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David Lee and his wife Ming Gee Wong pose outside the Beijing Restaurant in Montreal's downtown Chinatown. The restaurant used to be the Lee's grocery story but they sold up as their children did not want to take over the family business. (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi)
David Lee and his wife Ming Gee Wong pose outside the Beijing Restaurant in Montreal's downtown Chinatown. The restaurant used to be the Lee's grocery story but they sold up as their children did not want to take over the family business. (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi)

Exit scheme

Success without succession planning Add to ...

In the 1960s and '70s, the Leuong Jung grocery store was the place to shop and be seen in Montreal's Chinatown.

About the size of a convenience store, it sold Chinese candy, dishes, pressed duck and Chinese bacon and lap cheung, a specialty beef and pork Chinese sausage that David Lee made in his second-floor meat-manufacturing shop above the grocery store. His products were exported throughout Canada, the United States and England.

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Mr. Lee came to Canada from China in the 1950s when he was a boy.

A decade earlier, his father had immigrated to Canada to work long hours for little pay in a laundromat. An uncle saw how hard he was working and offered him shares in a grocery store the family was about to start. After saving enough money, the elder Mr. Lee brought his family to Montreal, where he introduced them to Leuong Jung.

As a child, David Lee would go to school, then head to the shop to work in the evenings. He spent weekends there, too. The business was his life, his future.

Mr. Lee and his wife Phyllis had four children. One daughter went to college. His son and two other daughters went to university.

One of his daughters, Mabel Onesi, who teaches elementary school in Newburgh, Ont., near Kingston, says she never considered a career at Leuong Jung even though she loved visiting it and has fond memories of her father giving her shaved barbecued pork from a spit for her to nibble. She sometimes weighed sausages and packed bags.

"We'd go there for fresh meat, firecrackers, cookies and treats," she said, recalling that at the back of the store there was also a Chinese pharmacy, which sold specialty items such as bark, bones and dried seahorse.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Lee was so busy taking care of his family and his business that he didn't have time to talk about its future.

"Being a grocer wasn't a glamorous job. It was a hard job," Ms. Onesi said.

Her parents wanted more for her and her siblings. "Being a professional, going to school, that's what was expected of us. This is why they came to Canada - to get an education, to have a better life. I don't think it was ever assumed we'd work at the store."





Mr. and Mrs. Lee never had formal discussions with their children about taking over the store or the meat-manufacturing business.

It is a familiar situation among immigrant entrepreneurs. Succession planning is not something enough entrepreneurial parents talk about with their children.

Ms. Onesi said her father had one plan for his children: post-secondary schooling. He was proud that the store did well enough for him to help her pay for her education degree from McGill University. Ms. Onesi also hopes one day her father will see her three children graduate with a university degree.

While business at Leuong Jung boomed in the 1960s and '70s, sales slowed and the store closed in the early 1980s. Mr. Lee continued to manufacture deli meats, but he closed that part of the business in the 1990s. The niche for the product was small, the work was time consuming, and the profits weak.

Mr. Lee didn't have a succession plan, but he had an idea. Thinking back to working in the second-floor meat shop, he recalled that after a long day, he didn't feel like cleaning the machinery. If only he'd had someone else to do it.

It was a light-bulb moment.

Mr. Lee's new business, an industrial machine-cleaning company, was born. When he first closed his meat-processing company, Mr. Lee feared people would think he failed. Ms. Onesi sees her 63-year-old father as a success story.

"At the end of the long day, he thought the employees of a meat-manufacturing plant don't have the energy to effectively clean machinery, so he carved himself a niche in cleaning industrial machines, which he's very successful at doing," she said.

Like the grocery, it's also not a business the four Lee children want to own, so Mr. Lee is making alternate succession plans.

Ms. Onesi says he employs immigrants, mostly Russians, who keep the operation humming. "I think he may hand it over to one of his faithful and hard-working employees," she says.

When Ms. Onesi returns to Montreal to visit family, she passes by her family's former store and reminisces about childhood jaunts to the shop for barbecued pork.

"It was fresh off the spit," she recalled. "It was so good."

The store will be passed down to Mabel's twin daughters and young son - but only through tales about how the shop fed her family. "It was the biggest store in Chinatown. Leuong Jung was an important part of Chinatown and our family."

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