Big Oil's Loss is Guam's Gain

December 13, 2016 Nestor Licanto

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from one of the top universities in the field, George Lai decided he wanted to start his own small business. And that’s how Quality Distributors, now one of Guam’s top food service suppliers, was launched 30 years ago.

Lai is a graduate of Texas A&M University, a school that is well known for its top football program. It has also produced some of the best and brightest engineers for the oil industry. After earning his degree, Lai was hired by a subsidiary of French oil giant Schlumberger. “I was dreaming of being the CEO of one of the major oil companies,” he recalled.

But after four years working at petroleum production sites across the oil-rich state, Lai realized a career in big oil was not for him. He and his high school sweetheart and now wife Debbie decided to pack up and go home so Lai could pursue what he knew was his real calling: entrepreneurship.

The Lai’s returned to Guam in 1986 and started their company with a single 40-foot container, a tiny rented warehouse space, and two employees: George and Debbie.  Debbie handled the office work, while also holding down a job as a nurse, and George did all the rest, from delivery to sales. Especially sales. “I was knocking on as many doors as I could. I was servicing the small mom and pop stores,” Lai said about the early days.

He built his business through determination and perseverance. “Be humble and work hard in the beginning.  Then keep trying to work harder” was Lai’s mantra. “Even now I constantly travel to look for better products,” he added.

Managing money and manpower have always been his biggest priorities in growing his company. “In the wholesale business, [for] every dollar you sell you probably need another three dollars in the bank because we don’t always get paid right away.” Lai said he has a very low turnover in employees because he treats them well. “Many of them have been with me for many years,” he added, smiling.

Together with his parents and six siblings, Lai arrived in Guam from Hong Kong in the early 1970’s. “We weren’t wealthy at all when we came here. Basically we had no money. But my dad got a job from his friend who was in the shipping business,” he revealed.

Lai credited his parents for his work ethic, especially his mother Shirley. “She was the latte stone pillar of the family,” he recalled. “She would get up at 5 a.m. and work till late at night. She didn’t have the education that we had, but she taught us about hard work. She doesn’t believe in shortcuts.” Lai’s mom is the Shirley of Shirley’s Restaurant fame, a long-time local favorite. “My mom loves kids, so she created the atmosphere where it’s not fine dining, but more for the family. Till this day—a lot of those kids have grown up—they’re still eating at Shirley’s, and they bring their own children, and their children’s children,” Lai said, smiling.

The secret to his mother’s success was the heaping portions and heartfelt cooking. “Mom makes sure that everyone who comes to Shirley’s…their tummy’s always full.  But it was also the quality control, you know. Mom used to do every dish herself, and if she doesn’t do that, she makes sure the chef that she supervised does exactly the same. And of course, the reasonable price. She walks fast, talks fast, thinks fast, acts fast, so we pretty much had to match what she does, you know,” Lai said, laughing.

There is another lesson that Shirley’s children have taken to heart. “My mom always said, ‘When you do well don’t forget where you came from. Try to give back to the community as much as you can,’” he revealed.

The Lai’s have been good corporate citizens as well, donating their time and money to organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. They are especially active supporters of local sports. The brothers have long had a passion for soccer, which the older boys grew up with in Hong Kong. “It was not a very popular sport in Guam back in the mid-70’s,” Lai recalled. “We didn’t have the facilities back then like what the kids have nowadays.”

Mr. Lai is also the former president of the Guam Chinese Chamber of Commerce

The kids nowadays have those facilities in large part because of the Lai’s. They gave support and spearheaded fundraising efforts to develop the sport in Guam, and helped build the modern, well-kept Harmon soccer field. Lai estimated that about 5,000 kids are now participating in regular leagues. “We also try to provide scholarships so kids can go play in college,” Lai said.

He may not play much soccer anymore, but Lai still likes to stay active in recreation, such as diving, fishing, and golf. “I’d like to slow down, but I don’t think I can,” he said in describing both his business and outdoor activities.

Thirty years after starting Quality Distributors Lai has no regrets. “Many of my classmates have become CEO or president of a major oil company. But to answer your question, I never look back. I just think that this is my destiny. I always wanted to do my own business, and Guam is my home. I’ve been here since I was 15 years old. I’m happy where I am. I’m content.”

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