By Tonya Jameson
Seven sushi chefs spread rice, tuna, cucumber and other accompaniments onto sheets of seaweed inside of Hissho Sushi’s prep kitchen. A watchful corporate trainer watches to make sure each roll is perfect.
Every aspect of making a sushi roll, from the ingredients to how items are sliced and placed on trays, is controlled at Hissho Sushi. As the chefs prepare roll after roll, Hissho Sushi owner and CEO Philip Maung walks into the kitchen clapping.
“I have to taste the sushi,” Maung says with a smile.
In the last 18 years, Maung has tasted a lot of sushi in his test kitchen. Maung and his fiancé, Kristina launched Hissho Sushi in their Charlotte home in 1998. Today, Hissho is a multimillion dollar food service and distribution company. Hissho manages and operates more than 875 sushi and pan Asian hot bars in grocery stores, airports, hospitals and universities in 39 states across the country.
Locally, Hissho Sushi is available at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Dean & DeLuca, Soul Gastropub and Earth Fare.
“Philip has been a great example for everybody, especially for international community and minority community,” says Eileen Cai, vice president of economic and Asian development at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. “He also helped the community here and encourages everybody that as long as you work hard, you have faith, you can be successful.”
Maung’s life is a true rags-to-riches tale of an immigrant who believed in the American dream. He left Burma his senior year of college to finish his college education in America in 1989. Business books and the school of hard knocks taught him how to survive and thrive in America. He had $13 and determination. Eventually, Maung made his way to Charlotte from Los Angeles. A stint as a sushi chef at Harris Teeter in SouthPark sparked an idea that would lead to Maung’s sushi career.
The early years were hard. Banks wouldn’t loan him any money. Maung maxed out his credit cards, tapped his savings, borrowed money from family and launched Hissho, which he says means “Certain Victory” in Japanese.
“As an immigrant, coming to a new country is a challenge,” he says. “You have limited resources, no connections, no money. Starting from scratch is very tough, especially when you want to do business. I knocked on every door in town and no one was willing to talk to you because you have no background and no success story.”
Today, everyone wants to talk to Maung. In 2011, he was President Barack Obama’s guest during Obama’s speech to Congress about the economy and jobs. In 2012, Maung was featured as a small business success story during the Democratic National Convention. Hissho’s headquarters on Steele Creek Road has a media wall full of magazine covers showing Maung’s face.
Hissho’s success garners headlines, but Maung is more proud of the values that guide the company. In the early years at Hissho, the company was growing, but employee morale was withering.
“I was so tired. I looked around and lots of my people were so tired,” he says.
May Vang, director of finance, was so tired that she left. She started with Hissho as a receptionist in the early 2000s. She stuck around for eight years, but eventually grew tired of the work-work-work atmosphere.
“It was very corporate style,” she says. “I didn’t get the sense that there was a lot of teamwork and communication.”
Vang wasn’t the only employee to leave. Turnover was high. Maung knew something had to change. He credits the book “Good To Great” with inspiring him to change his office culture. He never finished college, but he is an avid reader. After reading “Good To Great,” Maung realized that working himself and his employees to death wouldn’t lead to long-term success.
He changed the corporate feel of the office. His cubicle is a tiki bar with a mini-refrigerator full of sake and wine. Other cubicles have Asian kites and lanterns, and one is made to look like a wild jungle. Every office employee’s birthday is celebrated. There are afternoon workouts featuring yoga and weight training. There’s a heavy bag for boxing in the conference training room.
Hissho fielded teams in the annual Charlotte Dragon Boat Festival. The Hissho Family Tree, a giant brown paper tree, climbs one office wall. Its branches spread above the whiteboard containing the company’s latest projects. The leaves are paper hand cutouts with the names of employees and their family members.
“It was one of my proudest moments,” says Maung, regarding the culture shift.
He’s also a proud family man. He and Kristina eventually married and have two sons, Colin, 12, and Ryan, 14.
Hissho Sushi is a turnkey operation, which means everything for its locations throughout the country is distributed from the Hissho headquarters in Charlotte.
Part of the culture change meant Maung stopped micromanaging day-to-day operations. He learned to trust his staff. Maung and his staff created 11 core values such as “generate fun” as guiding principles. The values emphasize quality of life over business.
“We just don’t want the culture on the wall. We want to make sure it’s a culture that we can live in every day of your life,” says Maung, who is wearing his business attire: a T-shirt and running shoes. “You need to live it and practice it from the top down. People need to see that you believe in it. People will follow.”
Vang watched her former company on Facebook. Photos showed ice cream parties and games.
“I seemed to see a lot of change; in a lot of pictures, a lot of the people were happy,” she says. “It just seemed like a fun place to work.”
After four years away, Vang returned to Hissho and became director of finance. She’s also on the Hissho Foundation Committee, which coordinates activities to garner donations for local charities.
“I love working here. It’s one of those jobs you definitely wake up every morning and you want to get here,” she says. “The environment here, the people here– I actually enjoy coming every morning.”
Maung says his biggest mistake was that he didn’t understand the importance of creating a positive work environment sooner. Now he does.
“We measure our success with how well our people are doing. It’s more important,” he says. “How we can make our people’s lives better is more important to us.”
Couple that with making tasty sushi, and that’s a recipe for success.