Entrepreneur George Yap believes in sprouting dreams

tp://editorialqueen.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/georPrinted in “ICABA SALUTES South Florida’s
100 Most Accomplished CARIBBEAN AMERICANS”
http://digital.icabaworld.com/i/72167, pages 120-122

By Carol Reynolds-Srot

When asked what his favorite hobby is, Livingston George Yap says: “Working.’’ No, seriously, what do you like to do with your free time? “Work, I love to work,’’ says Yap, known professionally as L. George Yap and to his friends and family simply as George.

“I come to the office almost every day … and that includes some weekends and sometimes at night,” says Yap, 70. “I love it here.’’ Then, when asked “OK, what makes you smile?’’ Yap replies instantly. “Giving back and helping people!’’

With all his hard work and his giving nature, Yap has built an empire with his company LEASA Industries, one of the largest growers of bean and alfalfa sprouts and one of the largest manufacturers of tofu in Florida. The company distributes its products to Publix Supermarkets, Winn-Dixie Stores and out of the state to Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and even Alaska. LEASA’s products are also shipped out of the country to the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean.

Photo courtesy of Leasa Industries/Helping others has brought George Yap many accolades. But Yap doesn’t offer help to receive awards or recognition. “Helping others and seeing them accomplish something makes me happy,’’ says Yap.

Yap and his wife, Einez, came to the United States in 1976 with three young children and $50. A high school dropout who had become successful in his native Jamaica, Yap fled in fear leaving everything behind after one of his cousins was imprisoned by the government. The Yaps started LEASA in 1977 and named it after their family using the first initial of their first names: Livingston, Einez, and their first three children, Andrew, Sean and Allison. Their fourth child was born after the company was established and they named her Lisa, the same pronunciation as the company’s name. “Originally we spelled it Leasa, like the company, but then we went with the traditional spelling,’’ Yap says.

Einez Yap passed away in 2005 when she died suddenly from sepsis. “She was fine on Friday; she was here in the office working,’’ says Yap, “and by Tuesday she was gone, it all happened so fast.’’

BUILT AN EMPIRE
Not only did Yap and his wife build an empire — the company’s sales hit $10 million in 2011 and LEASA is now housed in a 65,000-square-foot facility — they did it with George hiring workers literally from the streets. They started the company in Liberty City, an economically depressed area in Miami. “I drove around and I saw people hanging out and I would ask them if they wanted a job,’’ says Yap. “I hired ex-convicts, people on welfare, anyone who needed help and I told them if they wanted help and a job I would give it to them and all they would have to do is work hard. I told them they could have a better life and a better future if they would just work for it,’’ he says. Yap admits that not all his employees became success stories, some even ended up back in prison. “But everyone deserves another chance,’’ he says.

The Jamaican Chinese immigrant says when he first started LEASA that many banks turned him down when he tried to get a loan. Finally, a small Cuban-owned bank headed by an African-American took a chance on him. It was that loan that helped propel his company. And Yap has been paying it forward ever since.

Helping others has brought Yap many accolades, including a visit to the White House to meet former President Bill Clinton. But Yap doesn’t offer help to receive awards or recognition. “Helping others and seeing them accomplish something makes me happy,’’ says Yap. “Some of my workers have managed to buy their own homes and some have put their kids through school. Some have done both! One of my worker’s has a son who is a professor. Another has a daughter who is a nurse. This is what makes me feel good. To see them not only be able to do something for themselves but to be able to give their kids what they didn’t have,’’ says Yap. “I was given an opportunity; I didn’t graduate from high school. But I worked hard and was able to give my kids a better life and they all have a college education.’’

Yap’s help doesn’t stop with his workers. He is involved with Habitat for Humanity (he is even planning on building affordable housing in Jamaica), Food for the Poor, and he donates to numerous organizations, many of which help children in school.

Winnie Tang, president of the Florida chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans who met Yap more than 20 years ago, says she remembers what a big supporter he was when she ran an after-school program (Mainstreaming Plus) at Norland Middle School in the mid 1990s. “We reached out to at-risk students and offered them tutoring,’’ she says. “George loves to help, and his help has no boundaries and there are no color lines. ’’

Yap continues to help students. He is often called upon to speak to college students who want to become entrepreneurs and he has lectured at Florida International University, Barry University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

FAMILY-RUN BUSINESS
LEASA is a family-run business with Yap as the chairman and CEO, and his son Andrew has been the president since 2005. Nephew Christopher and Yap’s brothers Eric and Richard, as well as Einez’s sister, Joyce Johnson, all work there. His son-in-law, Joe Munar, is a vice president. Yap’s three younger children are not in the business. Sean is a police officer with the city of Pembroke Pines, Allison is an insurance agent, and Lisa is still working on her college degree.

But it’s not just the Yaps that define the “family’’ business. Many of the employees’ family members also work there. “My workers bring their family here to work. I even have three generations of one family: daughter, mother and grandmother who work for me,’’ says Yap.

Angela Davis got the job at LEASA through her sister Sharon Cameron. Davis, who has been there almost 17 years, and her sister still work there. “I started out in the vegetable processing area…and I worked my way up to assistant director of human resources. The Yaps are just excellent, phenomenal people. Mr. and Mrs. Yap have always been like a mother and father figure to their workers,’’ says Davis. “I worked more with Mrs. Yap and she was more strict than Mr. Yap. If she didn’t like a boy I was dating she would pull me into the office and talk to me about it. She always pushed me to do more. There were times I just wanted to quit and she told me life wasn’t about being a quitter. … She helped me open my first bank account. She encouraged me to go back to school and I got my AA in human resources,’’ Davis says. “Mr. Yap is a free will and has a very big heart. He comes to my desk often and drops money on it and tells me to go to Western Union and send the money to some of his former employees who are back in prison.’’

“The Yap family epitomizes the hard-working immigrant Jamaican family. George and his late wife, Einez, have been constant supporters of the Chinese and Jamaican culture,’’ says Marlon Hill, a Miami attorney who nominated George Yap for the ICABA award and has known the family for more than 20 years. “What George may lack in formal higher education he makes up for in his passion. It’s that passion that has brought him success and it’s that passion that he has used to help others.’’

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About editorialqueen

Multiracial Mom and Journalist
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