Do Won Chang was born on March 20th, 1954 in Seoul, South Korea into a low income family. After graduating from high school Chang worked in a couple of coffee shops and eventually opened one of his own in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, North Korea. Three years later, in 1981, when he was just 21, Chang emigrated to the United States, together with his wife, Jin Sook.
Coming into America with virtually nothing, Chang knew he had to work very hard to sustain his family, so he did three jobs; he worked in a coffee shop in the morning, in the gas station in the afternoon and as a janitor at night.
“I tried everything when I first arrived in America: dish washing, cleaning, working part-time at a gas station. I tried my hand at whatever physically demanding jobs I could get.”
His initial plans were to save enough money and once again start up a coffee shop, like he did in his hometown, but then he noticed something. All the luxurious cars that come to the gas station where he worked were owned by people in the garment industry, so he decided that was where he would try his hand.
Three years after emigrating to the United States, Chang put together all he had saved from his three jobs and opened his first store in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles. It was named Fashion 21, because, according to Chang older people wanted to be 21 again and those at 21 wanted to stay 21, while those younger were aspiring to be 21. The company’s target were the Korean American population the community.
The strategy was to remake high-end clothes which people in his neighborhood could not afford into reasonably priced but good quality versions. The strategy was exactly what Amancio Ortega did with Zara. They call it the “pile very high, sell very cheap” operation, in Forever 21, majority of its products cost less than $65, which allows teenagers to swoop in and come out bearing large bags of clothes and other accessories.
It worked like magic, in the first year of its operation the store made a sale of $700,000, and about $900,000 in its second year. The astounding success of the brand prompted Chang into expansion and in just five years 11 new stores had been opened, an average of one store every six months. Also Chang changed the name of the business to Forever 21, so it could appeal to more customers.
The growth of the brand continued steadily until 2009 during the recession and the company had to close down seven of its stores. But soon the company recovered and its stores kept multiplying and its revenue kept growing every year. As at August 2015, there were 723 Forever 21 stores spreads across the globe, with 30,000 employees and a revenue of over $4 billion.
Despite the astounding success of the Forever 21 brand, the company has remained private, with Chang stating that a public offering was not feasible anytime soon. Forever 21 is run as a family business; Mrs. Chang is the Chief Merchandizing Officer reviewing four hundred designs per day, Linda, the couple’s first daughter is the head of marketing and Esther is in charge of visuals such as graphics and window displays.
The company has faced tremendous controversies since its founding, having been sued for copyright infringement over 50 times by other brands like Gwen Stefani and Diane Von Furstenberg. However, the company has never been found guilty of any of these charges and cases were settled out of court.
In its defense the company has stated that it does not manufacture, rather they use third party manufacturers.
The founders of the company are born-again Christians, hence the John 3:16 which is printed at the bottom of every Forever 21 shopping bag. Also, the company sells tops with inscriptions such as ‘Peace’, ‘Love’, Jesus’, ‘Hope’, ‘Thank God’ etc, which have caused media giants like The Daily Mail and The Huffington Post to accuse the company of promoting a religious propaganda and a Christian agenda. But this has not ruffled Chang’s feathers, who wakes up by 5am everyday to pray.
Chang is also known for his charity work, having donated millions to churches and other faith groups via the Forever 21 Foundation. Chang doesn’t just believe in donating money, he takes regular trips to Third world countries to personally hand over aid to them. Chang cites the Bible as his favorite book.
Chang is worth $5.4 billion. To relax Chang plays racquetball and watches his favorite team, the L.A. Lakers on the television.
Lessons from Do Won Chang
Put God in His rightful place:
Do Wan Chang and his wife, Lin Sook, are fondly called God Made Billionaires, and rightfully so, because everything they do and all they have become they have attributed to the grace and Hand of God. The first daughter, who doubles as the spokesperson for the company, once said, “every decision made has been with thoughtful prayer”
Pastor Ken Choe once said, “I think they get a lot of business ideas and insight during early morning prayer time,”
The Changs dedicate most of their free time to spiritual or charitable pursuits.
In the stormy and unpredictable world of business it is important to get our priorities right and put God in His rightful place. Mary Kay Ash arranged it this way, “God, family, business”. By putting Him first above every other thing, He helps to make every other endeavor easier and blessed. It is not by our own power that we make wealth, it is simply by His grace.