(Photo: AP Images / Kiichiro Sato)
David Kim, head of Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, is not your typical CEO. Five years ago, Kim and a group of investors purchased the struggling Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, a quick-casual restaurant chain of 255 locations. Since then, Kim has turned the company around and it now is starting to grow at what he calls a “very healthy pace.”
He eschews the spotlight, preferring to let others bask in the glory, which makes it all the more surprising that he went incognito on the CBS show “Undercover Boss” to get a firsthand account of how his employees view his company. “We actually turned it down several times earlier,” says Kim.
A conversation with a good friend changed his mind. “He said to me that I could use the appearance to inspire other people who are going through difficulties because of this recession in America,” he says. “I went on the show to inspire people and I was the one who ended up being inspired.”
Making a Connection
During the April 10 episode, Kim interacted with several employees as he attempted to master various jobs at Baja Fresh. “One of the things I learned from the show was that people are the most valuable asset in anything you do, whether it’s a store or business. Also that we are blessed to be living in this country and that we should help others more than we do,” he says.
At the end of each episode of “Undercover Boss,” the CEO reveals his true identity to the employees he worked with and typically rewards their hard work with financial assistance. Kim decided to be particularly generous with the employees he got to know during the show, giving one worker his own Baja Fresh franchise worth $50,000.
“I wish I could have done more,” Kim says. “The hardships that some of them went through are not something that I think I could have handled. I thought if there was something that if I could help jumpstart and somehow give them a little help, someone else getting the chance to achieve their American dream of owning their own business, I think that’s part of the gratification of him having that opportunity, to live their dream and inspire other people.”
What surprised viewers even more than the behind-the-scenes look at the popular restaurant chain were scenes of Kim’s faith in action, most notably his praying with an employee on national television. “All I did was sit down on the curb and pray with the employee,” says Kim. “I don’t profess to be a perfect Christian. I make mistakes and sin all the time, but I try to get back on track as best as I can.”
The outpouring of support for what Kim calls a simple prayer has amazed him.
“I have gotten tens of thousands of people calling me, emailing me, writing me, to say how bold and courageous it was to talk about faith on national television,” he says. “I didn’t think anything of it; it was a very natural thing to do at that moment.”
Part of his success as a businessman has been because he embodies the principles of his faith. “A lot of people have asked me what the secret of my success is. I tell them there’s no one silver bullet answer to this question,” says Kim.
He concluded after researching that very question for his book, Ignite!: The 12 Values that Fuel Billionaire Success that those who find success have mastered the principles of giving, integrity and understanding, along with knowing how important people are.
“Those principles in many businesses are not discussed more, are not a focal point. I think those principles are core values in the culture that you create to make a company successful.”
At Baja Fresh, Kim has worked to cultivate a culture of loyalty, especially among the management.
“In the United States, loyalty is not much discussed in companies, but it’s very much talked about in other cultures,” he says. “At a lot of companies, people are afraid to speak their minds. I want to maintain a culture where people are not afraid to do so.”
Part of the company culture revolves around having employees be happy and passionate about life in general.
“I believe that people will find their passions, if given the room and the time. It doesn’t have to be work-related, but finding what they’re passionate about will turn into strength and that strength into happiness. Hopefully, we’re achieving that at Baja Fresh.”
For Kim, his life’s work is more than his position as CEO. He and his wife enjoy giving to various charities, including World Vision, but prefer to keep their involvement and donations out of the limelight.
“I’m very thankful and very humbled by so many people who have said that ‘Undercover Boss’ made a difference in their lives,” he says.
Kim would like every Christian to have the boldness to encourage others. “I would like to tell other believers to remember that if you look at history, good always prevails and wins over evil in the end. The backbone of any community is love, not hatred.
“Anybody who lives this life cannot reject love. We’re so much surrounded everyday with cynicism and negativity in the world that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the love of God.”