Embrace your vulnerability. I dealt with a lot of abandonment issues when I was younger. I would always counteract those feelings by being outgoing and friendly, but deep down I was actually feeling so alone. To understand that was really eye-opening because it was hard to accept. People all too often build up a hard outer shell so they don’t show feelings of vulnerability, but that vulnerability is actually something that makes them special.
Asa part of my series about “Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success” I had the pleasure of interviewing James Langley, the founder and president of Empress Capital Investments. James wears many hats as a real estate partner, entrepreneur and founder. He began his career as an associate at Grubb & Ellis|BRE Commercial Real Estate, working on one of the largest retail leasing teams in the region. After leaving Grubb & Ellis, James continued his career in real estate by joining Schwartz Commercial Realty (Now LDG Commercial Real Estate) in 2008, where he is currently serving as partner. James is also the founder and president of Empress Capital Investments. James created the company when he realized the need for small business support as he saw traditional investment firms often concentrating solely on large businesses, leaving smaller companies to fall to the wayside. So, he started Empress Capital Investments and within that Empress Restaurants Family to assist emerging, established and mature boutique restaurants in developing successful business strategies, encourage growth and increase revenue. Additionally, under the Empress Restaurant Family name, James owns and operates three of his own San Diego restaurants: Madero’s, Wokou Ramen and Yakitori and California Native.
As an entrepreneur, James is also president and founder of Langley Commercial Investment. In 2015, James joined four other entrepreneurs in San Diego to open Resident Brewing Company in the popular downtown area. Resident has been coined as one of San Diego’s best and fastest-growing new breweries.
James is a 2004 graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration. During his time in college, he enjoyed a successful collegiate baseball career and played semi-professional baseball with the Duluth Huskies.
Thank you so much for joining us James! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path
Tounderstand how I got to where I am today, we have to go all the way back to my childhood. I was 10-years-old when I got my first job. Most kids get their first bicycle when they turn 10, but I guess I just wasn’t like most kids! I grew up without my father in my life, which meant my brother and I had to step up to help support our mother. Cleaning hotel rooms and landscaping didn’t pay much, but it was something. Growing up in the outskirts of Northern California, there wasn’t a ton of options for work, so I eventually found myself putting in long, arduous hours in logging, roofing and electrical — all of which were the most exhausting jobs I’ve ever had. Going into high school, I knew education was something I needed to focus on. So, I chose a job that could accommodate my hours away (and was frankly much easier than my previous work): the restaurant industry. I had to take a 2 1/2-hour bus ride to school every morning at 5 am. I spent the day in class and then went to baseball/basketball practice for an hour or two afterwards. I then made my way to work where I washed dishes, oftentimes not getting back home until midnight or sometimes 2 or 3 am, and then had to start all over at 5 am to catch the bus to school. During my time as a dishwasher, I knew my skills could be applied in other ways, so I tried my best to learn from those around me. It was there where I learned just how important every single person’s job is in the restaurant industry, from the person cleaning toilets to the executive chef. I worked in the restaurant business for eight years, working my way up the ladder. I credit my years bussing and waiting tables for helping me develop important life skills I now use every day, like how to read people and prioritize tasks. I worked my way through high school and college where I attended Point Loma Nazarene University, majoring in business administration. Today, I wear many hats. I am a partner at LDG Commercial Real Estate, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Resident Brewing and President and Founder of Empress Capital Investments, but I’d have to say my most important job is father to my two young daughters. Everything I do, I do for them.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Many people assume that everything has come naturally and easy for me, which is far from the truth. When I played baseball, I would double my workouts add swim and film review time. When I got hired in commercial real estate, everyone told me I would be making six figures within two years, it took me seven. We started Resident Brewing Company three years ago and it just got profitable. With Empress Capital Investments, and particularly the Empress Restaurant Family, we failed at almost every venue in the beginning. The best part is that it never stops changing. I have learned that if you want to be different and the best, you have to be humble and embrace constant change and constant grind. It becomes a way of life, and if you don’t like that then don’t own restaurants.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I had to work full time to help pay the rent when I was young, on top of juggling school and sports. This taught me a lot about myself and has set the precedent for the way I operate professionally. A lot of people find adversity uncomfortable, but because I’ve lived most of my life in challenging situations, adversity is almost second nature to me. Sometimes I feel like I’m not pushing myself hard enough if things aren’t tough. Being forced to grind at a young age has made the grind as an adult easier. In the restaurant business, the little details are so important and we spend a lot of time trying to perfect them, but we don’t stop there. Our team constantly challenges itself to go above and beyond by pushing the boundaries of what’s expected.
So how did grit lead to your eventual success? How did grit turn things around?
I learned a lot about the importance of determination from my time playing sports. When you’re playing a game, your goal is to win…to become a championship team. But, that doesn’t happen overnight. You have to put in so much work every single day. You must build and focus on the processes and systems in place rather than focusing on a championship trophy. If you focus on those processes and systems and put in the work to perfect each one of them, the championship trophy, success, will eventually come to you. I constantly coach myself on this and do mental exercises every day to stay in that mentality, because it’s not easy!
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
- Define what success looks like for you. It’s important for you to figure out who you are as a person and the things that are most important to you. Many people make the mistake of defining their success by comparing themselves to others, which often leads to feelings of dissatisfaction.
- Figure out what motivates you. In the same vein as defining success, you must also identify exactly what it is that gets you excited about the things you’re working on. For me, it’s my legacy. Growing up without a father and no one else with my last name made me realize just how important it is for me to create something that can live on once I’m no longer around.
- Embrace your vulnerability. I dealt with a lot of abandonment issues when I was younger. I would always counteract those feelings by being outgoing and friendly, but deep down I was actually feeling so alone. To understand that was really eye-opening because it was hard to accept. People all too often build up a hard outer shell so they don’t show feelings of vulnerability, but that vulnerability is actually something that makes them special.
- Focus on the journey, not the destination. I mentioned this above but it’s worth bringing up again. It’s important to have goals, but the work you put in every day to reach those goals is even more so. I’m always aiming to improve myself no matter what it takes or how “good” I am at something, there’s always room to be a little better.
- Learn from your good and bad days. We all have ups and downs, but it’s important to take a step back to understand the events that got you where you are. If you’re having a good day and you’re in the “green,” you’re generally doing the things that make you the happiest. When you’re in the “red,” you’re most likely not feeling like yourself or missing out on things you feel are important. In order to keep track of your “green” and “red” days, jot them down in a journal. You’ll quickly begin to notice which things in your life lead to your best and worst days.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
My mom — My mom taught me to trust my gut. When she left my dad to save our lives, everyone told her she was a fool. But, she was miserable and left for herself and her children. As a business owner, I have to make tough decisions more often than I’d like. My mom helped me understand the importance of making the right decision, even if it is the more difficult choice.
My brother — My brother taught me the importance of hard work and a positive attitude. He was the father figure I needed in my life who helped me put on my game face and power through tough times. My brother always said that a positive attitude breeds a positive outcome and I’ve tried my best to constantly align myself with this phrase.
My college baseball coach — My college baseball coach taught me not to fear failure, but to embrace it. This is one of the most pivotal lessons I learned that directly translates into owning a business.
George Fermanian — George Fermanian is a prominent real estate developer in San Diego and the first person who taught me that I could be successful in business. When you come from nothing, you oftentimes get wrapped up in negativity and think you’ll never amount to anything. You need someone in your life to help you push past those negative thoughts, and that’s who George was for me.
Ben Schwartz — Ben Schwartz was my mentor in real estate. He took a chance on me based on heart and helped me build my company when I was only 26 years old.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I love to give back to my local community. In fact, philanthropy is one of my five areas of focus (the other four are the companies I lead: LDG Commercial Real Estate, Langley Commercial, Resident Brewing company and Empress Capital Investments). I’m actively involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters and volunteer my weekends at the Tecolote Youth Baseball Academy coaching 13 and 14-year-old kids. I’m also inspired by communities who come together in times of need and try to help out as much as possible. In 2017, we helped raise almost $30k for the Santa Rosa community affected by the Tubbs Fire.
I love working with Big Brothers Big Sisters because of the role my brother played in my life. I understand the importance of having someone to look up to, especially for those kids who may not have a father figure in their life. I am on the board of directors for the organization and annually raise around 100K in donations.
The Seal Future Foundation is another organization I’m proud to support. I believe in our country and those who fight for our freedom every day. Oftentimes these soldiers return home to feelings of loneliness and uncertainty, unable to prepare for and navigate the transition to the private sector. The Seal Future Foundation provides resources to help soldiers assimilate into civilian life.
I pride myself on saying I never turn down a donation and work with a variety of organizations including Voices for Children, Boys to Men Mentoring, the American Cancer Society and the Make a Wish foundation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The thing I’m most excited about right now is using the Empress Restaurant Family to bring communities together and help raise money for local schools and charities. One new initiative we’re kicking off is bringing the first-ever annual elementary school parents party to Sunset Hills, a local community in San Diego. The school has never done a fundraiser like this and I’m excited for them to experience the benefits!
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
The most important thing executives can do is offer an open line of communication between leaders and employees. It’s imperative that your staff feel comfortable talking with you. You should be available to help educate them and help them grow by constantly encouraging them, never breaking them down but always lifting them up. Oftentimes, the gift of knowledge is the best gift you can give employees. Think about what you can provide to make a lasting impression.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be a movement of kindness. We live in a world with an overwhelming amount of information and often times we lose sight of the importance of personal connection. We need to focus more on building relationships, personal growth and kindness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Say hello to everyone on your way up because you’ll have to say hello to them on your way down.”
You never know what’s going to happen in a day and it’s important to be humble. Remember you’re never too good or too cool to make time for someone else. Even though it’s sometimes easier to be angry with someone, you have to be disciplined and constantly forgiving, patient and accommodating. That is true leadership and that’s the hardest part.
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