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A Korean Cowboy

©2022 Jim Darling, www.jimdarlingphoto.com

Q: How did you gravitate into turnaround/restructuring work?

KIM: My dad was in the plastic injection molding business for most of his professional career, and he had sold a business. He was semi-retired by the time my younger brother and I were around 10 and 12. My dad had gone through the restaurant business with his parents, who wanted him to go to college. He joined the Navy in 1942, when he turned 18. After he came back, he started college at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, planning to get an accounting degree. Then the Korean War started, and he reenlisted and was gone for another year or two. He came back, finished his accounting degree, and got into business.

He had a friend, Hank Nagahori, who had an injection molding business, Imperial Mold. This was the ‘70s, and plastic was a new thing at the time. Hank had more than 25 injection molding machines, which ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. He wanted to transfer the business to his four children, but first he needed to stabilize it. My dad agreed to work with him on that.

It was a turnaround. They were behind on their payables. Their operations weren’t going that well, and my dad was Hank’s “enforcer,” his CRO. When I started high school, my dad wanted me to get a job, so during my first summer of high school, I went to work on the toolroom floor at Imperial Mold. I worked there for two summers and watched the business from that perspective. I learned about a different side of my father, as a businessperson.

I went to college and got an economics degree. I was trying to figure out what to do next, and my dad said, “What about law school?” I ended up at Santa Clara University School of Law in 1984. They had a JD/MBA program, and I thought I should get a business degree at the same time.

At this point, Hank’s business had been transferred to his kids, and it was on the verge of going bankrupt. The kids had levered up the business because they couldn’t wait for all the cash flow. Then they couldn’t pay back the loans. Foothill Capital, which was later rolled into Wells Fargo and became its asset-based lending group, ended up shutting down this business and liquidating it.

I was in law school and asked my dad what happened. He said, “This business should have been run the way we set it up when it was transferred to the kids because it was humming along. You just had to watch it.” He used to tell me, “We make money a penny at a time, but we lose it in whole dollars.” So, you have to watch it every day, and the kids didn’t do that.

I developed this notion that it would be far better to get into business and help people like Hank or his kids. That’s what moved me toward restructuring. People at the law school told me that if I wanted to go into restructuring, I should go into bankruptcy because that’s the foundation of restructuring. That was the restructuring industry of the ’80s, before we even had CROs.

Q: What have been some of your most gratifying or favorite engagements?

KIM: I had so many that were important, and those started when I was a lawyer. I practiced for 13 years and ended up at LeBoeuf Lamb. We did work in big cases. I worked in some big headline cases—America West Airlines, First Capital Holdings, Pacific Standard Life— and I was in Colorado because of a big case here that people still remember, the Oren Benton bankruptcies.

Those were important cases, but the two that I remember most and that were most gratifying were a manufacturer of steel buildings and a company that made construction materials.

I had just started my consulting firm, and the company that manufactured steel buildings ended up being a memorably successful turnaround. The business was shut down when the owner called me. His expertise wasn’t in managing people or the back office, so they had a cash flow problem. My job was to bring the business back, and we did it without outside capital. We called our customers and our vendors. We generated working capital by getting deposits from our customers and by being a slow-paying customer to our vendors. It took 18 months, but we got this business humming along, and a private equity group bought it.

That was the foundation for the first TMA Turnaround of the Year Award I won. That turnaround was important to me because, No. 1, it proved to me that I could do this on the business side, and No. 2, I get a huge thrill out of being part of something like that. We had 75 employees, and we saved the business and their jobs. All the creditors were paid. That was cool, and it helped my practice.

I like talking about one that was a sale because it was a dark web security consulting firm. The founder had raised some money from some well-placed people, and he had a board comprised of his investors. They said, “We cannot control this guy, and we can’t have him around.” He was important to the business, but they took some interim steps and then called me and said, “We need to do something to sell this business. It’s got a lot of promise.”

We ended up putting it into bankruptcy and selling it. The guys who bought it are still running it to this day. It’s thriving. That’s really gratifying to me.

Q: What key milestones in your career helped make you the professional you are today?

KIM: Becoming a lawyer with an MBA in the restructuring business was a milestone. And then meeting Rebecca, who’s now my wife, and her convincing me that I really didn’t like being a lawyer. She reminded me this morning that this all happened on a walk.

Rebecca and I met here in Denver. I was at LeBoeuf and she was working at the firm as a staff person. We started dating and were out on a walk one day. There I was fighting my way through LeBoeuf Lamb. I’m in Denver, and they want me to go to New York next because that was a way for me to become a partner. Rebecca asked me if I knew how much I hated being a lawyer, and then she asked me if I really wanted to be a partner at LeBoeuf.

I didn’t really know how much I disliked being a lawyer, and she said, “You say it, one way or another, every day.” Then when I started talking about my career progression, it dawned on me that what I really wanted was to make partner. I wasn't so sure I wanted to be a partner.

I didn’t know what being a lawyer was when I went to law school. Most of my classmates knew exactly what they wanted to do as a lawyer. I had no idea.

Q: You hadn’t been around lawyers when you were growing up, right?

KIM: Right. So, that was a turning point, a key milestone, because at that point—this was the late ‘90s—I started to think about how I was going to get out of being a lawyer but not out of the restructuring industry. I always enjoyed restructuring. I just didn’t like it from the legal side. We did a lot of work with Pricewaterhouse. I decided I wanted
to be more like them rather than be a lawyer.

So, for me, becoming a lawyer was key, and then leaving my law practice was also key.

I consciously looked at the market for restructuring consultants, and most of those practices were based in Chicago or New York. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to leave Denver. I’ve always felt at home here, and I didn’t want to move, so that was a limiting factor for me. That was a constraint.

I learned about Republic Financial. They were willing to take me on as an asset manager, and that was a pivotal milestone. Later, I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted to do either, and Rebecca and I both ended up jobless in the first quarter of 2004. Her company had closed abruptly at Christmas. We took a trip to Italy and contemplated our future. I said, “I could start a consulting firm,” and her response was, “If there’s a time for us to do this, it’s now.”

That period from 2002 to 2003 had been an incredible time for us. So much happened, both good and bad. Rebecca and I got engaged three days before 9/11. We were going to be married the following fall. Rebecca’s brother Russell was an Army Ranger with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Ft. Benning. He had been deployed to Afghanistan in the early summer of 2002. Rebecca really wanted him to attend our wedding. I can’t remember all the jockeying that occurred, but he was able to be at our wedding on October 26, 2002.

Operation Iraqi Freedom started in the middle of March 2003. Russell was deployed and was killed on April 3. We were in Washington, D.C., because that’s where Rebecca’s parents were living at the time. My father-in-law is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. He was a Ranger. The military said it could accommodate Russell’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. He was the first Operation Iraqi Freedom casualty to be buried at Arlington. Weeks later, President George W. Bush mentioned Russell in his Memorial Day speech.

We got through 2003, and in 2004, we were going to start this consulting firm. Rebecca’s maiden name was Rippetoe, so I used to call her R2. We couldn’t pick a name for the firm at first, and she said, “Why don’t you name it after me?” We were sitting there, having a glass of wine, and playing around with R2 names. That’s how we ended up naming the firm r2 advisors llc.

Q: What role has your TMA membership played in your career?

KIM: It’s been huge. When I went to Republic, there were some people there who were interested in starting the TMA chapter in Colorado. They wanted me to be involved. Then, the guys who were my bosses at Republic left in 2002 to start Summit Investment Management. I had been going to TMA meetings with them, but when they left to start Summit, they stopped going. I stayed around and became chapter president in 2004.

We continued working to build up the chapter. I started my consulting firm in ’04 and thought it would be a good thing for me to do to continue networking. Our chapter started doing well. I got some visibility at TMA Global and won the Turnaround of the Year Award. This was when Pat Lagrange, Ron Sussman, Mark Indelicato, and Lisa Poulin were in TMA leadership, and I started doing work with that core group of people. I also adored John Rizzardi and Peter Tourtellot and just tried to help.

In the early teens, it started to become apparent that I was part of this group of people and could be in line for the TMA Global presidency. Each one of these things was huge. First, it created a feeling of accomplishment within TMA, and second, being involved in TMA gives a professional credibility in the industry. When I became TMA Global president in 2013, I was a small practitioner in a midsize U.S. city. It helped me with my sense of where I sit in the restructuring ecosystem. It’s been super-gratifying to watch the growth of TMA.

Q: Anne O’Donnell once told me that when she went to work for you, you told her, “TMA is our home. Join and get involved.”

KIM: That sounds like something I might have said. I know this: You have to engage, get involved, go to conferences, meet people, and see what happens. You may have to go outside your comfort zone. We all have stories of going to our very first TMA meeting and feeling completely out of place. I feel like we all get lucky, and somebody says, “Hey, why don’t you come to this dinner,” and you meet a couple of people. The next time, it’s a couple people asking you to join up.

Do you remember when we had the Annual Conference in San Francisco when the Blue Angels attended that reception?

Q: That was the 15th Anniversary conference.

KIM: That was the fall of ’03. Russell had been killed. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. I’m a nobody at the time, but I ended up having drinks with Bill Skelly that night. He was well known to me. I’m having a drink with this guy, and he doesn’t know me from Adam. I met Pat LaGrange during that conference, too. Bill might have had Pat join us, and we talked for a little bit. It was that coincidental, and it got me more involved in TMA on the national level.

Q: It’s like the theme of The 2022 Annual: It Starts With One Connection. You make that first connection in TMA, which leads to other connections and then to others.
It begins to snowball.

That’s for sure.

Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?

KIM: It revolves around my family and friends and spending time with them. The other thing that I’m passionate about is what I refer to as the Western lifestyle. I know it’s hard to define. I really like the outdoors, cowboy lifestyle, and Western values—the cowboy code kind of thing.

I’m passionate about sharing that with people because I am an unlikely source—a Korean cowboy. But it really is who I am. My childhood home was on Dapplegray Lane; Dapple gray describes the color of some horses. I grew up around horses, and I love it and always have. I’m a country music fan. I’m a cowboy fan. It’s not just for what it is, it’s for why. It’s the values that we learn.

Q: How many horses do you have?

KIM: We have two. Cisco is a registered quarter horse. Button is a cross between an American Saddlebred and an Andalusian. I’m a member of the Roundup Riders of the Rockies, and my family and I volunteer with our local sheriff’s office’s mounted unit.

Q: What might people who only know you professionally be most surprised to learn about you?

KIM: Being a restructuring professional was not my first career choice—it was more like my fifth choice. I wanted to be a cowboy first. Second, I wanted to be a professional skier. Third, I wanted to be a motocross racer. Four, I wanted to be a professional pilot. When I was thinking about getting out of being a lawyer in the late ‘90s, I already had my pilot’s license. Our big plan at that time was that I was going to get my ratings up to where I could be a flight instructor. In the spring of 2001, right before I went to work for Republic, I’d gotten up to my multi-engine instrument rating, and I was in the midst of my commercial pilot training.

When the Republic job came along, Rebecca and I thought it would probably be irresponsible for me not to take it. Then 9/11 happened, which killed the market for pilots, so I had gotten a blessing in disguise. I would have gotten my commercial pilot’s license right around September of 2001. I just hung on to the day job, which was my fifth choice.

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