Alumni Story: From Dentist to CEO

Posted on: Wednesday, 06/06/2018

From Dentist to CEO

UCLA Dentistry alumnus and former practicing dentist, Dr. Steve Lee, Class of 1975, approaches his current profession the same way he approached his dental practice. “When my wife and I bought our first business in the food industry, I analyzed why it had failed for the previous owners – similar to examining a rotten tooth or tooth decay,” said Steve. “I went through the equivalent of the business’ patient records to learn why the business had failed. And then I created a treatment plan to bring it back to life.”

Steve practiced dentistry for nearly 20 years before switching to his current profession – an entrepreneur and business owner in the food industry. He is president and CEO of Jessie Lord Bakery, which supplies pies to major grocery store chains throughout the United States. He is also the owner of Monterey Park-based Sweety Novelty, an ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturer. “I’m very busy with pies during the holidays and with ice cream in the summer,” joked Steve. Being president of Shine Foods, a manufacturer of frozen Chinese dim sum dumplings, his third company, keeps him busy all year round.

As one of the first foreign-trained dentists to be admitted to the Professional Program for International Dentists at UCLA, Steve first became interested in UCLA after working alongside Dr. John Knutson, a founding professor at the dental school. At the time, Dr. Knutson was conducting research in Taiwan with the World Health Organization and Steve was a resident doctor at National Taiwan University Hospital.

“I was happy in Taiwan being a dentist, but I began to have a thirst for more knowledge and the possibility of something different was planted in my head,” said Steve.

Steve entered UCLA in 1972, and recalls being impressed with the intellectual curiosity displayed by his fellow student dentists. “In Taiwan, we accepted whatever information the professors shared without question. At UCLA Dentistry, we learned how to innovate and create knowledge.” Following graduation, he remained affiliated with the university through teaching in the Section of Restorative Dentistry at UCLA from 1975 until 1989, while also managing a practice in Santa Monica. During this time, he and his wife, Tracy, kept busy raising three children; they never intended to own a bakery, let alone a dessert and dumpling business.

“It’s a funny story of how I got into the food industry. Tracy loved Baskin Robbins so we applied for a franchise but they questioned our commitment to being a franchise owner since I was a dentist,” said Dr. Lee. “I guess we proved them wrong.”

Refusing to take no for an answer, Steve enrolled in an ice cream course at UC Davis in the Food Science and Technology Department. Applying his study skills and science coursework from dental school, he started making ice cream with Tracy on the weekends. This is how their first business, Sweety Novelty, was born in 1985. After growing the ice cream business, he continued to seek new challenges. In 1996, the couple learned of an opportunity to purchase a failing Asian foods company, Shine Foods, that made dumplings, and shortly after that acquisition, they took over Jessie Lord Bakery in 2003. Not only does Steve have an aptitude for dentistry, but he is also talented in buying and reviving failing businesses. Today, Jessie Lord Bakery produces and distributes 20 million pies per year to its customers.

“I believe I am successful because quality is at the heart of everything I do. When I was a dentist, I knew my patients would come back if I focused on providing the best care and creating a beautiful smile. In the food industry, I also focus on quality and aesthetics,” said Steve. “We’ve also brought in our son, Sean, to work in the family business. He has an eye for quality and a mind for business, having graduated from the UCLA Anderson MBA program.”

Of course, there’s a part of Steve that misses dentistry. “I miss the connections I had with my patients. They became my friends,” he said. “Even though I’m not a practicing dentist, the profession will always be something that I come back to in some way. Now, I just apply my dental skills in different ways.”