Sticking to innovation

Non-stick cookware revolutionary Stanley Cheng tells Michelle Locke how sticking to his passion took him from beetroot and encyclopaedias to CEO of a global brand

Selling encyclopaedias seems an unlikely path for a cookware innovator. Yet it’s the one that Stanley Cheng took as a US college student in the 1960s. He started out one summer in Berkeley, California, as one of about 50 salesmen and after a week was practically the only one left. He did OK, though. One week he sold three sets of volumes.

“That was interesting,” he says. “I found out what people, what kind of family, would be most receptive to buying encyclopaedias for their children. It’s not the wealthy family, it’s the middle, lower-middle class families because they have high aspirations for their kids. They want their kids to do well.”

That knack of identifying a need in the market, and meeting that need, is something Cheng has turned into a long and successful career in cookware, building his family’s aluminium factory in Hong Kong into the largest cookware distributor in the US – Meyer Corp. This year, he’s launched a major new player in the world of commercial kitchen appliances, Hestan Commercial.

“In any business, really, the basic principle is to identify problems that people have, whether it be restaurant chefs or home cooks, something they’re not happy about or cookware that’s difficult to clean, whatever the problem is,” he says. “The challenge is to find the solution and have the ability to get that message across.”

The brand is innovation

Born in 1948 in Hong Kong, one of seven children, Cheng studied in the US, starting out as a business student at the University of Oregon before switching to his true vocation: engineering. His family had an aluminium rolling mill and small factory turning out items such as torches and ashtrays. Cheng was the son most interested in working in the family business and got involved in decision-making while still in college, opening a cookware division with his father.

From the beginning, he knew he wanted to make a name with a branded business as opposed to a commodity-based one. “I felt that would allow us to introduce innovations and have a better way to communicate with the trade and the consumer,” he recalls.

DuPont had already introduced Teflon and Cheng saw the consumer demand and the potential growth for the slippery-surfaced pans that could cook food with little or no oil and without messy kitchen cleanup.

“We just went into business. Just like that, without doing any market research at the time,” he says. “But it worked out well. We grew slowly but very consistently.”

In search of durability

The first pans they sold, like others on the market, were cheap and non-durable. The problem was that Teflon was soft: applying it to aluminium pans, also soft, resulted in a flimsy product that wore out fast.

The clear need was for pans that would last longer. The way to fill that need, Cheng realised, was to come up with better technology.

Working with the DuPont company, inventors of Teflon, he looked for ways to fix the durability problem and came up with a technology he called Circulon, which was patented and introduced in 1985. It coupled Teflon with hard-anodized aluminium which was four times harder than the material used until then. He also put grooves on the pan to further protect the coating, so if you nicked the surface only the top of the groove was damaged.

The longer-lasting pans were worth more and, naturally, they cost more – $19.99 compared to $4.99 for the less durable types. Shrewdly, they were sold only in department stores and speciality stores, places where the kind of customer who was willing to pay $20 for a frying pan could see the merchandise in a premium setting.

A sobering lesson

In 1987, after discovering that not everyone wanted grooves inside their pans, Cheng followed up with Anolon, which had a flat interior surface. Then came a rare misstep. He didn’t apply for a patent.

Other companies soon followed Meyer Corp’s lead. “It was good for them, not so good for us in that we couldn’t totally own the business even though we invented the construction of it,” he says.

But he learned something useful from that experience. The decision not to try for a patent had been based on advice from an outside attorney who thought the flat surface wasn’t unusual enough to convince officials it was worth granting a patent.

The lesson, says Cheng, is that “sometimes you have to believe in yourself. We now don’t take ‘no’ for an answer so easily”. He also has a good in-house patent attorney.

While it may not totally own the nonstick business, Meyer has a good stake in it. In addition to the Circulon and Anolon brands, it also has Farberware, Ruffoni and SilverStone and has lines developed with celebrity chefs, such as Rachael Ray. Other brands include Essteele and Raco in Australia, Prestige in Europe and Fujimaru in Japan.

Meyer affiliate factories, taken together, comprise the second-largest cookware manufacturing company in the world – behind the SEB Group – producing more than 100 cookware lines, which are distributed in more than 30 countries. The factories, employing about 6,400 people, are expected to turn out about 42 million pans this year.

Looking good

Two years ago Cheng began putting a team together for Hestan Commercial, a Meyer affiliate headquartered in Anaheim, California, a city best known as the home of what is now Disneyland Park, but which also happens to be a hub for the commercial kitchen appliance industry.

Remembering his days going door-to-door in Berkeley four decades earlier, Cheng studied the market, asking chefs and restaurateurs what they needed.

The answers included French tops with higher temperatures and greater temperature differentials so pots could be moved easily from high to low heat. Meanwhile, the appliances needed to look good enough to feature in on-trend open kitchens – Hestan equipment comes in 12 different colour finishes with customisable accents.

Hestan Commercial – the name comes from Cheng’s first name and that of his wife, Helen. “I put her before myself,” he says with a twinkle. Officially launched this spring, it is already busy with orders. It’s also picked up two Kitchen Innovations awards from the US National Restaurant Association.

Recognition came for the French top, which has a thick-gauge, fully welded stainless steel radiant cone around its 35,000-Btu/hour gas burner to trap and focus radiant and convective heat, resulting in temperatures of more than 1,000°F in the centre and as low as 320°F at the edges. The second award was for the modular salamander, cheesemelter and shelving system.

The line has been praised by food luminaries, such as chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, who calls Cheng “an engineer in the truest sense of the word”.

“To work with someone who has that level of knowledge and skill is an honour and an extraordinary opportunity,” Keller said when Hestan was launched earlier this year.

Hestan Commercial is headquartered in a 70,000 sq ft manufacturing facility in Anaheim that includes a showroom, test kitchen and certified test laboratory. The product line is being built entirely in the US.

“We wanted to be able to manufacture pretty much everything that we use right here in California,” explains Cheng. “We can do custom design, custom engineering, custom manufacturing and we can do it and respond faster.”

Work continues with ongoing improvements, with the next goal to create a stainless steel that doesn’t tarnish at high heat, opening the door to a polished, uniform top. “That’s quite a challenge,” says Cheng. Challenges, though, are clearly something he’s good at.

Back in the 1960s, before he took the encyclopaedia job, Cheng toiled on the graveyard shift (10pm to 6am) at a beetroot canning factory in Eugene, Oregon, loading boxes weighing more than 20kg onto a pallet for around $2.50 an hour. The work was so hard he’d go through a pair of work gloves in a week and the smell was “just not very pleasant”, but the stint “gave me some real insight into what blue collar manual labour was like”. And, although it took a while, he can now enjoy a (fresh) beetroot, deliciously prepared.

After leaving college, Cheng moved back to Hong Kong. “A dutiful son,” he says with a smile. And as the cookware business blossomed, he opened a UK operation in Liverpool in 1976.

A good omen

In 1997 he bought the British Prestige cookware company – then a 50-year-old brand synonymous with household cooking in the UK. He recalls a news announcer declaring the ownership switch as a “sad day for England”. Where some might have taken offence, he took it as a good omen: “It showed that Prestige was popular at the time and it was a good company.”

He opened the US distributorship in 1981 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the industry was largely based. But after a few years of the state’s bitterly cold winters he realised
there was no real reason for him to be located there and so he moved the company to the San Francisco Bay area. In 1996, he moved Meyer Corp to its current home of Vallejo, a city about a 30-minute drive from San Francisco.

By then, Cheng was a family man, having met Helen at a dinner party in 1979. They were introduced by Cheng’s cousin; they clicked, and “very quickly we felt that we were good for each other”. The couple married in 1981 and have three children, two sons and a daughter.

Not enough time

Cheng, who travels about four months out of the year, always feels that “there’s just not enough time”, although he tries to maintain a good work-life balance. The internet allows him to stay in touch with his many enterprises from his home, a luxurious, French chateau-style spread in the Napa Valley where he’s started to make wine in recent years, producing vintages that have won critical respect.

The house is decorated with antique tapestries, pottery and sculptures; art is a passion of both Mr and Mrs Cheng. From the spacious balcony he can look over rolling, green hills and watch his vineyards ripening under the California sun, a glass of his own, excellent Chardonnay in his hand.

It’s a serene spot where Cheng can dream of the next big thing in kitchens, the innovation home cooks and professional chefs don’t yet know they need.

“The focus is innovation – to deliver unprecedented benefits to the users,” Cheng says simply. “I hope this doesn’t sound proud, but the goal we set ourselves is that if it’s not innovative, it is not Hestan.”

Michelle Locke

More Relevant

View More