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Baptism by Fire
Mr. Lance Lee
November 2003
When undergoing a baptism by fire, some people get shot down in flames, while others like Lance E. Lee, simply roll up their sleeves, show the burn marks, and move on. The story behind the three decades that the former U.S. Air Force sergeant has spent in Japan is more than simply a rags-to-riches tale - it portrays a gritty character that had to overcome not only financial hurdles but also racial and cultural barriers.

So what is the background behind the determined young man from Los Angeles who become the 47th President of the American Chamber of Commerce (ACCJ). Not only is he the first African-American to hold this title, he is also a successful businessman in his own right. Lance came to Japan in 1974 with the U.S. Air Force and worked as a consultant for a U.S.-based investment firm before switching to teaching Physical Education in 1977 and subsequently working at a number of international schools in Japan.

A long-time entrepreneur, he now owns two Japanese companies: IGC Japan Ltd., which uses gymnastics to build confidence in young children, and The Resource Group, which provides high-quality refurbished medical equipment to medical institutions worldwide.

Rewind almost 30 years.
"When I first arrived in Japan, I expected to find rickshaws and people in grass hats working in rice fields - basically an undeveloped country." Lance says. But soon after stepping off the plane, to his surprise he discovered a very developed country. "Basically everything was way ahead of the US in terms of technology." he says.

Deciding to find a job and start earning some cash, Lance approached one of the investment companies close to the U.S. base and asked for a job. The manager almost fell out of his chair and asked "Doing what?" "Selling." Lance replied. "Now why would you want to sell?" Lance replied, "Well in order for me to sell, you'd have to teach me. And if you taught me then I'd know everything I need to know so that if I ever get any money, I would know what to do with it." Lance was given the job then and there, in part due to his upfront attitude, but also because he was the first person who had ever come in and actually asked to be salesman.

"How many of you want to be a millionaire?"
"The first year of being an Investment Consultant was a real learning experience." he recalls.

At the first business meeting involving 25 assembled new recruits, the manager posed the question, "How many of you want to be a millionaire?" Naturally everyone's hand went up. "Every single one of you can and will make a million dollars. Now my next question is "What will you do with it once you get it?"

One recruit answered - "I'll take $50,000 and blow it. Travel like I want to and buy the things I want to buy. With the rest, I'll invest it and create a company so that I can grow more capital." "And that to me, and everyone else in there, was an awesome concept." Lance says. "This guy has just lost his mind! Is he just going to blow $50,000?"

After putting in the hard yards and getting repeatedly shot down in sales, Lance discovered the hard way about taking rejections personally. "And that's why so many salespeople have to use motivational self-help books, or good psychiatrists." he says with a laugh.

"I realised that in hunger, when you don't have money and you want to make money - that's what drives most salespeople. They want to get that lottery, they want to win."

Lance hit the streets and started making lots of cold-calls and going to many appointments but he wasn't making any sales. Even worse, he was starting to doubt his ability to sell. Things soon became serious and he decided he had to do something.


"I was thinking, "What am I doing in this room in the middle of the day, starving? What have I done wrong?"
And it seemed like 'the light' entered the room. Then it came to me - "Because you think you are supposed to look like this.""

Putting $1 in his pocket, he went out on base. Someone approached him and said, "Excuse me, you've got a dollar hanging out of your pocket." Lance queried, "Would you like me to tell you how to make more of these? Are you interested?" The two men sat down, one thing led to another and he sold a million dollars worth of insurance.

"If people think you have nothing, they won't deal with you. They must think you have something, even if you don't."

While some people pray to the gods and others play Lotto to get their lucky break, Lance was working out in a gym when another opportunity fell into his lap. A young boy came and started watching him train. Lance finished pumping iron, left, then returned when he realized he had forgotten something. He found the boy was imitating his previous actions. Lance suggested "If you come back each week I will teach you how to do this." The boy did so - but he kept on bringing friends. "Two months later I had 30 kids all wanting to learn how to do forward rolls and cartwheels all for free because I had never considered making gymnastics a business." Lance recalls.

The gym manager suggested he start charging them. Expecting no one to turn up after mentioning this to the kids, Lance was stunned when they returned - with their parents. One thing led to another until a principal called from an international school asking for instructors for his summer program. Lance started teaching and doing what he had learned as an Investment Consultant - "giving them my heart - what I really believed would work." The principal offered him a job but before he accepted, Lance mentioned that he had to "talk it over with my company."

The reality was that there was no company.
"If people think you have nothing, they won't deal with you. They must think you have something, even if you don't. And they treat you the way you treat yourself. For some people it starts to happen to them and then they start acting that way, but if you don't have it its best to start acting that way before you get it. It's all a mindset." he says.

He came back the next day and negotiated a deal, staying for three years while running his own lucrative program after school.

"One of the techniques we used when someone is getting ready to sign a contract," Lance says, "is just keep looking at the contract and don't look anywhere else. Never break the silence because whoever speaks first, loses. When you have closed the deal you have to shut up, be quiet and let everything take its course. And that's the hardest part of the sale." Lance advises.

Later he formed IGC Japan Ltd - and started to sell fitness programs to other national schools because
"people will pay more for a company than they will an individual."

A little later he met his future wife who was attending medical school and joined the American Club. He decided to start selling training aids to doctors and their assistants, so he set up a catalogue and started asking his wife and others what they would like to have. Afterwards he was introduced to medical equipment and told that CT scanners costing 2-3 million dollars were being discarded by Japanese hospitals after 4-5 years. His contact proposed that if Lance could obtains the scanners, he could find buyers.

The two men formed The Resource Group and Lance ordered his business cards: 'Lance Lee - President'. Lance started visiting the hospitals talking with the head of the hospitals asking in Japanese to buy their scanner, something an owner would normally pay a small fortune to dispose of.

After running The Resource Group for a year and having no incoming cashflow, Lance began to get disheartened. A Ghanaian man saw this and began to educate Lance, showing him interesting magazines to read. After six months, the man asked "Are you making any money with the Resource Group? Can I make some suggestions?"

"He took my name card and suggested "Why don't you put your company name in black and everything else in gray? And stop saying you are the President. Say you are Marketing Director or Technician."" Lance says.
"As a black American, your stereotype here is one of three things." Lance recalls the man telling him. "You are seen as the military, sports or entertainment. And luckily for you, in the latter two: sports and entertainment, they see you as wealthy. But they do not see you as the president of a company that is going to buy their biggest asset - that's not going to happen! But if you come in as technician and stop trying to speak Japanese, you will have more chance. Get someone to translate for you. You have got to fit their image that they want to see. It's somewhat of a show!"

"We worked out a routine and we would go back to the hospitals, and now I'm Marketing Director, speaking no Japanese..still dressed real nice. And we would meet the same head of the hospital asking to take away their scanner equipment. Then I would ask if I could do a diagnostic test on the scanner. It was a done deal. 99% of everyone we saw after I started doing that gave us their scanner because they saw me as someone who had someone Japanese or white behind me. But if I were to say I owned the company - no way."

"It's what you do with the money you make that's the real difference"
"I believe in going for the bigger companies because they have a lot of waste and inefficiencies." Lance says."And if you can find a niche in any of these companies, it's a sure thing. But you've got to be close lipped about it and keep it close to your chest in the initial stages." "Wealth to me is not about amounts of money. It's not how much money you make, it's what you do with the money you make that's the real difference - how you handle it, what you do with it, how many other people you decide to help become wealthy. It's in the amount of satisfaction that you have when you are clear about what you want in this life time. How much of it, where you want it to be located, how many places - that's when you become wealthy - it's not in money. Some people like to say that money is the root of all evil. I believe that lack of money is the root of all evil - because not until you lack it do you try to take something that doesn't belong to you. A lot of people think that money changes you - no I don't think so. My belief is that money allows you to become more who you really are.

"Lance's real baptism by fire came in 1990 around the time of the Gulf War when his company almost went bankrupt after he had purchased several CT scanners with his own cash believing "this was going to be the one (deal) that was going to bring it home!" News started breaking that Saddam Hussein has just invaded Kuwait. Then President Bush started talking about attacking Iraq. Orders stalled. "This went on for 6 months and I had these CT Scanners sitting in the warehouse while I was paying storage fees per cubic meter. One unit was large enough to fit in a 40 foot container so you can imagine the cost." With no income and costs draining him dry, he seriously contemplated taking his own life so that his life insurance would supply the capital to end his financial woes. Staring bankruptcy in the face, Lance asked his accountant whether he knew of any venture capitalists who may be willing to inject some much needed cash.

The day before the shipping company had threatened to shut down his business, Lance's accountant called him into his office and handed him a cheque. Incredibly, the accountant had taken out a loan on his own office to raise money. Stunned, Lance asked for the reason behind his actions. The accountant replied "Because I know that you are going to get back on your feet again. This is just a temporary stop in the road to where you are going." Offers of help began coming in from other sources until he sold one more scanner and paid off everyone he owed - with interest - and got back on course.

"And that's when I started thinking - you just never know what's going to happen but you've got to keep on looking and searching and believing that there is something better than what you have right now."

For more inspirational words from Lance E. Lee, please see:

Text: Jonathon Walsh
For comments and suggestions: businessgrow@hotmail.com

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