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A Fiscal Lesson for the Ages

Stephen Choi, 46, and wife Leena, 44, in their Potomac home. Stephen lost a lucrative business, and had to begin again.
Stephen Choi, 46, and wife Leena, 44, in their Potomac home. Stephen lost a lucrative business, and had to begin again. (By N.c. Aizenman -- The Washington Post)
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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

On a recent evening, about a dozen elegantly dressed ladies filed to the front of the auditorium at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Gaithersburg to sing a hymn.

Steve Choi, a 46-year-old Korean American businessman with sparkling brown eyes, watched with a mixture of admiration and concern. The one with the ponytail, Choi knew, had been struggling to keep her restaurant afloat. The one in beige recently closed her dry-cleaning store. And the one with the frilly white blouse would need to work extra hard at her water-supply business now that her husband had been forced to give up his job as a Lexus salesman.

Choi had a pretty good idea what his friends were feeling. He is a man who has lost everything he owned. Twice.

Yet twice Choi pulled himself out of the abyss, working 17-hour days and seven-day weeks to rebuild. His food-service operation now has 300 employees and $20 million in sales. He went from living in a single room to a spacious home with a Porsche, a Bentley and several Mercedes-Benzes. And at a time when the economy is menaced by seemingly inexorable forces, Choi's story is a reminder of powers that can prove even stronger: faith in one's God, the support of family and the sheer resilience of the human spirit.

For a man destined to face so many setbacks, Choi had a comfortable start. His father owned a prosperous window manufacturing business in Seoul, and Choi was raised in a seven-bedroom house with a chauffeur and a housekeeper.

But Choi's father found South Korea a tough place to do business. "You had to pay lots of bribes in those days," Choi said.

In 1974, the elder Choi decided to sell his company and move his wife and four sons -- Choi, 12, was second-oldest -- to Northern Virginia. "I don't think my father realized how hard it would be. Otherwise he would never have done it," Choi said.

The awakening was swift and rude. Unable to speak English, Choi's parents started small, opening a grocery store on a rough stretch of Georgia Avenue in the District. The hours were grueling, the profits slim. In 1977, Choi's mother was held up at gunpoint. Shaken, the family moved to Manhattan and bought a deli on Long Island.

Within a year, Choi's parents were able to trade the deli for a dry cleaners. Soon they left their cramped apartment to rent a modest house.

Choi was flourishing academically. He had taken violin lessons since he was 4. A teacher at his middle school suggested he try out for New York's High School of the Performing Arts, later celebrated in the movie "Fame." Choi beat out 350 kids. He began to dream of becoming a concert violinist.

"Music makes you free," Choi said. "You can show your emotions."

Then, in 1979, disaster struck. A fire raged through the dry cleaners, destroying everything. Choi's father had been unable to get insurance because the neighborhood was prone to riots. In hours, the family lost their entire investment.

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