I worked closely with Mr. Ma for several years. I helped him evaluate business opportunities, managed his commercial real estate portfolio, and handled a plethora of problems that arose. I ran his housing developments in Las Vegas and Palmdale, California, after he fired the contractors and until we sold the projects to KB Homes and to a developer out of San Francisco. I worked closely with his attorneys in dealing with a constant stream of litigation involving collections, business disputes, and product liability claims. At one point, I handled seven lawsuits at the same time. I helped Peter negotiate and finance his acquisitions, and I took care of all of the legal documentation required for his various deals. We became quite close.
Twice, Mr. Ma took me to China to help him with his business ventures. China is a fascinating country with great human potential. The first time I flew over China, as we approached Shanghai, I felt an overwhelming impression of the great goodness of the people below and a growing pent-up energy, like water filling a lake behind a dam. A scripture describing the start of creation was impressed on my mind: “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light: and there was light” (Gen 1:2–3). After we landed, I interacted with many individuals from that great land for two weeks and was impressed by their sincerity, desire to help, and love for their families. I foresee that someday in the relatively near future, the door of religious freedom will open in China to an eager populous, thirsting for eternal truth and that Christianity will spread through the land like a flood.
After meeting with various businessmen in Shanghai for a week or so, we took an overnight train to Beijing. Instead of sleeping in my compartment, I stayed up all night watching the scenes pass before my sleepless eyes. I watched China awaken and greet the new day. As we approached Beijing, it seemed symbolic of China awaking from a long, dark slumber to greet the modern world. The darkness that enveloped the train through the night was occasionally interrupted by the dim light of an empty train station as we sped by. As morning approached and I began to distinguish the silhouette of the countryside against the sky, I watched a solitary man push a wooden wheelbarrow down a dirt road. A while later, I began to see a few people walking past fields interspersed with small shacks. As the predawn light increased, the dirt roads were replaced by paved streets utilized by a few bicyclists and pedestrians. As dawn came nearer and we approached Beijing, the occasional small shacks were replaced by rows of concrete homes, shops, and an occasional warehouse. Life animated the scene as people scurried about embracing the activities of the day. A few vehicles joined the mix along with an occasional stop light dangling from a wire strung across the street. Finally, the early light revealed throngs of pedestrians, bicyclists, old trucks, and cars competing for space on the roads as the city structures seemed to push them together into one flowing mass of humanity navigating a maze of streets. As the day dawned, the contrast between old and new became glaring. Cranes littered the skyline as Beijing prepared to host the Olympic Games while old and dilapidated buildings mocked their aspirations. But through all the massive hustle and bustle that obscures the finite, I noticed individuals helping others cross the street or expressing kindness in other ways. Too often we see and judge humanity as masses or groups, but in reality, we are individuals, each struggling along life’s path as best we can.
Even though I filled an instrumental role in Mr. Ma’s operations, I found that my compensation was restricted by the lack of a college degree and professional certification. Many people I interacted with assumed that I was an attorney. I finally realized that I needed to become one in order to adequately provide for my family.
This realization was delayed in part by my father’s adamant insistence that I not go to college, even though I was nearly a straight-A student while attending seven different high schools and was the top science student in my graduating class. Many of my teachers and friends assumed that I would have a scholarship to attend Stanford or another prestigious school. But my parents were disturbed by the campus unrest of the 1960s, so our father demanded that we not attend college. My older brother “rebelled” and became an optometrist. When he heard that I planned to become a lawyer, he called me and asked if I felt guilty. I had to honestly confess that I did. My father’s dominant influence was so engrained that as a man of forty-three years, I still felt guilty for disobeying my father by pursuing higher education. My brother reassured me that I was not doing anything bad and that my family would be blessed by my decision to ignore our father’s directive and to seek an advanced degree.
I faced the large obstacle of obtaining the required undergraduate degree in order to apply to a law school. So, I investigated ways to expedite the process and discovered that I could challenge the colleges courses I needed through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). I was able to quickly earn the required sixty credits of core curriculum through this program and was pleased to score near the top of the 90th percentile on each exam. I did so well on the LSAT law school entrance exam that I earned a full-ride first-year scholarship to an accredited law school, which solved the other major hurdle of not having enough funds to pay for the tuition and books. I was fortunate enough to earn a scholastic scholarship each semester thereafter, which is how I was able to afford law school. I also worked full time during the day and attended classes at night, so it took me four years to graduate instead of the typical three-year period for full-time students.
One day, a clothing licensee of the NFL who was a tenant in one of Mr. Ma’s buildings contacted me about a business opportunity. As Mr. Ma’s agent, I had had numerous dealings with this businessman over the years. He was related to one of the direct heirs of a world-renowned fortune and solicited me to join a new venture that he and the heir planned to launch. The idea was to create a new accounting software program that would be the foundation for other programmers to use to write vertical applications for different industries and businesses. The concept was sound, and the window of opportunity was still open, so I told him I was interested.
Having experienced numerous business disappointments, I was concerned about the risks involved in starting a new venture of this magnitude. So, when we met with the heir in Carlsbad, California, I suggested that he instead use his fortune to purchase as many of the small beachfront homes in Carlsbad as he could because it was a much more secure investment with tremendous upside potential. This market was poised for significant appreciation, and these rundown homes were prime properties to be redeveloped. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the heir was more interested in proving to his siblings that he was a big businessman than he was in making money. Regardless, I decided to join the venture because it did have a chance to succeed, creating great potential upside for the 20 percent interest they offered me, and because the pay was better than what I was currently earning.
We worked hard for a couple of years dealing with many issues including personnel (at our peak, we had nearly one hundred employees), acquiring two companies, negotiating a technology alliance with Microsoft, litigation regarding intellectual property, technology challenges, and all the typical things involved with starting any business. Through this whole process, I earned the nickname of Cheap Grant. They joked that I was so cheap my shoes squeaked. They even adopted an old TV western theme song as my personal signature tune by changing the word Rawhide to Minimum Wage. I actually enjoyed the ribbing, but I also took my role as the company’s chief financial officer seriously and did not believe that throwing money at a problem would necessarily fix it.
This was graphically demonstrated by the board’s fateful decision to spend over two million dollars at a trade show before we even had a finished product, which ruined the company. I objected in the board meeting and said that not only were we not ready to launch the product, but the whole strategy to create and manage a large in-house sales force was also flawed. I mentioned that accountants were not typically early adopters but instead were some of the most conservative individuals on the planet. They typically are forced to accept new technology only after they dig in their heals while they are dragged along by the rest of the world. To further make my point, I mentioned that even if people desperately needed our product, which they didn’t, it would take a lot of time, energy, and effort to build a proprietary sales channel instead of tapping into an existing network. I pointed out that Southern California needs water, but it still would take a lot of time and expense to dig a canal, lay the forms, and pour the concrete before the water could flow from Northern California. Building a sales channel is no different, I said. It would be much easier to simply use a pump to tap into the water flowing through an existing canal. I reminded them that there were several companies with established sales forces serving our anticipated target market. It would be less expensive and time consuming to simply negotiate a strategic alliance with one or more of these companies to sell our product. But my partners wanted to maintain control and claim all the success, so they blew over two million dollars and did not recruit even one sales rep. The heir was so disappointed that he decided to scuttle the company just before I graduated from law school.
I worked an average of over sixty hours a week as the CFO of this venture while I attended classes at night in Fullerton, California, one and a half hours away, and participated as an editor on Law Review. I hardly had time to sleep. Law school requires a lot of reading, so I often would read in class. Typically, the professors used the Socratic method of asking a student to stand and answer his questions as he led his victim down a long path until he sprang his trap, and the flaw in the student’s logic became glaring for all to see. One evening, I was busily reading the case we were going to dissect when, to my horror, the professor asked me to stand to endure his interrogation. Luckily, I had just read about half the case, so I could easily answer his initial questions. Then he asked me something that I didn’t have a clue what it was about, so I deftly replied, “I don’t want to monopolize the conversation.”
“Good point,” the professor said, and asked another student to stand. The student sitting next to me knew exactly what I had done. As I sat, he smiled and said, “You will make a great lawyer.”
Going to law school was one of the best decisions of my life.