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David Sun and John Tu: The Billionaires Who Make Money Every Time You Buy a Phone

David Sun and John Tu

John Tu and David Sun are the co-founders of Kingston Technology Company, Inc. The company is based in Fountain Valley, California, but does business globally. Together, they created a business which is best known as the largest maker of computer memory products in the world. Anyone who uses USB drives, flash cards, SSDs or DRAM modules may be using one of these Kingston Technology memory storage devices commonly found in MP3 players, cellphones and cameras. Tu and Sun’s company is privately held with annual sales over $4 billion.

Tu and Sun met each in other in Southern California, and that is where their business partnership began and flourished. Their journeys to the United States came at different times and for different reasons, however.

John Tu Before David Sun

John Tu, the elder of the business partners, was born in Chonqing, China in 1941. Though he was born Chinese, his family moved away from China and Mao Tse-Tung’s communist regime in 1949. His family actually fled from China’s civil war, and he grew up in Taiwan.

In an extensive interview with Rosie Murray-West, writing for U.K. based The Telegraph, Tu describes himself as a struggling student. He said that he wasn’t happy with his teachers, the school systems or hi poor performance as a student within the rigid educational structure. When it was time for Tu to attend university, he went to Germany. There, he studied at the Technishce Hochschule Darmstadt, earning his degree in electrical engineering in 1970. John Tu emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1972

David Sun Before John Tu

David Sun, the younger of the business duo, was born in Taiwan in October of 1951. He was educated at Tatung University. He moved to the United States in 1977. He settled in Southern California, and raised his family. Some of the character and values that make him the businessman he is, have been revealed through his son, Donald.

Donald purchased the professional volley tour, AVP, after working at Kingston Technology for 13 years as a company executive. In an interview with Beverly Oden for About Sports, Donald speaks about his young life with his father. Donald remembers playing games with his father while sitting together in the family home in Irvine, California. Donald was 11 when his father gave him a board, an ohmmeter and a layout. Side by side, his father worked on circuitry for a computer. Donald was instructed to listen for beeps and make checkmarks for his father. What Donald thought of as a game was actually his father’s process of reverse-engineering to create and build a circuit board. He did not realize that his father would become a billionaire co-owner of the world’s largest manufacturer of memory products. He did understand that his father encouraged him to be fair in business dealings, to be flexible, to learn his business well, to treat people well, and to try to do his best.

Sun’s life as a former Taiwanese immigrant changed when he met John Tu; former Taiwanese citizen, in 1982, in suburban Southern California.

Tu and Sun Create Their First Company

The two began their entrepreneurial lives working from their garage, selling computer memory modules. They founded Camintonn Corporation, with Tu serving as President from 1982 until 1986. During those years, their business grew rapidly and they reached $9 million in sales. In 1986, Irvine company AST Research purchased their company, and Tu became Vice President of its Digital Division. He also was General Manager until 1987.

The pair lost everything on Black Monday, which was October 19, 1987, when the stock market collapsed. Tu has described his life process as “lurching from crisis to crisis” and this experience was a huge one. The pair not only lost everything they had, they lost what Tu describes as “a million dollars more”. The business pair had a stockbroker friend experimenting with every bit of their money in the futures market. The risk resulted in complete loss.

At the time Tu was only 43 years old. His wife and just given birth to their first child. They couldn’t talk about their loss to anyone, including their families. But he and Sun became entrepreneurs because they had to survive. When they sold Camintonn Corporation for $6 million, they founded Kingston Technology. If Black Monday had never happened to them, they would not have gone on to start the second company. They never gave in to the circumstances.

Kingston Technology

The two began again. Sun invented memory modules and they sold them from the garage, on a cash only basis, in groups of ten. They used their money to make and sell more. Their sales coordinated with a shortage of computer memory modules globally. They reaped the benefits of the shortage for the six months that it lasted. After that, Sun convinced Tu to continue. Tu bet Sun that the business would fail. Sun won the bet. Tu had to buy Sun a Jaguar as payment for losing the bet. He had a local dealer deliver the car to Sun. He called to ask if Sun had received the ribbon-wrapped car. Sun reminded Tu that the insurance premium still needed to be paid. Tu descriped Sun as one who enjoys thumping tables using his fists. Tu is quieter than Sun. But, together, fate and luck allowed them to work to create a company that would become an industry leader in surface-mounted memory chip technology.

With nine years of extraordinary success behind them, Sun decided it was best for him to take a business break. In 1996 the duo sold an 80% stake in Kingston to Softbank, a Japanese tech company, for the sum of $1.5 billion. After three years had passed, market conditions were such that they were able to repurchase the shares sold for $450 million.

Though the business has survived and profited in the billions for more than 25 years, Tu and Sun work in cubicles located in the heart of the company’s sales department.

Kingston is part of the list of 500 privately held companies which are the largest on Earth. It continues to bring in revenue in billions each year, designing and manufacturing memory items used in laptops, desktops, servers, PDAs, digital cameras, mobile phones and printers.

The company provides exceptional supply chain management services for system OEMs and semiconductor manufacturers. Kingston is a brand recognized in 110 countries and available at more than 30,000 global locations.

Tu, Sun and Kingston hold respected spots as billionaires on Forbes. Both men are active as philanthropists, with private foundations giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities representing the arts, education, medicine, social needs, and cultural issues. They have made the news for their extravagant bonuses paid to the people who work with them, and always make note of the collective groups that have succeeded together. For Sun and Tu, the company began in desperate times which Tu describes as the “huge accident”. But he is known for doing business on a handshake, or simply based on a person’s word; trusting people to do business with integrity. Tu has mentioned that he and Sun may have done well because they “did more right than wrong”. He also believes that relationships with people are most important. These are old fashioned values in a modern world.

For both Sun and Tu, success has come from hardship and luck, intelligence and hard work. It is encouraging to learn that they appreciate their opportunities, acknowledging that Kingston would not have been a possibility for them had they stayed in China or Taiwan. For Tu, he also feels American…enough so, that he formed and plays drums with his band, JT and California Dreamin’; performing often for charity events. Not bad for a billionaire… or two.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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