The Great American Story
I sit with Seng and Hensen Rin for almost an hour. They’re the father-son team behind S&B Aluminum Foundry in West Valley City, Utah. Seng, the father and owner of S&B, is originally from Cambodia. His son Hensen, the company’s vice-president, was born in the states after Seng (an orphan who escaped the Cambodian Killing fields in the late 70s) was moved from a refugee camp in Thailand to the states. Seng’s story has all the makings of a NYT Bestseller. I’m on the edge of my seat, and also somewhere between disbelief and astonishment the entire time the tale is relayed.
Hensen, peppers in commentary, almost like a color-man for a college football game—except this is personal. This epic tale has so much more on the line. You can see how proud he is of his father. That he knows his family’s origin story is something that goes well beyond success in business.
It’s a story of one’s struggle not just of beating the odds, but the struggle for life.
Hensen tells of how Seng never knew his mother. Even before he was escaping the Khmer Rouge (the communist regime infamous for the Cambodian Killing Fields), he was an orphan.
“When he was born, his mom died,” Hensen explains. “So he never knew his mom.” Seng’s dad took care of his him. His father owned an auto repair shop, and as a seven year old instead of going to school, Seng did odd jobs and worked around the shop. But in 1972, when Seng was just eight years old, his father died.
Seng was an orphan. He moved from home to home of relatives, “But most of the time, he was on his own,” Hensen said.
Cambodia: A Brief History
“I lived in the temple about three years with the monks,” Seng explains, as it was not unheard of for Buddhist monks to take in in orphans. “But then the communists took over…and they say, ‘you’re no longer a monk, you have to work.’”
Seng gives me a quick history lesson about Cambodia: free in 1970, Communists (popularly know as Khmer Rouge or Red Khmers) take over in 1975 and rule for about three and a half years.
“They killed all of the educated people,” Hensen explains. “All of the professors. They killed everybody that had any education or if they suspected you of having an education – government officials, or anyone working for the government. They were all killed.”
The regime murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents, and through famine and the executions, Cambodian genocide led to the deaths of around 25% of Cambodia’s population (what is estimated to be between 1.5 and 3 million people).
And for Seng to survive under the Khmer Rouge was a feat in itself. “And all they had to eat was less than a handful of rice and water, for years,” Hensen explains, with a tone of somberness and disbelief his father’s situation demanded. “A lot of people would just drop dead because of malnutrition and the lack of basic human needs being met.”
The Fight for Survival
To survive, Seng would take grains from nearby fields or eat bugs he found. “I ate a lot of lizard,” Seng says, with kind of a sense of amusement in his voice. “And crickets, snakes.”
I learn that Seng once ate a poisonous snake that had him laid-out for a day, doubled over in stomach pains and unable to move as his body fought for it’s life. But taking risks on street-cuisine he wasn’t familiar with, wasn’t the only risk associated with tracking down food.
“If they see me taking grain from the fields, I will die,” Seng says.
“On the other hand,” Hensen adds, “if he doesn’t steal or find food, he would die.”
Working Through the System
These were the odds that Seng was fighting against; but he beat them, escaping to boarder between Thailand and Cambodia in 1979. Seng explained that the UN was setting up refugee camps in Thailand, and he took shelter there for a while.
Eventually, he was given the opportunity to through US Immigration (INS at the time) to come to the U.S. He asked to go to Georgia (the state), but because of the language barrier, INS heard “Utah” and sent him out west instead.
Both of the men seem to see the irony, and with Seng’s triumphant story of survival settled into the past, it seems they’ve both come to a place of levity about the government’s snafu.
Once in the States, Seng’s journey continued – working up at Deer Valley, finding work washing dishes. He eventually went to work for an aluminum foundry and spent a decade and a half managing the operation.
His almost preternatural instincts for survival and improvement lead to Seng realizing he could forge his own path. He assembled and hand built the first machines used by S&B, incorporating the company in 2007.
In 2014, after graduating from the University of Utah in Entrepreneurship from the University of Utah, Hensen came on in an official capacity to help manage operations and build on the customer-first culture his father created.
“Our hope is that our customers see us as an extension to their operations, and that they’re comfortable knowing we’re here for them,” Hensen says. “That’s our joy in doing business.”
Unwavering Commitment to their Clients
And because of the company’s unwavering commitment to a customer-first culture, they outgrew their location and were turning down orders due to size constraints. With a small business loan (SBA 540) from Mountain West Small Business Finance, S&B was able to purchase a 9,6000 square foot building close to their current location and to run a larger aluminum kiln.
When you enter S&B and see the operation, you know you’re dealing with a different kind of company. For some, it might be watching Seng do an aluminum “pour.” I can help but think the hot shiny liquid has a striking resemblance to the pensive in Dumbledore’s office I’ve read about in Harry Potter novels. There is a level of the fantastical.
But I have to stop myself, because I know it’s more than a perceived magic. There is something quite different about S&B from so many other small businesses. And while it’s hard to put into words, I understand on a deeper level, that the story of survival and fight, is the story of the great American Dream in it’s highest light. A refugee, beating the odds, building something from the ground up, to provide a better life not only for himself, and his family, but has built something that continues to give back. S&B has channeled the same energy and effort Seng used for survival to do whatever it takes to put the customer first. And that, is a magic more powerful and moving than any fantasy book I’ve ever read – in fact, it’s beyond what dreams are made of, and S&B has made it a reality.
You can learn more about S&B Aluminum Foundry, Inc. at www.sbafoundry.com.
Written by Sabrena Suite-Mangum, MWSBF Blogger.