As a newly arrived Korean immigrant who couldn't speak English, Hae Un Lee noticed the liquor store cashier didn't say a word when he bought a bottle of Scotch. Just took his money and gave him change.
That's why he went into the booze business. He wouldn't have to interact with anybody.
"I don't understand. You talk to me, I'm afraid," the chairman and chief executive officer of Lee's Discount Liquor said Friday, recounting that experience.
Lee's English is much better now, and apparently it hasn't been a problem in business.
Lee is celebrating 30 years of selling liquor in Las Vegas, growing from his first store at Spring Mountain Road and Jones Boulevard to 14 locations throughout the valley and one in Mesquite.
His newest store is about 98 percent complete at Maryland Parkway and Windmill Lane, just off the Las Vegas Beltway , and he's looking at another site around Blue Diamond Road and Decatur Boulevard.
Lee was a bureaucrat in South Korea's Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, but wasn't satisfied with the system. Seoul was overpopulated and it was hard to get a good education for his three children, Annie, Kenny and Tina. In 1980 he cashed out his savings and investments in Korea and left for Las Vegas, where he had relatives who loved the city.
Lee's Discount Liquor has become one of the best-known brands in Las Vegas.
Lee recognized he was in a lucrative business when gross monthly sales reached $30,000 within a year and a half. Today, his top-selling store turns almost $500,000 a month. Sometimes it's the one on Flamingo Road, sometimes Lake Mead Boulevard. It changes every month, he said.
Some people questioned why Lee's opened a store last year at Boca Park Marketplace at Alta Drive and Rampart Boulevard shortly after Total Wine and Spirits opened its second store there.
Lee said he had already purchased his building and was in the zoning and permitting process when he learned that Total Wine was leasing space at Boca Park.
When Lee started his business, most packaged alcohol was sold in supermarkets. He was one of the few independent liquor retailers. Now he's up against casinos, big-box club stores and pharmacies, but the family business offers an edge, said his son, Kenneth Lee, who is president of Lee's Discount Liquor.
"What my father offers to consumers is unrivaled selection and guaranteed low prices," said the younger Lee. "Our markup is 7 percent. People come to Lee's expecting not to find high prices."
Like any business, the key to success is hard work and long hours, Hae Un Lee said. He managed his first store during the day with his wife, Sun Ja, and worked downtown as a busboy at night.
Lee advertised with hand-made flyers dropped on doorsteps and advertised in the newspaper.
James Yu, president of Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, said Lee's Discount Liquor has been a great asset for the chamber, helping other Asian businesses and contributing to a number of charitable organizations in the community. Since 2002, Lee's has contributed more than $150,000 to local children's charities, education, families and communities, including Opportunity Village.
Lee also owns Korean Town Plaza, an Asian-oriented shopping center at Spring Mountain Road and Rainbow Boulevard.
"He employs 185 workers and delivers a good product at a reasonable price," Yu said. "People in the community see value and that's why he's successful."
At 69, Lee said he's not yet ready to retire. "My feeling is 'only 30 years?' I pretty much still enjoy work," he said. "I love work. I'm still strong."
Contact reporter Hubble Smith at email@example.com or 702-383-0491.