Wahoo's Fish Taco co-founder Wing Lam is a rock star of business and philanthropy, with a contact list longer than some phone books. How does he do it?
The name alone makes Wing Lam memorable. Wing. It conjures all sorts of soaring images, not to mention bird jokes.
Then there’s the look: the black goatee of a Ming Dynasty emperor, dangling like a five-inch comma beneath his chin. Hair rising above a rounded face and flowing, cape-like, to the middle of his back.
Add to that the attire of a man who has just waded out of the surf – and straight into a corporate boardroom.
The impresario behind Wahoo’s Fish Taco, who transformed a low-budget food stand into one of Orange County’s iconic restaurant brands, made an indelible impression on William Wang, the founder of electronics giant Vizio, during a business event at the elegant Pacific Club in Newport Beach.
“He was sitting there the way he looks on his pictures,” says Wang, who now, like so many people in business and philanthropy and sports and music and television and academia, considers Lam a friend. “Flip-flops, board shorts, Hawaiian shirt. Everybody else was wearing a suit.”
Lam’s irrepressible style is just one reason he stands apart as the ultimate networker. You just can’t forget the guy. Plus, he’s always showing up. You see him at business mixers, golf resorts, surfing contests, 10K runs, X Game events, wine tastings, fundraising dinners, boxing matches, Angels games, concerts.
If he’s not hobnobbing with Rod Carew, the Hall of Fame ballplayer, he’s hanging out at Muhammad Ali’s birthday bash or riding a bike alongside Lance Armstrong.
Contacts? Lam figures he’s piled up a list of 5,000 or more. His calendar, divided somewhat equally between charity events and for-profit shindigs, starts to fill up a year in advance. Forget about reaching him by voicemail – the mailbox is always full.
“He seems to know everybody,” says Wang, who, through Lam, got involved in supporting the annual summer benefit golf tournament staged by Angels great Tim Salmon – one of Lam’s close friends.
“He’s a mastermind at connecting people,” says Mike Shumard, former executive director of the Anaheim chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a charity Lam has long supported. “Everybody knows him and he knows everybody. Just by watching him, Wing has taught me a lot about how to build a network and utilize that network.”
Driving a brightly painted Wahoo’s pickup truck from the corporate office in Santa Ana to a mini-mall in Monarch Beach, where he is picking up a surfboard – yet another item he will give away – Lam speaks with a rush of excitement at the odd directions his madcap social whirl often takes him. He recalls being invited to the private retreat of Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin empire, on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, a trip that led him to go hot-air ballooning with Branson two years ago in, of all places, Lithuania.
Lam was appearing at a Lithuanian knockoff of a TED Talk. While there, he struck up a fast friendship with guitarist Rudolf Schenker of the German rock band the Scorpions.
Lam recalls, with a touch of amazement, a barroom night of revelry that seemed without end. “It’s now 2 in the morning, it’s 3 in the morning, it’s 4 in the morning. We’re watching the sun rise and it’s 5 in the morning. We’re just laughing because here we are drinking with the biggest rock star in Eastern Europe.
“I know the most random people,” Lam says.
At 53, Lam is scarcely slowing down, though his wife of three years, Kelly, is due to have their first child in August. (Lam also has a grown son, Greg, from a prior marriage.) A year ago, Lam and Kelly found time for trips to Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arizona, China and Malaysia.
Now, they are trying to squeeze in a few shorter excursions before Kelly’s delivery date. Having just returned from four days in the wine country near Santa Rosa, they plan another venture into the vineyards of Monterey County, as well as a vacation in Aspen, in June.
When at home in Newport Beach, they savor the occasional quiet evening in front of the TV, watching movies. Kelly is a fan of Will Ferrell. Lam’s tastes run toward action flicks – Bruce Willis, the “Fast & Furious” films. Escapist fare for a man whose own life is go, go, go.
After picking up the surfboard, and making room for it in the truck bed by re-positioning a used bicycle, Lam pushes on to the elegant St. Regis Monarch Beach hotel to collect donated golf equipment. He spends his own time and money finding sporting goods, baseball and concert tickets, trips and other sought-after items that can be auctioned off for charity. He swings to the hotel curb facing the wrong direction in the red zone.
“I can park illegally here,” he says, bounding out of the pickup. “They know me.”
Lam, who is Chinese, spent his childhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil, before his parents acted on rumors of a better life in California and moved to Costa Mesa. In 1970, Lam’s father, Cheong Lee, opened a Chinese restaurant called Shanghai Pine Garden, which the family still owns, on Balboa Island.
Lam’s tireless devotion to charities began eight years after he graduated from Costa Mesa’s Estancia High School. Grateful for the guidance of his water polo coach, John Carpenter, Lam funneled profits from his first taco stand back to the school. He then spread his largesse to the baseball team at Saddleback College and the water polo program at UC Irvine, mainly because of people he met. Lam attended neither campus, but instead graduated with a degree in finance from San Diego State.
The good deeds and organizations seemed to snowball. Before long, Lam was supporting fundraising events for cystic fibrosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other causes, often by serving free tacos. He became active nearly 20 years ago in helping the Surfrider Foundation. In his early 40s, he joined the Young Presidents’ Organization, a leadership organization of powerful CEOs where he met Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli and real-estate magnate George Argyros, the former U.S. ambassador to Spain. Lam is also active in the Asian American Journalists Association.
Helping to put together both charity and for-profit events has given Lam entrée to the hierarchies of the apparel companies, the beverage providers, the equipment manufacturers, the concert promoters. His tentacles reach into television. He is a friend of the Segerstroms.
“It’s about networking,” Lam says matter-of-factly, laying out his philosophy. “’Let’s all make some more money together, and also find some good causes we can rally around to better our community.’”
It’s no coincidence that, over 26 years, Lam and his two brothers, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee, have been able to expand Wahoo’s from that first stand in Costa Mesa to 65 outlets. Even in a digital age, the value of establishing face-to-face connections is indisputable, says Gene Alexander of Chapman University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics.
“I think it’s more important than ever,” he says. “A part of deciding whether you want to start a company with someone is to look him in the eye, or look her in the eye, and see if you’re compatible. It’s really about building up that network of people you trust.”
Yes, Alexander knows him.
“He works with us here,” the center’s technology director says. “He’s like a senior mentor.”
Lam advises students charged with trying to launch new companies. At first the pupils seem intimidated by the icon “just because of his reputation,” says Alexander, who uses Wahoo’s success as a classroom lesson. “As soon as they spend 10 minutes with him, it’s like they’re all in college together. He’s very disarming and down-to-earth.”
Lam speaks with quiet pride, even amusement, at some of the famous individuals he has met in passing, such as Wayne Gretzky and the Dalai Lama. “I wouldn’t call him a friend,” he says of the latter, “but how many people have met the Dalai Lama?”
But the essential core of Lam’s network – the connections most closely associated with his brand – are big names and givers, and unknown but powerful behind-the-scenes people he has come to know over many years through sheer commitment. Lam calls surfing great Kelly Slater, an 11-time world champion, “a friend for over 20 years. I’ve probably done 100 events with Kelly Slater.”
Shaun White, the X Games superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding, smiles from a poster high on the wall of the Wahoo’s conference room. “I’ve known Shaun since he was 6 years old,” Lam says. “I’ve probably done over 200 events with him over the years.”
Guys like that jibe perfectly with the Wahoo’s image – youthful, active, healthy. Lam is still out there, eager to meet whoever is next.
“I can’t tell you how many X Games I’ve been to,” Lam says. “As a brand, we’re there. Taco Bell might have been involved, but they send their people, not the CEO of Taco Bell. I go. It’s part of me; it’s part of the branding. It’s about being able to shake hands and meet the kids. It’s about meeting the next Shaun White, meeting the next Kelly Slater. They like to meet the owner of the company.”
Often, Lam is asked about his name. He jokes that his parents were inspired by a bird, even though Wing, in Chinese, is just another common name, like Bob.
“Because of the name and the things I’ve done in my life, I’m almost everybody’s best wingman.”