Nancy Cho spent part of her childhood cooking for siblings, working odd jobs, and watching her mom run the family. Now she’s using those lessons as CEO of an Eastside golf powerhouse.
When Nancy Cho’s mom taught her and her siblings to golf as teens, Cho had no idea how that one family experience would eventually tie in with her future career.
Now 55, Cho is president and CEO of Oki Developments, the Bellevue-headquartered owner and developer of 11 premier Puget Sound-area golf courses. And, as it turns out, golfing was one of just many skills Cho learned from her mother that would serve her well in the future.
When Cho was 10, her father died after a long battle with cancer, leaving Cho’s mother, Vicky Ishimitsu, to raise four children on her own. Ishimitsu, a second-generation Japanese American, was 36 years old and a stay-at-home mom at the time. After her husband’s death, Ishimitsu went to work as a secretary, while Cho and her siblings — two older sisters and a younger brother — helped out at their South Beacon Hill home.
“One of the benefits of growing up in a single-parent household is you become very self-sufficient,” Cho said. “You learn how to figure things out, and you develop problem-solving skills.”
Cho’s favorite responsibility was cooking for the family on weeknights. She kept a set of cookbooks in her locker at Rainier Beach High School and would grocery shop before taking the bus home to cook. Cho enjoyed her role as family chef, sometimes cooking meals large or intricate enough to require every pot in the house. Anything with ground beef was a favorite; the tortillas in her enchiladas were made from scratch.
“I loved it. It was fun. I learned how to make many different dishes,” Cho said. “I love serving people.”
Cho and her siblings didn’t play sports or participate in other after-scool activities, but she never felt like she was sacrificing her youth by helping out at home. A strong sense of responsibility and the skills learned kept Cho busy during her teen years and helped shape the woman she is today.
When Cho was 14, she went to The Burger Bar at the Seattle Center to ask for a job. The owner told her if she came back in a year, he’d hire her. That was her first restaurant job, and it was followed by a stint as a waitress at Mr. Steak.
Cho was independent in her teen years and enjoyed working. She bought her first car at 17, paid for car insurance, and got her own phone line. That self-sufficiency carried over to college. After high school, Cho moved out on her own to attend the University of Washington full-time while also working a full-time job. After two years, she quit school to open Amico’s Pizza, a small restaurant in Magnolia, with a friend. The partners used money they’d saved working in restaurants to start the business, and frugality dictated their early decisions. They bought most of their equipment at auctions and handled renovations themselves.
“I got a lot of experience working every position from dawn to dusk,” Cho said.
While operating Amico’s, Cho realized accounting acumen would help her better run a business. So in the mid 1980s, Cho handed over her share of the restaurant to her partner and returned to college to study business and accounting. To pay for this round of school, Cho worked as a cocktail waitress. In the fall of 1986, Cho began work as a certified public accountant for Coopers & Lybrand in Seattle.
In the early 1990s, Cho met Scott Oki, founder and chairman of Oki Developments. The two served together on the board of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, which Oki also had founded. Oki had started his golf course business after retiring from Microsoft, and Cho was attracted to his vision, passion, and record of accomplishments. Oki asked her to join the company as CFO in 1993. Cho became president in 1995, and was promoted to CEO in 2007.
“It was the perfect opportunity for me,” Cho said. “Scott is a real go-getter, and it’s been an incredible experience turning his vision into reality.”
Oki hired Cho because of her accounting background, and she was an immediate asset to the company.
“As the golf business grew, I knew we needed to keep a keen eye on making sure the numbers worked and the business ran as envisioned,” Oki said. “It was a no-brainer to promote Nancy to president/COO and then to CEO. I totally trust her.”
Working out of Oki’s Bellevue headquarters, Cho spends the majority of her time establishing the company’s strategy and vision, improving brand recognition, and honing the office culture. Cho said she really enjoys her job and the talented, committed team she works with.
“It’s fun to come to work,” she said. “Every day we get the opportunity to solve problems, make improvements, find ways to add value, and learn something new.”
Cho usually starts her day by reading various newspapers and getting to her Bellevue office by 9 a.m. She spends her mornings in meetings with direct reports or in team meetings. Throughout the month, she meets with the general managers of each Oki property, and sometimes visits the sites if needed. Her hours vary depending on the time of year and her family’s needs.
“I am fortunate to have a lot of flexibility, which is important when you are a working mom,” Cho says.
Cho is a self-professed research nut. She spends much of her time studying consumer behavior and trends, reviewing surveys and guest feedback, and, of course, drilling down into the numbers.
“When working on anything, I always begin with the goal in mind. What are we trying to accomplish both short- and long-term? I continually strive for improvement. How can we make the guest experience better? Is there a more efficient or effective way to do things?”
Though Cho focuses on numbers, Oki said she significantly impacts the company on a less tangible level. He hailed her ability to hire and retain skilled employees, which has helped the company establish a productive culture.
Once an employee is hired, Cho strives to give him or her the tools necessary for success. Cho sets expectations up front and checks in with staff enough to know that the work is getting done without micromanaging the process. She thinks of herself as a background worker, one who implements rather than leads.
“I’m very collaborative, inquisitive, and inclusive,” Cho said. “I don’t care how the work gets done, as long as the end result is met.”
Cho is one of the few female executives in the golf world. With fewer than 25 percent of adult golfers being women, it isn’t surprising that women constitute only a handful of golf managers. She believes one reason there are so few women managers in golf is that executives in the industry typically come from male-dominated fields. They are often golf professionals, course superintendents, or hospitality professionals, she said. In other businesses, companies are typically led by someone with a strong background in sales, business, finance, or marketing, and these executives are often men.
Despite the lopsided number of men in the industry, Cho doesn’t feel her gender or ethnicity has negatively affected her career.
One challenge she does face is juggling the demands of raising a family while running a company. At the end of a workday, Cho enjoys spending time with her husband Casey, who is retired, and their daughters, Kara, 14, and Jada, 11, in their Issaquah home.
“My favorite part of the day is going home and having dinner with my family,” Cho says. “It is something I look forward to.”
Married for 14 years, the couple enjoys cooking together, watching their daughters play sports (Kara plays soccer, and Jada is on soccer and volleyball teams), and cheering on Seattle’s pro sports teams. Cho particularly enjoys having family dinners together every night.
“I love the dinner conversation,” Cho said. “The girls have interesting insights and opinions.”
After they’ve walked the dog and done homework, the family watches Project Runway or So You Think You Can Dance? together. They also enjoy playing games like Bananagrams, Apples to Apples, and Dixit, and cooking and baking. They recently learned how to make fresh pasta and ravioli, and Cho boasts they can whip up a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies in less than 30 minutes.
“I like to just be at home. I’m a homebody,” said Cho.
When not at home, the Cho family likes to golf, a tradition she and her husband started while they were dating. Her favorite local course is China Creek at the Golf Club at Newcastle. Cho is a high handicap player, but she enjoys being outdoors and has been accused by golf partners of being more interested in the food cart than improving her swing.
Cho’s advice to other women interested in a top-level job, regardless of industry:
“Follow your passion, and before investing time and passion, really make sure it is something you’re interested in.”