By Rebecca Beyer
When Jun Xu ’07 and his wife, Peggy Hsieh, agreed to help her father in his acquisition of Brighton-Best International, a family-owned industrial fastener business, they vowed to keep the company intact and retain its approximately 300 U.S.-based employees.
More than a decade later, they’ve done that and much more. When they took over the business, the company was doing about $72 million in global sales, including $48 million in the United States. Today, those numbers are more than $750 million and $600 million, respectively, and nearly 600 people are employed in the United States (the company also operates in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Brazil).
“The business has grown quite a bit,” Xu says.
Xu and Hsieh were both working at Bank of America when the Brighton-Best opportunity came along. After joining Brighton-Best in 2008, Xu is now president, and Hsieh is chief operating officer. With acquisitions, increased efficiencies through the use of an online ordering system, and expansion into new product areas—including, fortuitously, personal protective equipment a few years before the COVID-19 pandemic—Brighton-Best has become the largest wholesale distributor of fasteners (think nuts and bolts and screws and washers) in the United States, with about 6,000 distributors around the world.
Xu was born in China and lived there until he was six years old when he, his brother, and his mother moved to the United States to join his father, who had been earning a PhD at Louisiana State University. When Xu was 10, the family moved to South Carolina, where Xu’s parents both worked at GE. Xu attended the University of California—Berkeley and planned to go to medical school but soon realized he “didn’t enjoy the field.”
“I was working in a lab studying MS and how calcium concentrations affected muscle cells,” he says, “but, no matter how cool the project was, at the end of the day, I was stuck in a small room shooting lasers through muscle cells over and over again.”
For a change of pace, Xu took an introduction to business class and “fell in love with it.”
“I loved how commonsense and intuitive it was,” he says. “Business was a breath of fresh air.”
After graduating, Xu worked for several years as a consultant, including at BearingPoint under Phil Davis ’85, whom Xu considers a mentor.
“There’s a perception in business that you have to be loud and extroverted and command a room to be a leader,” he says. “Phil listened more than he talked. It was a style that really appealed to me.”
Because Davis and another superior at BearingPoint—Jeffrey Ball ’99—had both gone to the Yale School of Management, that was the first place Xu considered when he began to think about how he could advance in his career.
Xu was interested in transitioning to a career in the financial sector, so he says he took a “practical approach” at SOM, focusing exclusively on hard-skills classes such as accounting and finance.
“I even took a class on how to price options by hand,” he laughs. “Anything that was soft—organizational behavior—I bypassed.”
Looking back, Xu says he would have done things differently.
“Now I realize finance is an art, not a science,” he says. “We’ve bought many businesses at Brighton-Best, and, since I joined, none of those conversations have been about the assumptions in our discounted cash flow model. They’re about getting a feel for a person, finding a level of trust, paying homage to their history. When I was at Yale, I didn’t realize or understand that.”
Under the leadership of Xu and Hsieh, Brighton-Best has thrived, even during the pandemic. In 2016, they made a decision to expand into personal protective equipment, with a focus on the construction industry, so they had N-95 masks when that product began to disappear from shelves in early 2020. They began to hold masks back for their staff and customers but, by April 2020, they were sold out like everyone else.
“If we had an open box half full in a warehouse, someone would have bought it,” he says.
Brighton-Best is considered an essential business, so it stayed open throughout the shutdowns, prioritizing its employees’ health by allowing non-warehouse staff to work from home and requiring masks, deep cleaning, and social distancing on site.
The company kept bringing in product, even when the cost of shipping containers skyrocketed.
“I’d rather risk losing money than risk losing customers,” Xu says. “Thankfully that worked out for us.”
As he thinks about the future, Xu says he often reflects on SOM’s mission of developing leaders for business and society.
“A business is really a singularity—it has a single-minded goal: making more revenue,” he says. “But society is a plurality, with so many goals and so many mindsets.”
Xu has started taking on leadership roles outside Brighton-Best, including on the boards of his former high school, the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, and of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County.
“Education is so important to me,” he says. “Even if I don’t work in it, I’m still a big proponent of it. I don’t really know what the future is, but I do believe that if you run a good business, it can be a platform for you to explore other interests.”
Interviewed on June 7, 2022