From poverty to Wall Street—a true success story

Chinh Chu.

Chinh Chu graduated summa cum laude from the UB School of Management in 1988 and landed a job on Wall Street in the mergers and acquisitions department at Salomon Brothers.

Two years later, Chu left Salomon for the Blackstone Group, a private-equity firm then just barely five years old. Chu says he was attracted to the maverick company’s entrepreneurial milieu and the chance to learn directly from Blackstone’s experienced senior partners.

Today, Chu, 38, is one of Blackstone’s youngest senior managing directors. Throughout his career with the company, he has headed up some of history’s largest private-equity deals: the purchase of water-treatment and process chemicals company Nalco from French conglomerate Suez for more than $4 billion; the purchase of Celanese, a German-based chemical company, for $3.8 billion; and the pending acquisition of SunGard, an $11.7 billion transaction.

The mortar undergirding Chu’s success is his ability to transcend adversity—a skill he acquired, by necessity, early on. Chu and his grandmother, four younger siblings and his mother, who was eight months pregnant, were forced to flee their native Vietnam in 1975 when Chu was just eight years old after they received word that South Vietnam was on the verge of falling to the communists. After narrowly escaping on one of the last American military planes to transport refugees out of Saigon, they made their way to Hawaii, where Chu’s father had been studying medicine.

The family eventually moved to Queens, N.Y., where Chu’s father learned English, went to school and became a doctor. Chu’s parents strongly advocated education and put their six children—now all successful professionals—through school. From an early age, Chu was fascinated by the world of finance, reading books about economics and entrepreneurism in his free time. He worked his way through college selling educational books door-to-door for Southwestern Co., organizing a sales team and becoming one of the company’s top salespeople. He also served as a telemarketer, doing fundraising for UB.

“It was easy to sell the quality of UB, because I believed in it so strongly…and still do,” he says. “I got an excellent education and learned a few life lessons along the way.”

Chu faced a different form of adversity in his early years with Blackstone. He helped run a large portion of the acquisition of Berlitz International Inc. by Fukutaki Publishing Co. of Japan, a deal which threatened to fall through at the final hour when British media financier Robert Maxwell, who controlled Berlitz, died suddenly while vacationing aboard his yacht in November 1991. Chu camped out in a hotel in Tokyo for months until the deal was finalized, and continued to live and work in Asia until the Asian financial crisis unfolded in 1997. Since returning stateside, he has focused his efforts on the chemicals sector. He oversees healthcare and financial institutions for Blackstone, as well.

Chu is the picture of an amazing American success story. Still, he remembers where he came from, and has become a passionate philanthropist intent on giving back to the country of his birth and its poorest citizens. When a devastating flood tore through central Vietnam in 1999, leaving more than 1.6 million people homeless and 736 dead, Chu and his sister, a journalist living in Brooklyn, immediately set into motion a plan to help. They fervently raised $20,000 from friends and family, and used it to distribute rice, noodles and blankets to flood victims in villages across Vietnam. That same year, the pair formed Vietnam Relief Effort, a nonprofit organization that has funded the construction of footbridges across rivers in rural communities as well as surgeries for war veterans, the disabled and those suffering from cataracts. Last November, the group held a benefit in Manhattan, raising more than $100,000 to build and renovate schools in Vietnam. Another of the organization’s primary missions is bringing Vietnamese doctors to the U.S. for training.

Chu and his fellow Vietnam Relief Effort board members—including his wife, Ha Phuong, a Vietnamese pop music star—regularly return to Vietnam to personally deliver money and supplies to recipients. Those experiences, Chu says, act as a critical balance to the rigorous demands of the fast-paced American business world.

“Over here you get jaded,” he explains. “There you really get back to basics; you see how people live. People are working all day to make one dollar.

“It keeps me grounded.”

Written by Cindy Hennessey