Once a Vietnam refugee, he now runs one of Boeing’s top suppliers

MUKILTEO — Binh Mach’s story is as much about turning around a struggling company as it is about the American Dream.

The 50-year-old Vietnam native came here as a teenage refugee, learned a trade and business, and turned a nearly bankrupt machining company, RB Enterprises, into one of Boeing’s top suppliers.

Mach grew up in Soc Trang, a city in the Mekong Delta southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. He was 11 when communist North Vietnam took over South Vietnam in 1975.

His father buried his discharge papers from South Vietnam’s army. Ladies scraped off their nail polish, worried that communist troops would consider that to be bourgeoisie, he said. “Everybody was afraid.”

Fear became the new normal after the war ended, Mach said.

His family saved enough money so that Mach could bribe his way out of the country in 1982. After a couple of abortive attempts, he made it onto a boat packed with other refugees.

The boat was about 20 feet long and crammed with 147 people, he said.

Mach was part of a mass exodus that saw hundreds of thousands of people flee the communist regime. The refugees became known as “boat people.” Countless people did not survive the passage.

Mach was lucky. He made it to Malaysia, where he began a two-year period of living in refugee camps there and in the Philippines.

Finally, in 1984, he left the camps and settled in Southern California, where his aunt and uncle lived. He took advantage of a state program to enroll in school.

In Soc Trang, Mach had been handy at fixing motorcycle engines. A school counselor suggested he try machining — carving components from a single block of metal — so he signed up. He also was taking English language classes.

His first machining teacher was from India and spoke with a thick accent. Mach said he could barely understand him. “Everything he said, I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Mach built his skills and knowledge as a machinist in Southern California, working for a variety of companies. He realized he excelled at creating prototypes.

“I can look at a drawing and see how I can hold it” in real life, he said.

Problem-solving is part of what he loves about his work at RB Enterprises in Mukilteo. Mach owns the machine company, whose customers include Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Electric.

He works closely with customer engineers to turn their drawings into actual pieces of metal.

RB Enterprises’ shop floor is buzzing most days. There are a couple of dozen milling machines and lathes, each buzzing and whirring as workers create complex components out of hunks of aluminum, titanium and other metals.

“It is the music of my ears,” he said.

He moved to metro Puget Sound in 1997 after he and his wife, Kimberly, had their first child. She has family in the area.

They met on a flight to Vietnam in 1992, shortly after the country allowed refugees to travel there. The plane was full of anxious former refugees, and everyone was chatting with each other, Mach said.

It turned out that his wife grew up about 10 miles from Soc Trang. They had their first date on that trip to Vietnam.

Today, Kimberly helps do the books for RB Enterprises. “I couldn’t do what I do without her,” he said. The couple have two girls and two boys.

After moving to the area, Mach worked for several companies, including Fluke and RB Enterprises, until 2008.

RB Enterprises was almost in bankruptcy by that point. Mach had worked for the company several years earlier. He got along well with the owner but had left because of a conflict with a salesperson, he said.

The owner asked Mach to come back and run the company, but the owner got terminal cancer before that could happen. Instead, Mach said, the owner’s family took it over and nearly ran it into the ground.

So he bought it for almost nothing in 2008. There were six employees.

“They were late on deliveries. They were afraid to pick up the phone,” he said. “That first month, customers just yelled in my ear, ‘Where are my parts?!’ ”

Mach said he put in long hours but managed to clear out the backlog in a few months.

He focused on being out front with customers — working with them to get them what they needed and delivering what he promised for the price he quoted, he said.

Sometimes that meant losing money or working through the weekend on an order. But it was worth it, he said. The company’s reputation improved and its business even expanded during the recession in 2009.

“A lot of people say to run a business, you have to be tricky. I don’t believe that,” Mach said.

Honesty and hard work have been critical to his success, he said.

Today, the company employs 27.

This year, it won a Boeing Supplier of the Year award. Boeing has more than 23,000 suppliers and gave out 14 awards.

What’s more impressive is that RB Enterprises has won the award three years in a row.

Despite the company’s success, Mach doesn’t have plans for grand expansion.

“When you go big, you become out of touch,” he said. “When my employees leave, I’m often still here” working on the shop floor.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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