Survival Lessons From Mr. Saimin

Susan Page
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Wednesday - March 25, 2009
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A couple of weeks ago over a bowl of ono saimin and an order of crispy gaugee, Shiro Matsuo, aka “Mr. Saimin,” and I chatted about the huge government bailouts that have most Americans quite annoyed. At 90, Shiro has had more business success with less help than anybody I know. We chuckled about how there will be no big government bailout for him.

Not that he needs one. Just show up on a Saturday at Shiro’s Saimin Haven Pearl City location around noon and line up for a seat. The place is packed, but it’s worth the wait. It has the best saimin in the world, not to mention a varied menu that has a bit of everything.

After 60 years in business, Shiro knows a thing or two about banks and loans, and how to be successful without them.


 

Shiro never got a loan from banks. He just financed his business by starting small and selling saimin until he got enough capital to expand.

Like most who own companies, he knows that banks don’t know your name when you need money, only when you don’t. Shiro, who owns a number of Shiro’s Saimin Havens across Oahu, has learned over his many years as a restaurant owner and noodle maker how not to need banks. And he didn’t learn it when times were good, but during the struggle.

“In business, nobody helps you when you’re down,” Shiro laughs, his classic self-deprecating humor always present. He remembers the pains of getting started, partnerships that went awry and also the satisfaction of knowing a poor kid like him could make it. His restaurants have been awarded “Bests” by local magazines time and again, and they’ve just received national recognition as one of the country’s best family restaurants.

“I can’t believe I’m 90 years old,” he says with an incredulous head shake and a chuckle. He looks 20 years younger (flashy wardrobe notwithstanding) thanks in part to his daily workouts at 24 Hour Fitness. (I ask him if he has a girlfriend. He says he’s looking.)

Mostly his success is the result of his outlook: sunny and positive.

“We just need to all get along and love each other more,” he advises. His restaurant walls are lined with framed poetry he’s penned over the years that reflect both a sweetness and practically that surely have guided his business life for six decades.

Love, yes, but Shiro’s success is also a product of hard work, innovative marketing, good food, low prices, self-reliance and a loyal, longtime staff (a hallmark of good management). Now his daughter Linda manages the business so Shiro can focus on what he wants to be when he grows up.

I want to be like him when I grow up.

Many of our longtime local restaurants are leaving us. The latest announced closing is Aaron’s at the top of the Ala Moana Hotel. I will miss its Maui Wowie Greek salad, superior service, unbeatable panoramic view, live music, and most of all, the memories. Successful restaurateur and owner Aaron Placourakis for more than 20 years hosted celebrities (Pro Bowl greats, actors, musicians, politicians) and locals alike with photo-lined walls to prove it. I rank my Aaron’s dining experiences among the all-time best. With a tear or two, I bid aloha to Aaron’s, and good luck to Placourakis with Sarento’s on Oahu and your Maui restaurants.


Necessity truly is the mother of invention. I’m always amazed to see what people will come up with to make a living during economic downturns. We just got a notice stuck in our trash can lid from a new company call Opala that will clean and disinfect our container for a small monthly fee. What a clever idea. Sign me up.

Failure is an integral part of success. When things are running smoothly, we don’t get the scrapes necessary to form the scars of wisdom. I failed many times in business, but those setbacks only armed me with better tools to create a better plan and regroup.

Why are we not letting bloated, lazy, unrepentant, failing companies fail, depriving them of the chance to clean and disinfect their “trash cans” of waste and greed? I vote to let them fail and behold how innovative they can be. And, if they can’t meet and overcome the same tough challenges like individual Americans are, well ... See ya later, GM, AIG and the lot.

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