By Elizabeth Rhodes
Seattle Times staff reporterWith unstoppable confidence and a ready smile, Thach Nguyen talks big. He wants to personally house Seattle’s homeless, he says earnestly, buying houses and renting them to families in need — even if they can’t pay the full rent.Should anyone doubt his motivation, consider the fact that Nguyen also declared that he wanted to become a millionaire by age 30. He made it at 27.
Single father Ritchie Coleman and his three daughters are further proof that Nguyen means what he says. Real-estate agent Nguyen owns the house that Coleman, until recently in desperate straits, now rents.
Moved into the neat-as-a-pin house on the southern spine of Beacon Hill, Coleman laughs and says, “With Thach, I don’t want to be accused of being fresh, but I could kiss him. What he has done for me and my family, he has no idea. He literally saved the lives of three little girls.”Yet Nguyen’s early biography certainly didn’t foretell philanthropy or greatness. Born in Vietnam in 1970, made a refugee four years later as the Vietnam war ended, his first introduction to Seattle was captured on the pages of The Seattle Times.
He’s come a long way
In a haunting photograph, a fearful Nguyen, 4, clings to his mother, Nhon Ke Nguyen. Their family of seven was among the first Vietnamese refugees to call Washington home.
The barracks at Camp Murray near Fort Lewis were their first Northwest home until a total stranger named Charles Zedler took all seven of them in — for three years.
Zedler, now in his 80s, has slim memories of Thach as “shy” and “healthy,” but Nguyen certainly remembers him and draws inspiration from his humanity and generosity.
Eventually, the family Nguyen got on its feet and rented a worn-out, two-bedroom house in the Rainier Valley. Mold flourished on the walls. Loose windows let the cold in, and “every time it rained, you had a river coming through the basement. But to us, we thought it was a palace,” Nguyen says.
Even as a little kid, Nguyen showed flashes of the intense motivation that fairly oozes out of him today. “I was brought up if you want something, you have to work for it, ethical work,” he explains succinctly.
At 12, he was taking long bus rides to pick strawberries at an Auburn farm. One paper route wasn’t enough, so he got two. “I wanted things that other kids had, and I would do whatever it takes to get the things I wanted.”
His bike is one example. Unable to afford the model he coveted, he “bought it part by part and finally put it together. It took at least a year.”
After graduating from Franklin High School, Nguyen followed an older brother to airplane mechanics school. But he had no passion for it and on a whim became a real-estate agent instead.
Around that time he met Albie Moshcatel, manager of John L. Scott’s Renton Highlands office. Moshcatel remembers Nguyen as “definitely rough around the edges. He parked cars at a Chinese restaurant, and worked at Safeway. His exposure to the world was pretty minimal.”
Yet there was just something about the guy. Moshcatel eventually persuaded Nguyen to work for him. “He’s one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met,” Moshcatel says. “His drive to succeed and make a difference is just incredible.”
Meet Nguyen, and one of the first things he’ll probably do is offer a slim maroon book of inspirational quotes on topics like time management, goals and plans, choice and change.
Over the years, motivational books and tapes became Nguyen’s university, and he absorbed them heartily, particularly the words of 1920s seer Napoleon Hill, author of the still-popular “Think & Grow Rich.” He also sought out, indeed still seeks out, mentors in real estate and life skills.
Now, sitting behind an office desk, a cordial Nguyen explains that he’s wealthy not just because he works hard but because he changed the way he thinks. The name of the game, he says, is mental discipline forged with positive goals.
These have made him and his business partner and wife, Camie Ng, among the top 1 percent of all John L. Scott agents throughout the Northwest, with 130 transactions last year. But that’s only part of it. The duo own more than 30 investment properties. They’re also partners in a home-building enterprise.
On a personal level they help support both their families, who live, as they do, in the Seattle area. Plus, the couple arise at 4 a.m. daily — first to work out, then to meditate, then to review their written annual goals.
Two of Nguyen’s: to step up from running marathons to competing in triathlons and to become the first Vietnamese-American billionaire.
“Billion is just a benchmark,” he explains casually. “I want to see what it takes to get there. I want to be on a path that keeps me growing mentally, intellectually, spiritually” for the 20 years he figures it will take to achieve that goal. And if he does, “then I’ll raise the bar and go again.”
Around the office, Moshcatel says, Nguyen has become an inspiration engine. “It’s amazing how many people go to him for coaching or ideas, and he always takes the time to fire them up. He teaches everyone what he does.”
First Place advocate
His desire to mentor, as well as to repay the generosity America showed him as a child, is what led him to First Place, a Seattle agency for children and families in crisis.
Nguyen approached it a year ago with an idea to help house its homeless families in his rental homes. The first person he had to convince was Gene Harris, the agency’s family support services head.
“I’ve had many Realtors approach me with different ideas of how to help families get into housing, and believe me, none of them came with a plan like this,” says Harris, adding, “I’ve been in this business long enough to know when they’re just interested in a profit.” That, he says emphatically, wouldn’t fly.
Three things make Nguyen’s plan different: his willingness to educate, his willingness to take a risk and his willingness to take a loss — the last not something that a super achiever would be expected to tolerate. It works like this: Nguyen buys rental homes for the program. After tenants have been carefully screened by First Place, they’re eligible for a federal rent-subsidy program called Section 8. They use it to rent a home from Nguyen.
So far, Nguyen has placed two such families. He has another three houses ready, and within a year plans to house 10 families.
Blind to credit histories
Lots of landlords accept Section 8 tenants as long as they meet their screening requirements. Nguyen is very unusual, says Harris, in that he’ll house First Place clients who have bad credit histories or no credit histories.
He’ll house clients who can’t afford his full rent, and he’ll absorb the loss personally. “He’s willing to adjust any way you can to help a family move in,” Harris says admiringly. Nguyen also gives the agency cash contributions.
Then every Tuesday night, Nguyen or a member of what he calls his “American Dream Team” of lenders and real-estate pros visits First Place. They offer free classes covering all the steps that lead to home ownership — everything from how to clean up credit and do a budget to how to set goals.
At one of the group’s first meetings, Nguyen gave the families an assignment: Visualize on paper their first home. “Thach felt the vision had to come first, and then how it will happen,” says Harris.
That they could plan and dream was a revelation to some. It’s what Nguyen likes best, he says. “When I was younger, I was very money driven. Now what inspires me is to teach people.”
Wants to make a difference
“He’s all about doing better and growing and making a difference,” says Ng, his wife of three years. “When he sees he’s making a difference and people’s lives are changing, that really excites him. He’ll get out of bed for that.”
Conversely, “He gets disappointed with people when he tries to help them and they say they want help and they don’t help themselves,” she says. “He wants it sometimes more than the people he helps. He wants them to do well.”
Nguyen openly shares with First Place clients the story of his family’s early struggles. Coleman, his first tenant, says he can “really relate to the struggle.”
Coming out of a turbulent marriage, Coleman recently spent everything he had on a court battle to gain custody of his three daughters. The experience left him exhausted and homeless, if not for a time hopeless.
“It’s been such a struggle,” he says. Then on the verge of getting his children, “My burden was to prove I had a stable environment. No way would they have given them to me without a home.”
Now sitting in his well-tended rental, Coleman is clearly looking ahead. A Seattle University alumni who’s self-employed in building trades, he hopes to eventually own his own home.
Nguyen gets visibly excited at the thought of helping his tenant better his family’s life. Together they talk about how Coleman might first buy a house, then follow Nguyen’s guidance to become a real-estate investor.
Is it realistic that someone who was recently homeless can become not only stable but wealthy?
Nguyen just smiles.
He knows it is. He’s lived it. “There are no unrealistic goals,” he says, “only unrealistic time frames.”
American dreamer: Former refugee creates homes for families in need
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