1999 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Chase your dreams until they become a reality."
Born in China in 1933, a turbulent time in that country's history, Lee Liu spent much of his childhood as a refugee. China had been at war for many years and shortly after Liu was born, his family was forced to flee from the invading Japanese. Lee Liu's father was a high-ranking general in the Chinese Army, with three provinces along China's coast under his command. While he was away fighting in the war, the Liu family traveled hundreds of miles to the relative safety of southern China.
They found temporary housing in an abandoned building and life returned for a time to some semblance of normalcy. After a few years, the family traveled once again to join Liu's father. Eventually, they settled in the province of Fujian. At the end of World War II, Liu's father was appointed governor of Fujian, but he served for only a short time. Civil war broke out in China and Liu's father decided to leave government service. As the war advanced, the Liu family was forced to leave their home, never to return.
They went to Hong Kong with only a small amount of savings. After two years there, it became evident to Liu's father that the communists were going to take over the country. His properties had been confiscated and his vision for China had crumbled. He decided to start a new life in Brazil when Lee Liu was 16.
Arriving in Brazil, where the language was unknown and the culture foreign, Liu, the second eldest of his six siblings, felt an obligation to help his family. He gave up the idea of enrolling in school and became a truck driver for the stone quarry and coffee plantation in which the family had invested.
Soon, however, the family's situation became dire. Liu's father was trying to make a success of their new venture, but he had no background in business or farming. Liu could see the potential of agriculture in Brazil and he wanted to learn all he could about farming so that he could help the family business thrive. He was accepted to the University of Iowa in Ames, where he majored in agriculture. Eventually, Liu decided farming was not for him. His family didn't have the resources to farm on a large scale. In fact, finances were becoming a big problem for him. He had borrowed money for his school tuition. During the week, he worked as a busboy and cleaned the dormitories. On weekends, he worked for the university, recording data for professors in the research laboratory and painting student housing. Those jobs paid for his room and board. He also worked as a pin setter in the student union bowling alley, which earned him 35 cents an hour. He met with the university dean and received permission to structure his course load so that he could graduate in three years, plus one summer session.
Liu changed his major to electrical engineering. After graduation in 1957, Liu went to work for Iowa Electric. In the late 1960s, Liu began making recommendations to the company's senior management on improving the quality of Iowa Electric's service. His ideas were well-received and in 1970 Lee Liu was moved into management. His first assignment was as a member of the senior management team charged with getting the company's nuclear energy plant licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The plant has been in operation since 1974 and is ranked one of the best in the world for reliability. Within a few years, that plant came under Liu's management. From there, he was appointed vice president of engineering, and then became an executive vice president. In 1983, while serving as president and COO of Iowa Electric, the chairman and CEO died. Liu was appointed by the board to take his place.
Liu says he is awed by the challenges and opportunities that have come his way. "We are all given opportunities to perform," he says. "It is up to us to make the most of those chances that come to us. I think it is important to chase your dreams until they become a reality."