the paperwork to officially purchase JM Eagle, Walter was diagnosed with stage-four nasal cancer. “I was told I would not live more than one year,” he recalled, “but my wife said, ‘I don’t believe in statistics.’ You can overcome any statistic with love and faith.”
He underwent cancer treatment while heading his new company. He drew on the lessons he learned from that first year, during which he gained a deeper understanding of the human aspect of business and leaned on his wife for strength. “We always reference statistics,” added Shirley, “but remember that all of us are a new number, and we can make those statistics go up. Every single person will be hit with a trial or tribulation – regardless of money or fame – and no matter what hits you, you need to keep walking through it.”
The couple’s philosophies on life translate directly into their business practices – from being deeply involved in philanthropy to valuing their employees on a personal level – particularly when it comes to working with loved ones. They also say they strive every day to leave their business at the office so there is space between their work and family lives. Finally, the Wangs told the audience that they make it a point to teach their three children all they can about their businesses to ensure that their ethics are passed to the next generation. “Children need to know that your family’s values system is ingrained in your corporate culture,” said Walter.