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One CEO's story

Money | David Kim has learned, and teaches others, not to turn great success in business into an idol

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

David Kim remembers his first foray into business at the age of 13-selling toys at a flea market in Southern California with his parents. His father, once a Korean diplomat, had brought his family to the States the year before with nothing, and his mother was embarrassed as she sat in front of a tarp filled with toys. At that moment David decided, "I'll do everything I can to make sure that my parents will not have to work the rest of their lives."

In the next 30 years, Kim made his dream come true as he worked his way up to head an investor consortium that operates restaurant chains including Sweet Factory, La Salsa, Cinnabon, Denny's, and Baja Fresh. But as I sat across from Kim at a Starbucks near his home in Anaheim, he looked tired and worn. His father had recently died, causing him to reevaluate his priorities in life: "I regret not spending enough time with him, especially before he was going to go."

Kim, the father of three, has decided to step down from his responsibilities as CEO so that he can spend more time with family while working on Ignite Enterprise, a business education company he started to teach entrepreneurs how to grow their businesses. The company sprang from a book he released earlier this year, Ignite!: The 12 Values that Fuel Billionaire Success.

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Kim likens the journey to success to a ride on a Harley Davidson: "It's dangerous, yet you want everyone to get on. ... [Y]ou think that you are riding success and that your wife and kids are in the back. But when you look back, your wife is gone and your kids are just barely holding on. Is this real enjoyment?" With Ignite Enterprise, Kim aims to help successful men and women to pay attention to what is important in life.

Kim is open about his Christian faith. Last April he appeared on an episode of CBS' Undercover Boss, which disguises company CEOs as new employees and sends them to their own restaurants to evaluate how the branches are functioning. For viewers, the big twist of the show was when Kim revealed his true identity to a hard-working store manager and then made the manager's dream come true by giving him a Baja Fresh franchise, valued at $50,000.

The bigger surprise, though, was how the episode openly displayed Kim's Christian faith: It included scenes of Kim praying with his family before leaving for work, and sitting on the curb praying with another store manager. After the show aired, viewers sent tens of thousands of emails, letters, and phone calls to the Baja Fresh office thanking Kim for having the courage to speak about Christ. But Kim said he felt uncomfortable being in the spotlight: "[My family] prays together every night. I didn't understand why it was such a phenomenon, it wasn't anything special."

Kim didn't have any control over the show's editing and had no idea what producers would keep and what they would cut: "I didn't do this, God worked in the producers of CBS, who thought, 'This would be a great story.'" He said living out his Christian faith in the workplace is hard: "Sometimes I feel like a walking hypocrite and I'm ashamed." Kim admits to struggling with greed and notes that faith isn't defined by perfection, but by relationship with Christ.

Now he counsels successful business leaders and finds that "many of the very powerful won't open up. They are very lonely because of the amount of power and pressure and responsibilities placed on them. They come to me in private because I've been in their shoes. I can connect with them."

Kim now eats dinner with his wife and children and watches his 7th-grade son's ball games. Before he would attend the games physically, but his mind was on work. Now he can be fully present, concentrating on his job as dad, and making sure he has time to play Ping-Pong with his kids.

Angela Lu
Angela Lu

Angela is a reporter for WORLD News Group who lives and works in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, reading, and storytelling. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.

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