Shanghai native conquers Grand Canyon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 June, 2006, 12:00am

At the helm of a US$100m empire, David Jin runs tours covering the US landmark from top to bottom

As a young man churning out sweaters in a Shanghai garment factory, David Wu Jin never dreamed he would one day own a US$100 million tourism empire in Las Vegas.

As a technical college graduate, he realised China offered little.

'The government gave me a job but it was not really what you would call a job. You did whatever you did and you got paid the same whether you did it or not. That was the kind of thing that went on then in China,' says Mr Jin, 44.

'It wasn't the job you would choose or even like, it was: 'There's a job and you will do it.' There was no entrepreneurial climate like today.'

The unmotivated Mr Jin worked the system, if not at his job and played hooky whenever possible.

Finally, his parents suggested he look further afield. Given the choice of his mother's relatives in Hong Kong or San Francisco, he chose America. 'Better opportunities, I thought, but I didn't speak English - mine was the class allocated Russian lessons at school.'

Initially funded by his parents, he worked as a busboy in a Las Vegas Chinese restaurant catering to Asian coach parties. He studied and worked hard, saving US$20,000 that he invested in the tour bus company which he thought looked promising. The local operator ran tours of the city and Grand Canyon.

Mr Jin immersed himself in the day-to-day business while still working in the restaurant. 'I learned fast and started being more entrepreneurial.'

Things were going well until his local Taiwanese partner ran off with all the company's money, losing nearly US$50,000 in a casino. 'Twelve years ago, that was a lot and I had had enough,' says Mr Jin. 'I'd worked hard for that money and invested it and he just blew it away.'

Deciding to go it alone, he studied the market and thought that rather than follow the pack, he wanted to offer something different. 'I didn't have the experience or relationships or knowledge to compete in established sectors.'

Nevertheless, relationship building proved the key when he set about winning the confidence of the influential local Native American Indians who regulate the Grand Canyon along with the parks service. Eighteen months later, he was running the only helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. At that time, no one offered top-to-bottom trips, he explains. It was a choice of an eight-hour sweaty hike or horseback ride.

Mr Jin's speedy flight particularly appealed to Asian tourists. In this he scored another first. 'We were the first company to introduce this market, from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and China.'

It succeeded, he says, because the helicopter landed at the canyon floor, next to the Colorado River. In 1996 he asked the Indians to let him have a boat on the river. 'No, no it's sacred,' he was told. 'You can land there but no boat tours.' But after three years of patient cajoling, he was granted exclusive boating rights.

He laughs when asked how he managed this. 'You must look at why they don't want you to do it, then persuade them it's good for them. It did take quite a long time,' he concedes.

Today his 10 party boats ferry 500 tourists a day and are the only ones permitted to operate. He sells his services to tour operators from all over the world. 'Now we are working with the big ones who buy in bulk and the game is different.'

The strands of his business continued to be funded by savings and his next investment was a privately held bus company with 60 coaches for tour charter. But once again, he was let down, this time when his bus company partner vanished for three years. It was disastrous because the partner was the supplier. 'I guess his personal life was too much fun and he just took off, ' he says ruefully.

Twice bitten, Mr Jin had now learnt his lesson. 'Now I know to have no more business partnerships; from now on I go on my own. Maybe I am unlucky but from that day on in 2000 I wanted full control of all my businesses.'

By now he had another ambitious idea which he cunningly framed to appeal to the Native Americans. This was a glass observation deck, suspended high over the canyon, called Grand Canyon Skywalk. 'I thought it could be pretty awesome, humans could walk out in the middle of the canyon, flying like the eagles but without wings.'

If it all sounded native-American friendly, persuading them was another matter, in spite of the relationship which Mr Jin describes as 'very good' though not special. 'Sometimes we disagree so you must have patience to work with them. They don't live in the modern world, they live in their world.' This time it took almost eight years and as many strategies to convince them but mutual trust won the day.

Skywalk is his most ambitious scheme yet, with himself and other private backers hoping it stays within its U$S60 million budget.

The glass bridge is being called a 'wonder of the modern world' and an 'architectural miracle' already. Visitors will be able to dangle in a cable-held tram underneath the bridge. Being for Vegas crowds, expect fireworks and light shows. One of several restaurants sits within the Canyon, built into the canyon wall.

He runs his business from Las Vegas as a limited company with himself as president and majority shareholder. Grand Canyon Skywalk Development is the umbrella company with 200 employees and annual revenue of US$100 million. He keeps a tight grip on the purse strings. When it comes to the subject of profits, he's cagey, saying only: 'When you have something and it's the only one in the world, you can make money, people want it.'

That's his business model and he steers clear of the haggling end of the tourism market: 'I don't want to fight for a few dollars, instead I want to give value and something they can remember.'

Mr Jin never tires of dreaming up more business ideas, with Grand Canyon jet boat services coming soon. Surely this is pushing the environmentally sensitive locals to the limit?

'We're choosing one that's not noisy, we don't want to disturb pontoon,' he says hastily. 'We'll have excitement but it's not crazy.'

Then there's his Grand Canyon park bus tour company. Not content, he is adding a fleet of H2 Hummer vehicles providing a 'pretty awesome ride near the edge of the Canyon'. He even has a construction company, making a road running near the canyon by mixing cement with the local red earth so it blends in.

So far, he thinks he's still low-profile in China which he visits once a year. But if you can take the man out of China, you can't take the mainland out of the man. It seems odd that he's based in Vegas among gambling-friendly Native Americans but has no casino. He chuckles. 'Well, not yet, but I can't say anything just now.'