In 1989, Philip Maung arrived in the United States from Myanmar with just $13 in his pocket and a dream of making a new life. Today, he is the CEO of Hissho Sushi, a leading company in the US supermarket sushi industry. After spending years learning every facet of the sushi business, he and his wife took the plunge in 1998, pooling their finances to found the business in their family dining room. The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon spoke with him recently about his company’s history and where he plans to take it from here.
Question: What did you do in Myanmar before you left for the United States?
Answer: I was a student and helping out with my parents’ business.
Q: Where and when did you start your sushi business? And what is the meaning of the name?
A: We started out in Charlotte, North Carolina, in April 1998. “Hissho” is a Japanese word that means “certain victory.”
Q: What did you study in Myanmar?
A: I went to medical school first and later somehow ended up as a chemistry major. However, I dropped out of chemistry in my final year. I guess it wasn’t my destiny to become a doctor. I’ve always wanted to help people, and now I can help many by providing jobs. Most of my employees and franchise owners are Burmese.
Q: How many sushi shops do you have now, and how many people do they employ?
A: Hissho currently has over 500 locations in 34 states. Since we are a franchise company, not everyone [who works for Hissho] is our employee. But of those that are, the total is approximately 500.
Q: What is the hardest part of this business? And why did you decide to start a sushi company?
A: Starting a business is always difficult if you’re trying to do it without sufficient capital. I could not get any bank loans because I had no collateral, and no track record. Maintaining cash flow is always a challenge, but at least I can say now that the banks come to me. I opened up Hissho because I learned how the business operated and truly believed I could do it better.
Q: How much did you have to start off with?
A: Hissho was started on a shoestring with money borrowed from credit cards, my meager savings, and loans from my family. I started with virtually nothing, and we’ll make more than US$60 million in revenue this year.
Q: How has sushi culture developed in the US?
A: The sushi culture continues to grow with innovative and delicious “Westernized” creations and we are constantly doing research and development to find new ideas. The public is becoming more familiar with it and the young children are our target market. They love the colors, the textures, and healthy products. The kids are the ones that often drag their parents to buy sushi for them, and in turn learning more about it themselves. But educating the public is an ongoing process as many still think sushi is raw fish.
Q: Who are your biggest customers?
A: We have recently started opening businesses on college and university campuses and have enjoyed tremendous success, and have plans to open even more.
Q: Who are your major competitors?
A: We have many competitors, some large, some small, but since we believe in consistency of product and service, and are always striving to improve, and believe that every single customer should be a friend for life, we continue to grow at a steady pace. We are interested in quality, not quantity.
Q: How do you maintain the quality of your sushi?
A: We continue to use the very best ingredients available on the market with emphasis on sustainability. We train our chefs at our headquarters in Charlotte, and maintain very high standards of customer service, innovative sushi rolls, hot bars, new concepts, and always put the customer first.
Q: Please tell me about your meeting with US President Obama.
A: I was invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to visit the White House, and to attend the President’s Address to Congress. President Obama was touting the success of small businesses and how it was these entities that were helping America get back on its feet after the recession of 2008.
The impact of my being there, and even being seated on the first row of the Gallery next to the First Lady, resound even to this day. The effect was immediate in that I was interviewed by all the major media concerns in the US, and from the media all over Asia.
The attention was something I’d never experienced before, and is humbling for me. Growing up poor in Burma does not prepare anyone to one day be in the presence of the President and First Lady of the United States.
Q: Do you have plans to expand your business to Myanmar?
A: There are no plans to do so at this time, but hopefully, one day, this will become a reality.
Q: What do you think are the main challenges facing foreign businesspeople interested in investing in Myanmar?
A: The infrastructure is the biggest obstacle, and lack of skilled workers is a big challenge. Logistics would also be a challenge that ties into infrastructure.
Q: Have you ever thought about what your life might have been like if you hadn’t left Myanmar?
A: Of course I’ve thought about this, but I didn’t dwell on it because of my entrepreneurial spirit. I can’t imagine how I would’ve ended up if I hadn’t come to the US. Maybe I would be selling something on the street, or in Yuzana Plaza, or opening fashion shops.
This interview first appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.