How one of KC’s most prolific entrepreneurs continues to find great business opportunities.
6655 Troost Ave.
Kansas City, MO 64131
TYPE OF BUSINESS
Manufacturer of switch mode power supplies, solar panels and custom LED lighting solutions
KEYS TO SUCCESS
“You will never know everything, so don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Keep asking questions and learning all of your life.”
Benny Lee, chairman and CEO
Very few entrepreneurs have a résumé as eclectic—or as profitable—as Benny Lee’s.
One of Kansas City’s most productive entrepreneurs, Lee first found success with portable sewing machines, Ginsu knives, fabric steamers and pasta makers.
Lee’s most recent company, DuraComm Corp., manufactures and distributes a popular line of AC-to-DC switching power supplies that are used in communications towers. He recently added LED lighting and solar power products divisions. In 2012, DuraComm’s annual revenues totaled about $6.5 million, a 600 percent increase in 48 months.
Lee’s success is getting attention: Earlier this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recognized DuraComm as one of the country’s top 100 small businesses of 2013.
Most entrepreneurs struggle to develop that one big money-making idea. How has Lee been able to find a series of great opportunities? One key, he says, is valuing friendships.
“In business and in life, it is important to always make friends and to be a friend,” Lee explained. “Many times, friendship leads to the next opportunity.”
Lee is a native of Taiwan, and that is where his entrepreneurial journey began. American companies were drawn to the island nation because of its inventive culture and lower cost of manufacturing. Lee, who holds a degree in electrical engineering, found work as a factory engineer for U.S. companies with offices in Taipei.
In 1975, he made his first visit to the United States as a sales engineer for Midland International, a company owned by Western Auto.
“Working with American companies changed my life,” Lee said. “I found them to be structured, well-managed and eager to try new ideas and products.”
In 1979, Lee decided to launch his own business venture. His experiences with all of those companies played a crucial role.
“I had good business relationships with many companies and saw opportunities,” Lee said. “I wanted to find something I could source and market exclusively … something only I controlled.”
Lee founded Mitco, a Taipei-based trading company, and purchased exclusive U.S. rights to high-profile products such as the Ginsu knife. Mitco sold millions of Ginsus in the 1980s via popular television infomercials. The company also sourced and marketed the Handy Stitch Sewing Machine to Singer Sewing Company, a product that sold more than four million units in the ’90s.
In 1987, Lee started Trans World in Kansas City, an importing and sales company that worked with Northern Automotive and Peterson Manufacturing. He sold the company in 1990 to Peterson Manufacturing.
Lee moved to the United States with his wife, Edith, and three daughters in 1995 to expand another business, Top Innovations, which became a highly successful marketer of SteamFast steamers and other products. He sold the award-winning business, which is a 25 Under 25® alumnus, in 2008. Today, he leads several diverse enterprises under the “A Benny Lee Company” moniker.
In 1997, Lee became the major investor in DuraComm, an international manufacturer of AC-to-DC switch mode power supplies.
A major partnership—or friendship—with Motorola continues to fuel DuraComm’s growth. In 1998, the two companies developed a power supply for a new series of communication repeaters that met stringent technical requirements.
A few years later, Motorola added DuraComm products to its after-market sales division, and in 2006, DuraComm began shipping a second new power supply to Motorola’s Asian distribution center in Penang, Malaysia.
According to Lee, DuraComm remains a leader in the power supply, converter and distribution marketplace with a growing list of dealers, distributors and end-users.
Lee became the sole owner of DuraComm in 2010. He encouraged employees to assume greater decision-making responsibilities, letting them know he is not a proponent of micromanagement.
“I was a little unsettled at first because things were changing,” said office manager Debbie Taulbee, one of DuraComm’s original employees. “However, as the company has grown, Benny has asked me to be involved in different areas like sales and order fulfillment, and it’s all good.”
DuraComm is based in a recently renovated, 47,000-square-foot facility at 6655 Troost Ave. in Kansas City, Mo. Lee spent more than $1 million transforming the 45-year-old building with state-of-the-art manufacturing and office equipment. Its energy-efficient power and lighting are monitored by a wireless, smart metering system distributed by DuraComm.
“The entire space is great for our employees and a showcase for our customers,” Lee said.
The company maintains an office in Taiwan, but all power supply units are assembled on site in Kansas City. The warehouse contains space for the solar, induction and LED products DuraComm markets as well as space for testing current and future products.
New Products and Divisions
Today, DuraComm has 23 employees and three divisions: DuraComm Power, DuraComm Lighting and DuraComm Solar. The LED lighting and solar products are new to the company’s 250-product lineup, as is the custom capability the company offers in all three areas.
DuraComm’s custom lighting capability is exhibited at Union Station with its eye-catching, purplish hues that highlight the beautiful historical structure at night. The company’s technicians will supply the same impressive custom lighting for the fountain in front of Union Station.
“We continue to modify, improve and add to our product lines,” Lee said. “I am proud of the innovative technicians, engineers and salespeople at DuraComm who excel in turning new ideas into reality.”
In addition to pursuing distri-butorships nationwide that can resell DuraComm’s LED lighting products, DuraComm also offers a unique leasing program. A recent example is the solar project developed for the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center in Kansas City.
Inventions and Innovations
Lee owns majority interest in another company, Eliton, which will soon market folding cellos that allow musicians to travel more easily with the large string instruments. The product has a U.S. patent, and Lee, a co-inventor, made arrangements for renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to see it after his sold-out performance at the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts last year.
“He wants a sample as soon as we are ready to market it,” Lee said.
The cellos will be manufactured at the DuraComm facility at the Troost location.
Lee recently purchased a company in Spain that markets household products. Under the name of P.M. DuraComm AquaLimpia S.L., he will be expanding their markets to the United States and throughout Europe as he looks for new opportunities for all DuraComm products abroad, as well.
Recognition and Appreciation
In addition to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce honor, Lee recently received the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City. DuraComm also was selected as a Top 10 Small Business of the Year by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. In 2012, Lee was a finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition, and in 2011, accepted the Missouri Governor’s Small Business Award and the Kansas City Manufacturer of the Year Award.
Today, Lee thinks of Kansas City as his home and enjoys his involvement in the area’s nonprofit organizations. He served two terms as president of the Asian American Chamber and is an entrepreneur in residence and mentor at UMKC’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Earlier this year, the Lees donated $1 million to help build a new birthing facility at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. They were founding patrons of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and support and enjoy the music program at Park University.
“The United States is the most philanthropic country in the world,” Lee said. “Giving back is just as important as succeeding, and I’m honored to be able to do it.”
“Don’t be Afraid of What You Don’t Know”
The energetic 66-year-old spends much of his time traveling to manage his diverse enterprises. His wife is DuraComm’s vice president of operations—and the calm, steady force behind her seemingly tireless husband.
“Benny is always curious and eager to learn,” said Edith Lee. “We tell people that I am the ‘left brain’ to his ‘right brain.’”
Lee enjoys mentoring up-and-coming entrepreneurs and says Kansas City offers a fertile entrepreneurial environment.
“This area really supports entrepreneurism,” he said. “The Bloch School, UMKC, the Kansas City Chamber and other groups offer entrepreneurs valuable resources. I recommend getting involved in our business community.”
Lee encourages emerging entrepreneurs to always be on the lookout for a quality product or service. Be certain it is something people want, and then find a way to differentiate and produce it at a competitive cost, he advises.
“You will never know everything, so don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Keep asking questions and learning all of your life,” adds Lee.
Lee’s success is proof that with discipline, ingenuity, friendships and the willingness to keep learning, an entrepreneur can tackle just about anything. After only 10 days of clarinet lessons and disciplined, daily practice, he was able to play “Stranger on the Shore” at a reception for the ambassador from the Czech Republic.
“I really enjoy learning something new,” said Lee. “It just makes me excited. I will always be looking for new challenges, new friends and new opportunities.”