FALL RIVER – The sight of his mother-in-law, suffering from cancer and sleeping on a floor in Vietnam, motivated David Nguyen to get into the bedding business.
That was three decades ago, and since then the owner of US Bedding in Fall River has positioned itself as one of the largest bed manufacturers on the East Coast.
Nguyen was born in Hanoi, the capital of the former northern Vietnam, in 1962.
Almost 18 years later, in late 1979, after his mother bribed local police officers to get him fake Chinese ID cards so that Nguyen could board a small boat to Hong Kong with 100 other people, he had only one thought: on the way UNITED STATES.
It didn’t matter that it was less than five years since the last remaining US troops left the country then known as Saigon in South Vietnam – after a decades-long military conflict that resulted in the deaths of 58,000 American soldiers and as many as one An estimated 600,000 North and South Vietnamese civilians.
Nguyen, now 58, says he just graduated from high school and planned to go to college.
Survive a dangerous sea voyage
His father died when he was two years old and left his mother, who ran a small market, to support him and his six siblings, who all helped her run the business after school.
His college plans were dashed after he learned that he was in the Vietnamese army either in Cambodia – where Vietnamese troops fought to displace Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime – or on the northern border, where the Chinese and Vietnamese met Troops found had to serve clash in the so-called last Sino-Vietnamese war.
Nguyen says he did not hesitate to leave Vietnam despite leaving his mother and siblings behind.
“I didn’t like the government,” he said. “It was too dangerous for me to stay there, and it’s better anywhere than to live in a communist country.”
Nguyen says he and his future wife survived their 43-day sea voyage to Hong Kong, which was then under British control, from the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, where he grew up.
“It would only take 45 minutes to fly there,” he said. “But we couldn’t go on the open sea. We had to stay close to the coast. And we hit the rocks twice. “
A year in refugee camps to get to America
After more than a year in two refugee camps, the young couple, who were allowed to live together and wanted to get married, qualified for a trip to the USA.
Nguyen said they had previously been offered safe passage to other western nations such as the UK, Australia and Holland. But he said they waited until it became possible to travel to America by ship.
While in Hong Kong, Nguyen said he was looking for his older brother, who had also planned to flee Hanoi. But he says his sibling was grabbed by police before he could leave and spent a year in a Vietnamese prison.
His brother is spending a year in prison
Nguyen says his two brothers and four sisters all survived and lived normal lives in Vietnam.
He attributes the improvement in the quality of life to the fact that the communist government is adopting a milder stance towards free market capitalism.
After a total of two weeks of English classes in the second of two refugee camps in Hong Kong, Nguyen and his now pregnant wife arrived in Boston, where they were sponsored by an organization affiliated with a Catholic Church.
Eight Vietnamese refugees share a one-bedroom apartment
According to Nguyen, their first residence was a one-bedroom apartment on Main Street in Charlestown, where the couple shared the room with six other Vietnamese refugees, all of whom were single men.
He said they all slept on foam mattresses. After two months, Nguyen and his wife and another couple moved to a two-bedroom apartment building in Everett.
While he was living there, his wife gave birth to a daughter, the first of five children.
While his wife stayed home with the baby, Nguyen found a job cleaning a wholesale market where other workers had spent the day cleaning vegetables.
“I didn’t speak English, but I did a great job,” he said. “The owner offered me another job, now I have two jobs and work 16-17 hours a day, six days a week.”
After two years, Nguyen rents a three-family house in a neighborhood of Dorchester with a sizable Vietnamese population.
He began to learn how to do construction and repairs, and became adept at laying wooden floors.
Within two years, Nguyen had founded his own construction company. By then, his wife had given birth to their second child.
Nguyen opens American Dry Cleaning
One day while working on Beacon Hill, Nguyen said he discovered a full-service laundry business for sale that includes dry cleaning services and clothing changes.
Not long after buying the business from the older owner who was about to retire, Nguyen sold his construction company to a friend and eventually opened five more laundry and dry cleaning locations. He called his new business American Dry Cleaning.
Nguyen says he was able to buy a piece of land in West Roxbury where he built a house for his growing family.
However, the course of his business life took a detour after making a return visit to Vietnam in 1989.
Nguyen says it was the first time he’d met his mother-in-law, who has since died of cancer.
“She was a very thin woman,” he said. “And she slept on the wooden floor without a mattress like many Vietnamese people.”
“I felt terrible,” said Nguyen. “I tried to get her a mattress, but I can’t find it anywhere. People don’t even know what it is. “
The moment his business plans changed
He said he finally found a piece of foam in a shop.
Nguyen said he paid the equivalent of $ 150 for this item, which he found absurd: “My sister was a doctor and she made $ 17 a month. No wonder nobody had anything like that, ”he said.
When he returned to Boston, Nguyen said he couldn’t stop thinking about “that lovely mattress.”
“In my spare time, I asked myself, ‘Where do you make mattresses in Boston?'”
One day Nguyen walked into a mattress factory in Chelsea and asked the general manager for a tour.
“I just showed up at the front desk and said, ‘I want to learn how to make mattresses because I want to make them in Vietnam,” said Nguyen.
The manager declined his request and suggested that Nguyen pick up an issue of Bed Times Magazine.
One of the ads he spotted in the trade magazine was for a Webster company called Jeffco Fibers, Inc. Nguyen said he had asked about founder and owner Alfred Lonstein, who referred him to his son Jeffrey.
“Jeff shows me around so I can see panels and quilting. Step by step the whole process, ”said Nguyen.
During a recent interview at his US bed office in Fall River, Nguyen answered a call from Jeffrey Lonstein’s son Eric, who now works in his family business selling bedding to Nguyen.
Nguyen went back to his story and said, “I bought a machine and material, put it in a container and sent it to Vietnam.”
The year was 1994 and he hired a brother in Vietnam to help him open not only Nguyen’s first bedding store, but also what is likely the first bedding manufacturing store in the country.
“But I got to market too early,” he said.
Three years later, after his wife underwent open heart surgery and five children were in high school, Nguyen said he had sold his part of the business to his brother in Vietnam.
Nguyen said when his brother sold it in 2005, the deal was “very successful”.
“It was amazing to people,” he said, adding, “that there are many others now. If I hung out I could be a billionaire.”
Nguyen said the first mattress made at the Hanoi factory went to his mother, who has since passed away.
“She was sleeping on that mattress when she died,” he said.
Nguyen opened US Bedding in 2000
Meanwhile, in 2000, Nguyen sold all six of his dry cleaning businesses to his employees to open US Bedding.
He first bought a 25,000 square meter warehouse in Canton. Five years later, Nguyen moved after buying an old mill building on Quarry Street in Fall River.
He recently paid Walmart $ 5.25 million for the former Sam’s Club building less than a mile from its Quarry Street location.
Nguyen says the move will grow his business by leaps and bounds and eventually result in him hiring an additional 100 people.
He and his wife also plan to move from West Roxbury to Tiverton, where Nguyen says he will build a house on farmland that he has bought.
Nguyen says that despite the recent political unrest in the country, he has no intention of changing the name of his company.
“America is the best country in the world,” he said.
“I always tell my friends and kids that if they work hard and are honest, they can basically do what they want,” said Nguyen.