Assume You’ve Been Hired by the ‘Immigrant Biz’ Website
And my student’s blog post — Indonesian Immigrant Gunther Salim’s Successful Flooring Business
In my AP Macroeconomics course this past semester, I challenged my students.
“Assume,” I said, “that you been hired by the Immigrant Biz website to write a blog post describing an immigrant’s successful small business.”
One of my students, Gabriela S., readily accepted my challenge and after several drafts produced the blog post appearing below.
Indonesian Immigrant Gunther Salim’s Successful Flooring Business
When you hear the phrase, “started from the bottom,” what comes to mind?
The majority of people I know probably think of the second-best song of 2013, Started from the Bottom, with this song commonly described as “a celebration of rapper Drake’s journey from the bottom of life to the top.”
However, when I think of this phrase, my mind drifts not to a song but to Gunther Salim’s very successful San Gabriel Valley flooring business.
Salim was born in Palembang, Indonesia and like many immigrants who grew up in poverty came to the United States in hopes of getting a college education.
Salim immigrated in 1983 to attend Cal State Fullerton with a plan to major in computer science, though he eventually came to the conclusion that “computer science” wasn’t suited for him.
So after college, he returned to Indonesia to manage his father’s timber and lumber sawmill business; then, a decade or so later and at age 33, Salim “officially immigrated” to the U.S. where he, to make ends meet, helped his brother sell persimmons to local markets off that back of a pickup truck.
Seeing “Gunther” barely get by, Salim’s father sent him a large box of Southeast Asian wood flooring samples with the hope that his son would use the samples to start a flooring business somewhere in California.
Salim’s first customer was a spa in Pasadena and with the money he earned, he bought his first warehouse, Tropical Flooring.
For 20 years, Tropical Flooring has been an industry-leading, nationwide distributor of hardwood flooring. Based in Southern California, Tropical works directly with manufacturers that use raw material taken only from sustainable forests in different parts of Europe and Asia, to develop flooring products based on your needs and preferences. With a breadth of experience spanning the entire product development cycle, Tropical continues to find innovative ways to bring you the latest in flooring technology without compromising the beauty and integrity of its products.
Originally headquartered in El Monte, Salim single-handedly spread his business to several other locations in the San Gabriel Valley. He also opened up stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Now, you’re probably wondering, why is this business called tropical flooring, given that it is solely located on the east and west coast of the United States?
Well, Salim takes a lot of pride in his Indonesian background and therefore makes every effort to give tribute to that background within his work. The name of the company comes from the fact that the wood species the company imports comes directly from tropical climates in Southeast Asia.
I also find it quite wholesome that he chooses the names of his flooring collection and colors from his everyday life. You’ll find that some collections are named after Balinese/ Indonesian cities. You may also find that some collections are called “Melville” or “Shenandoah” which are some of the street names right here in San Marino where Salim lives.
The team at Tropical Flooring has shared that their greatest successes consist of “growing our [their] product selection, customer base, and logistics network.”
On the other hand, their biggest challenges took place during the pandemic, unsurprisingly. Due to the rapid change of technology and uprisings in the business world, Tropical flooring has had to adapt to changes in the home renovation market, rising supply chain costs, and the adoption of new technologies.
Their way of producing flooring is constantly improving. It’s quite astonishing how this business was built from the ground up, and has endured many years of great change even post COVID. Examples of changes in their business during COVID are the huge spikes in e-commerce, and the unpredictable supply chain.
The largest struggle about starting a business from scratch, says Salim, is how to grow that business for it to be successful and sustainable. Tropical Flooring’s story on how they became successful is not truly out of the ordinary. From their first customer to the next, referrals are what kept their business going. Along with traditional marketing strategies, word-of-mouth was a powerful factor in keeping the business alive. Wood flooring does not seem like a high-in-demand business, especially with multiple companies supplying similar products. However, Tropical Flooring stands out because of its premium color selection and memorable customer service.
Although that may sound ingenuine and cliche, the small team of employees at Tropical is genuinely dedicated to the company and has stayed with the company since the beginning. They are a close-knit team that respects each other and their boss, Gunther Salim.
An important aspect of a successful business is the bond that its workers share. Salim places interest in employees who are struggling financially as a way to help them get back on their feet. This creates a sense of gratitude and appreciation between Gunther and his employees.
Gunther Salim is an immigrant who has gone from living in a third-world country to one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in California. His life was built by his own hands but he never strays from his core values. He always carries a perception of humbleness and gratitude. Salim often expresses how grateful he is for the way his life has panned out. This is visible from the way he has never shown up later than 8:30 am sharp to work every single day for 30 years. This is visible from his way of establishing close relationships with his employees as he cherishes the work they put out. This is visible from his sole dedication to his own business that has now grown to several locations in the United States. So why Tropical Flooring? The answer is simple. Their business revolves around compassion and quality, which is rare nowadays.