To L&L president, 'making money is a hobby'
Interviewed by David Butts
Advertiser Staff Writer
Eddie Flores Jr.
Who is Eddie Flores? Take your pick: He is president of a chain of 65 plate-lunch restaurants, expanding rapidly on the Mainland. He was a prime mover behind the building of the new Filipino Community Center in Waipahu, the largest private facility dedicated to Filipino culture outside the Philippines. He was a staunch backer of Linda Lingle in her race for governor. He unsuccessfully waged a 3-year fight against lawsuits over access for the disabled at his restaurants.
He is nothing if not driven. And he has been that way since an early age.
Flores was born in Hong Kong to a Filipino father and Chinese mother. His family moved to Hawai'i, where his mother had lived before the marriage. With six brothers and sisters and not much money to go around, Flores can't remember a time when he wasn't trying to make money. He used to buy watermelons and sell slices to his siblings. He never collected the money; he gave them credit to buy the slices and noted how much he was owed in a journal. Still it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with making money. "To me making money is a hobby. I still like to count my money."
When it came time to go to high school, money was so tight that Flores was sent to live with an uncle in San Francisco. The uncle paid for Flores to come by ship. Flores worked throughout his high school years and upon graduating, paid his own airfare back to Hawai'i and reimbursed his uncle for the ship fare over.
As a student at the University of Hawai'i, Flores made as much as $1,000 a week by renting films of soccer matches and showing them on weekends at Kuykendall Hall. There was no soccer on TV in Hawai'i at that time although many foreigners living here loved the sport. Flores could pack the hall for three showings, selling tickets at $1.25 a head. "I used to drive a nice car," he recalls of his college days.
Favorite book: "How to Win Friends and Influence People," by Dale Carnegie. "In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies," by Thomas Peters.
Favorite Web site or search engine: Expedia.com
Most remembered mentor: "My parents instilled discipline. My mom is very entrepreneurial. My wife keeps me grounded. My partner (Johnson Kam) is the hardest-working guy I've ever known."
Best part of the job: "A lot of freedom." Flores always saves time for his family. Flores leaves the office each day at 1 or 2 p.m. to pick up his teenage children and drive them to their activities. From 3 to 4 p.m. he takes a nap; it gives him the energy to attend community meetings at night.
Worst part of the job: "Complaints from franchisees. People are never happy with what we do."
Best decision as a leader: Expanding the franchise to the Mainland.
Taking on... Competition
The issue: Flores says there are about 50 plate-lunch restaurants in Hawai'i that compete directly with L&L Drive-Inn. His expansion to the Mainland is in part because there is less competition. "In the Mainland, my greatest fear is Chinese immigrants will copy my concept."
How does he handle the inevitable growth in competition? He points to three things. First, "you've got to have a brand name, like L&L." Second is a good location. "If I see a location for one day, I can tell if it is good." He watches the traffic and counts the employees at nearby shops. "I walk in a store. If they have only two people (working there), I know they are not doing well."
The third key to competing is "very dedicated employees." Flores accomplishes this in a novel way. "We give the employees the key. It's your baby." When he is looking to expand, Flores identifies hard-working employees at his restaurants and offers them the opportunity to own a new outlet. "Typically they are Chinese immigrant cooks, all young, work hard, 16-hours a day, six days a week." The new employee-owners start with 20 percent to 40 percent ownership, often thanks to a loan from L&L. Eventually they will own it all and only pay franchise royalties to L&L. Flores gives credit to his partner, Kam, for this system. "I've never seen a man so generous." It also works to motivate the employee-owners. "As an entrepreneur ... you will do anything to survive."
With the power of L&L behind them, these immigrant owners can get leases at better locations. Flores says most established shopping centers won't lease to a person with little history in the Islands. "We guarantee the lease."
One concept that Flores says has added to his success is allowing each restaurant to be different. "Conventional wisdom in the Mainland is everything has to be standardized. I don't believe it. Every place is a little different."