honda/30″/mike1st/mark2nd By WADE DANIELS Contributing Reporter Since David Honda was first elected chairman of the Valley Economic Development Center’s board five years ago, the non-profit organization has gone from having virtually no assets and a negative monthly cash flow of $20,000 to $8 million in assets and a positive monthly cash flow of $150,000. Not that Honda, whose paying job is as president of D.S. Honda Construction Inc., would think of taking much credit for this. He’s quick to point out that his first appointment was at about the same time that VEDC President John Rooney, who directs day-to-day operations, came on board. The Rooney-Honda team has transformed the VEDC from a small group of volunteers who supplied consulting and other help to Valley businesses into a conduit for federal loans and other funding for earthquake rebuilding and business development. And for the VEDC, the rebuilding continues, even though almost all the federal quake-recovery money has been spent. The near exhaustion of federal funds has also affected Honda’s construction business, which specializes in office buildings. It saw a period of improved business after the earthquake, but contracts in recent months have become fewer and smaller, conditions similar to those that the Valley construction industry was suffering through prior to the quake. Question: You’re in your fifth year as chairman of the board of the Valley Economic Development Center. What’s so attractive about the job, or are you the only one willing to take it? Answer: You can ask the others why they keep electing me, but I accept it because it’s been very satisfying to see something go from no assets to having more than $8 million in assets. Q: As a policy-setter, what other directions would you like to see the VEDC head? A: By using volunteers, I think we’ve found a way to lend funds at a lower cost, and I would like the VEDC to take over Region 9 (the Western states) of the Federal Loan Program, which administers small business loans. Just like we’ve done with these other loans and with our loan board, we use our volunteers who are experts. For example, if someone wants to borrow $100,000, it might cost us $400 to process that loan, while it would take a bank $1,000 to process it. We’ve been lending the Department of Commerce money for earthquake rebuilding to businesses that were turned down by the Small Business Administration, and we haven’t had any defaults. Q: You say that most of the $24 million the Commerce Department allocated for earthquake repair in other parts of Los Angeles outside the Valley hasn’t been touched, and you’d like it steered to the Valley. Who are you talking with and what is the progress of those talks? A: We’ve had discussions with the Department of Commerce. They say it’s not for you to ask for the money that is for the other side of the hill. They have told us “no,” and then they still have not lent it out. There is tremendous politicization when it comes to government funds going to non-profit organizations. Q: What are you doing to pursue this? A: Right now we’re stonewalled, it’s a good topic for an investigative article. Q: There are always a few businesses that heavily participate in civic activities, but there are many that never do. How do you work to attract their involvement? A: Small-business people don’t attend a lot of chamber meetings and things like that because they’re out there running their business. When I was president of the Van Nuys Chamber I held a luncheon for the 20 oldest members of the chamber that keep paying their dues but never show up. So I invited them to say, “Can we talk?” Nobody showed up. We found out why: They’re busy. And I asked them why they were even paying their dues. (Their answer:) because it’s good policy, good civics to help the local chamber. So they know they help the other businesses, as well. Q: How have you managed to stay in business in a cyclical industry that has been hit hard by recessionary fallout? A: Times have been very tough. My focus has always been in commercial construction, and a lot of the large organization tenants have left California. The city has become an absentee landlord. A lot of your big tenants still operate branches here, but the corporate bodies have moved out of the area, which makes it a very interesting economy. The Valley is looking for its identity. I think that’s where you get (the push for) secession. Q: Have many of your competitors headed off to more active construction markets like Las Vegas? Have you considered following suit? A: Las Vegas is booming and so is Arizona and so is the state of Washington. My parents, after 40 years in Pacoima, moved up to Washington. They felt it was getting very difficult in Los Angeles. They called me up and said, “David, you ought to come up to Olympia; there’s a lot of companies coming in here, and it’s wide open for land. It’s something to maybe look at, but I have a lot of roots here. Q: Things are such that you would consider leaving? You don’t expect any improvement in business? A: It’s going to be slow for a while, there’s not much out there. But like I say, all my roots and connections are here, and all I have up there are my parents. This summer I may go up and take a look at what’s up there. Q: I noticed on your r & #233;sum & #233; that you’ve lectured at UCLA on Japanese studies? A: Actually, at UCLA I was asked to talk about doing business with Japanese companies, which is an interesting topic. Q: Do you speak Japanese? A: No. I’m a third generation sansei (the Japanese word for third generation). Unfortunately, we were not taught the language. My parents were in Hart Mountain and Tule Lake (World War II Japanese detention centers in Wyoming and California, respectively), and they felt if their children did not know the language they would not be discriminated against in the future in case there was another incident like what happened in World War II. I was commissioned by the Japanese American National Museum (in Los Angeles) to bring back one of the barracks from Hart Mountain three years ago. In that experience, I learned more about my heritage with the old-timers that went than I did with my parents, who never wanted to speak about what happened in the camps. Q: Did that experience affect your work? And if so, how? A: I started to understand the race relationship situation we have here in Los Angeles… A lot of small-business owners are culturally diverse, and we need to look at their cultures and how to do business. For example, if you’re a developer, and you want to build condos and your clientele is in Monterey Park, where there are a lot of Chinese, you would make sure that you hire a master of Feng Chi (the Chinese science of design and space use) to look at the lot and make sure the doors are facing the correct direction don’t ask me which direction and that the room is situated correctly. About 10 years ago, someone asked me to take a look at a project that did not go very well, and the market was Chinese. Nobody would buy it even though it was very nice, and he went out of business. So even then I started to realize that understanding culture is very important if you’re going to be a successful business person.