Andrew Cherng knows this as well as anyone.
Cherng is the founder and chairman of the board of Panda Restaurant Group, which includes Panda Express, the fastest-growing chain of quick-service, Asian cuisine restaurants in the country. Cherng has led Panda Express to the top of its industry thanks in large part to the strategic placement of restaurants in malls and other high-traffic areas.
As Panda Restaurant Group, which includes Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi-San, has grown to include 12,000 employees in 37 states with revenue in excess of $750 million last year, Cherng has not only had to change the way he manages his business, he’s had to change himself.
And that, more than his booming business, seems to be Cherng’s true measure of success.
“Perhaps one of the biggest things we are focused on is personal growth,” says Cherng. “How do we help people to become a better human being? If you become a better human being, you are able to do your job better. This approach is new to us, but it is very clear today that we need to do this.”
Cherng accomplishes this by using Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The book has become a road map, steering him in what he believes is the right direction for his life.
The book presents an inside-out approach to effectiveness and is centered on principles and character. According to the book, change starts from within, and Cherng took that belief and ran with it.
“Most people get on the physical treadmills, but how do you improve mentally, emotionally, spiritually?” asks Cherng. “The total package. Where do you go to become a better father, husband, human being?
“Like anything else, you need to practice. I think, obviously, one of the reason’s I’m intrigued with ‘7 Habits’ is because some of my habits are not very good yet. There are people doing bigger, better things than I’m doing. Look at Jack Welch. He’s doing a lot, and he is living a full life. What’s my excuse?”
When Cherng and his father opened the first Panda Inn [the sit-down predecessor to Panda Express] in Pasadena in 1973, their lives revolved around the restaurant.
“In those days, it was really like a 24/7 kind of a thing,” says Cherng. “Your whole life revolved around the restaurants. I remember basically you would get up, go to work, come home and go to sleep.
“There were no other things that were near as important. The mindset was that you just have to do this.”
Today, Cherng tries to get away from that mindset and “get a life,” as he says. It’s something he also wants for his employees.
Because of that, employees of Panda Express and Cherng’s other restaurants are asked to attend classes to study “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Then, they are asked to put them into practice and teach others. The program has been in place since the middle of last year.
“I think it’s like planting a tree, then giving it time to grow,” Cherng says. “You have to have faith in the system. I feel we’re doing the right thing. It will all show through in the long run.”
Making his employees better has long been a focus for Cherng, who says that when he hires a waiter, he tells himself he’s really hiring a future manager. Nurturing his employees to help them advance in business and in life is a priority.
“One thing I’m in the process of learning is how to be critical without being critical,” says Cherng. “In other words, how can I be critical of something without being critical of the people doing the work? We all have to be good at what we do, but it’s important that we don’t demoralize people. (Being critical) can be a motivating factor or a demotivating factor.”
One of the biggest challenges Cherng faces is finding a way to help people realize they have potential, especially those people who have more potential than they realize.
“Most people can do more if they just think that they are more capable than they give themselves credit for,” he says. “We have a lot of wonderful, hard-working people in this organization, and sometimes they don’t believe in themselves and don’t invest in themselves.
“We are all ordinary people until we find that gift inside that we all have. Unfortunately, most people don’t even open it. I think many people have busy lives and occasional stumbles, and they become somebody that they weren’t intended to be. But some people find that gift one day. I think I’m close to it. At least I’m closer than I used to be.”
Cherng didn’t realize the potential for Panda Express until somebody else steered him in the right direction. In 1983, 10 years after he and his father opened Panda Inn, Cherng was invited by family then-UCLA football coach and family friend Terry Donahue to put a version of Panda Inn in a mall being built in Glendale.
When that first Panda Express did well, Cherng realized that mall traffic [and later, airport, stadium and casino traffic] spelled success for quick-service restaurants.
“It was very accidental,” says Cherng of the origins of Panda Express. “I had never really been to the malls before, at least not in a way where I realized the potential. I never knew about food courts until I was invited to open (the first Panda Express).”
As Panda Express grew, Cherng’s role in the business remained relatively the same. And while he is still very focused on operations, people and real estate, he tries to squeeze more out of his business.
“I’ve always been sort of the visionary and kind of a value keeper,” he says. “I’m the kind of person that will try to get everybody going a little faster.”
While talking about his business, Cherng always comes back to the issue of life and how to make it better. And with that in mind, he started Panda Cares in 1999. The program helps disadvantaged children by providing and aiding local organizations with food and volunteer services.
“That comes from my parents,” says Cherng. “My mother was always helping other people. I think we’re so blessed to have so much. We only do a fraction of what we could give back. But, like anything else, you have to practice. The more we do, the better we get at giving back.”
At 57, Cherng proves that becoming set in your ways doesn’t have to be a byproduct of age. Working on self-improvement and becoming more effective for the future are things he strives for every day.
“‘7 Habits’ is one book I read, but you name it, I read it,” says Cherng. “The more often I go back to it, the better I become. In some ways, I become even more thirsty.
“The most important thing is that we don’t know as much as we think we know. So never stop learning, and be open-minded. Be thirsty. Be curious about any kind of learning. Don’t stop.”
How to reach: www.pandarg.com