He’s co-CEO of a $1.8 billion company, yet Andrew Cherng is constantly challenging himself and every member of his team.
Panda Express encourages continuous personal growth by reimbursing associates for taking classes. It holds Saturday sessions that bring associates together to read books or learn from company leaders.
But perhaps the most interesting story at Panda is Cherng himself. He grew up in Taiwan and lived in Japan as a young man. He was educated at Baker University in Kansas, and as the story goes, he chose Baker because he didn’t have to take the SAT before he enrolled—he wouldn’t have done well because he didn’t speak English when he arrived in the United States, so because of the language barrier, he took only math classes at first.
He and his chef father started what became the Panda Restaurant Group in Pasadena, Calif., 30 years ago; his wife, Peggy, a fellow immigrant and an engineer who holds a Ph.D., joined the company after their children were born. Today Panda Express has more than 1,600 restaurants nationwide, all of them company-owned, and its 23,000 associates are all touched by Cherng’s fervor for self-improvement.
Q: By any measure, yours is a success story. How do you define success?
A: Success is not an accident. When you put yourself in the right place at the right time, then you’re likely to be more successful because of how you prepare yourself on a daily basis.
When more of us at Panda prepare ourselves all the time, we have a different environment. That environment just fosters a different way of being. The environment here is about personal growth, personal well-being. When you are healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually—when you’re doing well, you’re likely to do good things in life. And that’s what we advocate.
For example, if more of us love to run, then we’ll attract people who like to run. That is an environment. The environment is a way you see the future. One person at a time.
Q: You run a large company, yet you focus on details. Why do you see the small as well as the big picture?
A: It takes both. If you want to do well in life financially, then you have to start with dollars and cents. Those are details. So every penny means something. People who are successful tend to take care of those little things very well. And then they also accumulate credit, resources and do whatever it is that you need in life—that’s a preparation for success.
I pay attention to every little thing. If my restaurants are cleaner, that means our people are collectively paying more attention to what’s important. So if the whole company is doing that, you’ll feel the difference when you visit the restaurants.
Q: How do you set that tone with employees?
A: One person at a time. If you go to Japan and walk around, everybody is very orderly, very polite. Their places are clean, and people are nice. It’s just a different way of being, a different way of living your life.
How you drive, how you speak to each other, how respectful you are—it’s how much heart and soul you put into every minute of your life. We all can do a better job. And when we do, we get rewarded. The reward may come in just being happy or in other people being happy. When you do your job well, your customer feels that—and your business blossoms.
Our job is to ask our people, every one of them, to pay a little bit more attention. We should ask them: Are you being mindful? Are you putting your heart into the work? Are you passionate about your work? Are you loving your environment? Our job is to raise everyone’s level of understanding and caring.
Q: And this is what you’re accomplishing with the focus on personal development?
A: Look at someone who gets up in the morning, goes to work out, then gets to work versus someone who rolls out of the bed, is not quite awake and rushes to work. When you are on your game, you’re present all the time.
Q: Is this something you look for when you hire people?
A: We definitely try. I interview everyone who comes to work for the home office, and I’ve done that for many years because I care. I want to set a good example.
Q: What would summarize your business philosophy in a sentence?
A: The Panda mission really speaks to our philosophy. It is: “Deliver exceptional Asian dining experiences by building an organization where people are inspired to better their lives.” I’m talking about everyone who works at Panda. They’re inspired to better their own lives.
Q: Do you think your background as an immigrant influenced what you’re trying to do in this mission statement?
A: This really has a lot to do with personal beliefs and what I believe in, what resonates with me.
I see a business environment like a soil condition. You have ground, the weather, the water. The environment that we’re trying to create here is of a fertile soil. Every one of us is in this together. So when we create that fertile soil, you could put anything in that soil and it will grow.
So our job, for every one of us, is to make sure that we do that. We do that so when people come in here, coming to this piece of dirt—this environment—they’ll grow. They’ll grow naturally, because all the nutrients, all the good things are here.