The Tangra district of Calcutta, India, in the 1960s was a place of bare brutality, stuffed with fetid tanneries, trash dumps and unpaved roads. Few people from Tangra make it big, especially the ethnic Hakka Chinese, who settled there about 100 years ago.
Dan Chu did.
Today the 51-year-old is the picture of Wall Street sophistication, a well-connected banker in the booming business of mining mergers and acquisitions. His clients include Alpha Natural Resources and Massey Energy, who are combining in a $7 billion deal, as well as India’s Hindalco Industries Ltd. and ArcelorMittal.
Most of his colleagues at UBS don’t know his story, which began in a tannery where he shared one room with his parents, brother and sister.
“He doesn’t talk about it, so there’s a little bit of a mystique around it,” Cary Kochman, joint global head of M&A for UBS, says of Mr. Chu’s background. “I’ve gotten to know bits and pieces over the years. However, one thing was always clear to me—Dan Chu is comfortable anywhere in the world.”
The Hakka historically have been second-class citizens in India. Most earned a living tanning the cowhides Hindus wouldn’t handle.
Mr. Chu grew up speaking Hakka, the local dialect of his group, which means “guest people.” Before and after school, Mr. Chu helped with the backbreaking tasks of the tannery—polishing leather hides, hammering nails into them to help them dry and then removing the nails by hand.
His father served as principal of the local Chinese school, sold life insurance and was a travel agent. His mother, who sold homemade rice liquor as a child, ran the tannery.
With trash dumps behind them and the main Calcutta business area about 45 minutes away by scooter, the whole village shared one address—47 South Tangra Rd.
“I didn’t give too much thought about what I was going to do when I grew up,” he says. “I didn’t have dreams of leaving because I couldn’t imagine it.”
By age 14, Mr. Chu was studying in a Catholic boarding school where most of the other students were from middle-class families.
In Tangra on a break from school, members of a Protestant congregation in Tempe, Ariz., visited as part of a fund-raising effort for the building of a local school and church. They passed out old Christmas cards to entice children to come to church.
Over a dinner of local Hakka-style Chinese food, Mr. Chu sat next to a visiting American. It was a conversation that would change Mr. Chu’s life. Moved by the local conditions, the visitor, Fred Still, eventually sponsored Mr. Chu’s move to Phoenix.
Arriving at age 17, he lived with the Stills family. His only knowledge of the U.S. was what he saw in Hollywood movies. At night he listened to the radio, trying to mimic the American accent. He also tried to adjust to American food such as salads that he had never eaten, and milk that was served cold. He was fascinated by school pep rallies.
After school, he mowed lawns, painted houses and washed cars. The Stills wanted him to become a missionary. Mr. Chu instead found his way to Arizona State University, of Phoenix.
With a small scholarship for foreign students, he plunged into the then-arcane world of computers. He also took up accounting, expecting such skills would be helpful for staying in the U.S. At night he worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, eventually becoming assistant manager.
After graduation in 1982, he moved to Midland, Texas, working as a data auditor at First National Bank of Midland.
He became a permanent U.S. resident and brought over his entire family, who later opened an Italian sandwich-and-pizza shop.
On a lark, he applied to Harvard Business School. He believes he was accepted on the basis of his recommendations, including one from the owner of the Chinese restaurant where he had worked.
The back of the Chu’s Tangra tannery in Calcutta, where hides were dried, polished and trimmed.
When he arrived in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Chu had no idea what investment banking was. Nonetheless, he was thrilled to land an interview at Dillon, Reed & Co. in 1989, then a boutique bank known for its patrician pedigree, though he actually thought he was interviewing at Dean Witter.
Hired by Dillon, Reed, he plowed into a range of investment-banking work, such as mergers, recapitalizations and bonds. He didn’t have any preference for what he worked on and “did whatever was left over.”
After Dillon Read became a part of UBS in 1997, steel banker Dieter Hoeppli took Mr. Chu under his wing. They traveled around the globe at a time when the metals-and-mining sector was expanding into emerging markets such as China, Russia and India.
When Hindalco Industries, an aluminum and copper producer, was looking to do its first U.S. deal in 2007, the $6 billion acquisition of Atlanta’s Novelis, the Indian company relied on Mr. Chu.
“He was instrumental in guiding the deal,” says Hindalco Managing Director Debu Bhattacharya. “But he doesn’t try to impose himself. He is a man of humility and flexibility.”
About 30 years after leaving Tangra, Mr.Dan Chu returned to his hometown while on a business trip. The tanneries had moved and his home was gone, replaced by a group of Chinese and Indian-Chinese restaurants.
Today he can easily provide a comfortable life in Kennett Square, Pa., for his two daughters, 10 and 12 years old.
Still, he says he wants his children to appreciate what they have since he “clawed and scrapped for everything.” He has suggested that his daughters eventually work at McDonald’s to learn about hard work.
“If I added up the entire earnings of my family in India, it wouldn’t exceed $1,000,” Mr. Chu says.