George Yap had lived in Miami for just three years before his adopted city burned.
Riots raged for three days in May 1980 following a controversial verdict in the trial of four Miami-Dade police officers. Damage hit the struggling Liberty City neighborhood – where Yap’s fledgling tofu and bean sprout business was located – particularly hard. The city’s property damage totaled more than $100 million.
Though smoke and fire surrounded Yap’s Leasa Industries, the yellow-and-green factory building was noticeably spared. So how did Yap’s business escape the wreckage?
“I used to hire people from the halfway house that was next to me,” said Yap, who awarded countless jobs to recovering addicts and convicted felons looking for a second chance. “They didn’t burn my building – they protected my building. You treat people good and they’ll help you out.”
That do-unto-others philosophy served Yap – a Chinese-Jamaican immigrant who arrived in Miami from Kingston in 1977 – well during those three frightening days and beyond. Leasa Industries has grown into one of the largest growers, manufacturers, processors, and packagers of healthy food products in the Southeast. It’s an $11 million-a-year business, with its bean and alfalfa sprouts, tofu and fresh vegetables for sale in grocery stores all over the South.
Leasa Industries has grown leaps and bounds since MBDA named it the National Minority Manufacturer of the Year in 1997. For Yap, showing off Leasa’s gleaming new factory always serves as a reminder of just how far his business has come since 1977 when he left behind a life in Jamaica as a restauranteur and real estate professional.
“A lot of us left Jamaica for America,” Yap recalled. “I came here and lost everything. My wife had to work two jobs. I never finished high school. That’s how I started in Liberty City – one of the most depressed neighborhoods in Miami.”
Yap quickly noticed a flaw in his new home – a staggering lack of Chinese food options. He couldn’t find good stir fry or wantons or fortune cookies. So he quickly went about correcting that market deficiency. Thanks to some loans from friends and advice from the government, Yap was on his way.
“My help came along when I met Marie Gill,” Yap said of the executive director of the Florida MBDA Export Center. “She helped me write up a business plan. We needed someone to teach us. … If not for Marie, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Gill guided Yap through Leasa’s period of growth, making sure the company attended the right conferences, connected with the appropriate vendors, earned the proper certifications, and made the right government contacts.
“I will never be afraid to ask for help,” Yap said. “The government is there to help you. … A lot of people, even billionaires, get help from the government. I do appreciate what Marie Gill did.”
Gill credits Yap for his foresight in “doing enterprise zones before enterprise zones existed.” Leasa’s growth was inextricably tied to Yap’s insistence on embracing Liberty City as its home.
“They’re kind of like a staple and really a part of that community,” Gill said. “It’s a family-owned business. They have really shown a commitment to diversity to working with local folks. … They don’t hire outside for management positions; they hire from within and promote.”
Leasa – winner of the 2007 Supplier of the Year Award from the Florida Regional Minority Business Council – remains a business vital to its community, especially as it grows beyond Miami and the Southeast. Through her work at the MBDA Export Center, Gill is focused now on helping to increase Leasa’s exports to other markets. Leasa is the largest manufacturer of tofu in the region and is primed to expand its territory across the country.
Whatever the future holds for Leasa, Yap remains committed to Liberty City and doing his part to boost the local economy. And he’s quick to thank those who have been so helpful along the way.
“I started from the bottom and I’ve failed many times,” Yap said. “Banks turned me down several times. But finally, somebody saw something in me and then we grew. I learned every day … to take any help. Especially help from the government.”