April 18, 2011 -- Even though Panda Express is the biggest Chinese fast food chain in the United States, the company's founder and co-CEO said the secret to its success isn't in its tasty orange chicken sauce, but in early morning hikes, Zumba routines and sometimes a good cry.
"When you do life a certain way, it's bound to give you a higher level of probability to succeed and that's what we preach," said Andrew Cherng, the founder and co-CEO of Panda Express.
Every few weeks on Saturdays, Cherng hosts forums at the Panda Express headquarters outside Pasadena, Calif., where his employees dance through Zumba routines, and then participate in a motivational self-help session.
He said he getting people to "change the way they see things" was the most important part of his job.
"I think the biggest thing about Panda is that people that care about what they do," Cherng said.
Over the years, Cherng developed a mandatory four-point action plan for his employees, which he dubbed "The Panda Way." It includes exercise for a healthy lifestyle, continuous learning, developing others and acknowledging others.
"When you have the right habits, okay, certain good things will come to you and that's what life is about," he said.
Cherng's workplace belief system may seem unorthodox but the CEO is something of a self-help addict. He has done several different training seminars with his groups, including Life Academy and Dale Carnegie programs.
"Different training at different time," he said. "The totality is that life is about sort of a buffet of learning and some things that works better for others, different people, so we have an array of things."
His current favorite is Landmark Education, the personal training and development company. Landmark is known for its controversial human potential seminars, which call for participants to experience a personal transformation by revealing and creating a new meaning of life.
Emphasizing 'Caring' Over Food
Panda Express offers a scholarship fund for managers to attend Landmark training programs, and they are strongly encouraged.
"They do the training in three days, they get you to come back and say, 'Wow! I need to do things,'" Cherng said. "I really do see things differently and therefore I'm performing differently…it's a big deal."
Cherng explained that these self-help programs have been a significant part of his transformation into a corporate titan -- Panda Express grossed more than $1.4 billion in revenue last year.
Born in China, Cherng came to the U.S. in 1966 without being able to speak any English. After college, he and his wife opened their first restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., in 1973, where Panda Express's headquarters exists today.
"I wanted to be successful. I definitely didn't want to be poor," Cherng said. "It's a process. There's a lot more to do. There's some areas I've done very well. There's some areas I'm continuing to learn."
Today, Panda Express consists of nearly 1,400 restaurants and employs 18,000 people. Cherng said he sells 65 million pounds of orange chicken every year, but still believes in emphasizing "caring" over food.
"We can have a debate about this," he said. "But when you go to a restaurant, there's a clearly a difference. There are people that care versus where people that don't care. There's a different enjoyment."
Another benefit of the self-help seminars Cherng pointed out was they provide extra education to his workforce, which includes many immigrants and non-college graduates.
"A lot of our managers probably haven't even graduated from high school," he said.
On the weekend retreats, there was an astonishing lack of cynicism and a palpable sense of purpose -- not to mention a good number of hugs. When asked if any of his employees resented being told to participate, Cherng acknowledged that there are some gripes.
"A lot of people didn't want to," he said. "However, I can almost guarantee you that most everyone that goes, they change their mind. They may not go willingly, but after they come back they say, 'wow!'"
Despite being the king of Chinese fast food, Cherng said he usually stays out of the kitchen.
"I think the cooking is being done by many people better qualified than I," he said. "But I think what I'm doing is different cooking, isn't it? I'm cooking up some good chemistry."