Retired after 42 years in the food service industry, writer Ralph Schroeder shares an interview with Henry Mai, founder of Florida-based SioGreen and his thoughts on how overcoming challenges, is the key to small business success in America.
It was providence that brought me face to face with Henry Mai.
I had become interested in learning about what was happening to America’s independent businessmen and women as the American consumers moved their buying habits to online shopping.
The independents were in trouble, with many of them closing up shop, going bankrupt, etc. If a widget at the local widget store could be purchased in person locally for $29.99 its probably available online for about $14.00 with free delivery the next day.
What probably peaked my interest was the fact that my wife and I travel to Italy annually where we have a house. While we are there, usually in the summer, we shop almost exclusively with independent business people. Family businesses, that is, and they do very well. One reason could be that Italy is comprised of some 4,000 cities, towns, and villages, so consumers are spread so thinly that there isn’t enough local business to keep a Walmart, Costco, McDonalds or other high-volume center of commerce open.
In the US, there are many business men and women who have not been foreclosed on and have made it through economic changes. In fact, many are doing very well and I wanted to find out who they were and what they do.
So I approached a successful businessman whom I know and asked him if he could share the “secret” of how he managed to stay alive, so to speak.
The idea was to share his ideas with others and, “help them out.”
“I’m too shy for that,” was his response, “but you should talk to my brother, he has done very well.”
I did talk to his brother and yes, he has done very well and he is willing to share his fascinating story with us. It begins now.
To appreciate the enormity of Henry Mai’s success, one must consider the trail of his life prior to settling in the Tampa Bay area.
I had phoned him a week earlier and told him about my quest to learn about his success and made an appointment to meet with him.
At the agreed upon date and time, I drove to an area of Clearwater, Florida, where many manufacturing businesses were based, and rang the bell on the locked door to the SioGreen office. Henry’s son Tony, a Vice President of SioGreen, came to the door, turned a key in the lock and let me in.
Tony welcomed me in perfect English and a great smile. Later on I learned that Tony was born in the United States and held a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of South Florida in Tampa. His younger brother, Andy, has similar credentials with the same smile. He also works at SioGreen as VP of Operations.
I was escorted to Henry’s office, which was close to the main entrance. I walked in and we shook hands and sat down.
“I enjoyed every minute of life when I lived in an archipelago paradise as a young boy in Vietnam”, Henry Mai told me during my first visit to his office. He is the founder and CEO of SioGreen, the company to which I had been referred.
What Henry invented and manufactures at SioGreen is nothing short of amazing. What the patented device does is astounding and has worldwide implications. What he created, he did so with no formal training. The invention is the SioGreen Infrared Tankless Water Heater.
This device reduces the cost of heating water by 60% and lasts at least 20 years or more.
Henry’s invention also eliminates maintenance!
Sounds impossible but, as I got to know him I realized that nothing seems impossible to Henry Mai.
Henry has a stocky, solid build and a serious expression. Had he played American football in the United States he would have been a linebacker—no fat, all muscle.
Soon Henry, who emigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1984 at age 20, was sitting behind his spartan desk talking to me about the early years he spent growing up in the stunningly beautiful southern tip of South Vietnam.
“I was born on the Island of Phu Quoc in 1964,” he said after I asked him where he came from. “There were only about 2,000 people on the island at the time,” he added, somewhat wistfully. Located close to the equator Phu Quoc was a relaxing place in which to be.
The only jobs were fishing, making charcoal for cooking, and growing fruit. The school had 10 students of all ages, and the teacher was paid with food.
Organized sports were nonexistent, unless you count the occasional volleyball game. Swimming in some of the world’s clearest water and tree climbing were also favorite pastimes.
Since those days Phu Quoc island’s population has jumped to 107,000. In 2018, 2.5 million tourists visited Phu Quoc, an increase of 25% over the previous year. Obviously it is still a beautiful place.
Phu Quoc is located where the southern tips of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand meet the sea. This is where natural beauty is presented by the calm Coral Sea, flush forests and scenic mountains near the Mekong Delta at an elevation of 0 m (0 Ft.).
Geographically the country of Vietnam runs vertically North to South along the South China Sea to the east. The western border of Vietnam butts up against Cambodia, and the next country after that is Thailand.
This area of Southeast Asia has been in turmoil for many years. The year that Henry was born, United States military forces were present in an advisory role to assist South Vietnam in defending their country from the communist North Vietnam.
Soon U.S. involvement escalated to a point when the U.S. had 500,000 troops in South Vietnam and surrounding countries and were heavily involved in a bloody battle. The U.S. then ceased military activity in the area in 1973 after fighting a losing battle, and losing 58,200 lives.
While all of this was going on Henry experienced a series of dramatic events, many of which nearly cost him his life as he was peppered with a series of dangerous ups and downs.
When he recalls his life he reflects on events that were anything but peaceful. He is a dramatic story teller who speaks clearly, but not quietly, and from the heart.
For one thing the civil war being raged between the North and South was being lost to the communist North, which was solidly backed by nearby China.
For another, a good portion of the South Vietnamese people sided with the North and were called Viet Cong (“C” for communist), fighting covertly in the South. They used guerilla war tactics such as hit-and-run or ambushing American soldiers before escaping to avoid capture.
It was very difficult to know who was on which side. It was not at all like WW2 where just about everyone wore the uniform of their country’s armed forces. In Vietnam, noone could tell who was who.
His is a life lived in and out of the treacherous actions of the Viet Cong in the South and guerilla fighters and the army from the communist North. Since his family was heavily dependent on commercial fishing as a business he was continually on the lookout for pirates who roamed the Gulf of Thailand ready to pounce on peaceful fishing boats and steal everything the fishermen had.
He also had to avoid the wrath of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who conducted the mass murder of nearly 2 million Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai people. Pol Pot was in charge of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and tried to take Cambodia’s culture back to the middle ages. “Kill the men and rape the women” was his philosophy.
The Khmer Rouge’s genocide activity was documented in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields.
During the early years of Henry’s life the Vietnam War was at its peak. The communist North had completed a supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia to bring arms from China in the North to their guerilla fighters in the South. The communists seemed to be continually well armed. In 1965 the U.S. changed their military strategy and engaged in active combat with the Viet Cong for the first time.
Just being there was dangerous. It required cunning. It required courage and the ability to manage people. These were all qualities Henry possessed when he needed them.
“I was a very lucky man,” he told me. Lucky indeed. Yet he is a man who seemed to control his luck, even when he was a young boy.
In 1970 the U.S. invaded Cambodia, stepping up the war in the region. Many people lost their lives. Henry at age 6 was moved to Ha Tien on the mainland to live with his grandmother for safety.
“I saw a lot,” said Henry.
One dark evening his Grandmother stepped out of the house and was shot dead. The family was devastated.
“Dead bodies were seen floating everywhere,” he remembers.
“We were very poor. My father had died from sickness when I was 9. There was no food. Bombs were exploding all night,” recalls Henry.
In 1973 in Paris the Viet Cong, North and South Vietnam signed an accord to stop the war. That is when the U.S. ended all military involvement.
On April 30th, 1975, after many years of bloody fighting, the communist regime marched into Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. They took command of the country without a shot being fired from their Chinese produced war equipment.
“I was 10 that year,” he said, loudly. “I’ll never forget that date, when my life changed forever,” Henry told me.
That was the date of the Fall of Saigon, or the Liberation of Vietnam, by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Following a somewhat peaceful takeover by the Northerners, Saigon was quickly renamed Ho Chi Minh City after its former president, General Duong Van Minh.
As the years passed the communists made stronger efforts to convert the Southern part of Vietnam to their way of life. Schools were closed, food was scarce, and freedom was disappearing. These were all communist traits.
Since the school was closed the school bell was used to alert the people that a Khmer Rouge attack was about to occur.
“The border between Ha Tien Vietnam and Cambodia is like the border between the United States and Mexico,” said Henry, as he put a finger from one hand next to a finger from his other hand. That made it easy for the Khmer Rouge to enter Vietnam and attack villages.
“That close,” he said.
“I was sent quickly to live with my aunt and uncle back about 30 minutes from Ha Tien and put to work selling melons, sugar cane, sweet tomatoes and other produce. They paid me with food, not money,” said Henry.
The rest of his family was sent to live at another aunt’s house. Many families were broken and scattered throughout the country. For a while his mother didn’t even know where he was.
When he turned 12, Henry dropped out of school forever and became one of three deckhands on a fishing boat piloted by a Captain. A quick learner, Henry was elevated to the rank of Captain of his uncle’s commercial fishing boat at age 14– rare for someone that young.
Perhaps that when his leadership skills were developed.
The fishing boats were easy to identify from a distance as they stood tall and were about 40 feet in length. The fishermen would leave port at dusk, fish through the night and return only after they had filled their holds with shrimp, clams, and all kinds of fish, no matter how long it took, or what the catch was. “We took them all,” Henry told me.
Pirate activity was nothing new to Henry. Piracy in the Gulf of Thailand went back hundreds of years. Henry had heard of the pirates and occasionally worried about them and the danger they presented.
Back on land all food and items of necessity were rationed by the communists.
As he captained the boat he began to notice “strange” people who resembled criminal types to him. He soon learned about the black market as a business and began trading gold for cigarettes, clothes, motorcycle tires and anything people would buy.
At this time the Vietnamese Dong was relatively worthless so people shopped with material goods. He formed a partnership with Cambodia to trade black market goods with Thailand. He encouraged his aunt and uncle to purchase any tradable goods they could get their hands on so he could sell or trade them.
When he was 16, Henry began to sell or trade by himself and for the next few years he spent parts of his life as a trader and sometime smuggler of gold.
Henry lived on the boat and would ask people he saw, “do you have anything to sell?” The boat would stay moored and no fishing was done during this time. “The people would come to me,” he said.
Eventually he was caught by the Vietnam police, arrested by customs agents, put in handcuffs and taken to jail In Kieng Giang.
“You trade without permit. Everything needs a permit,” the customs agents said.
Henry’s trip to jail was his first visit to a big city. Since he was under the age of 18 he was too young to be held in the men’s cell so they put him in a cell with 10 women. Henry recalled, it was not a nice place.
After 10 weeks he was released on bail, probably paid by his uncle, although he never learned who provided the bail money. More than 40 years later Henry still does not know who bailed him out of jail.
Once free, his aunt and uncle partnered with the Vietnamese Navy. The deal was for the Navy to provide them with protection in exchange for the use of their boat, net, and deck hands. They had no choice but to accept the offer.
Henry and his friends were uncomfortable with this arrangement. Police and army boats were always patrolling the waters of Thailand, Cambodian and Vietnam looking for customs violators and sympathizers of the former South Vietnam. Every item on the boat needed a permit. Meanwhile Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge soldiers continued to murder innocent citizens by the thousand.ds.
Tired, scared and always on edge, Henry and his closest friends who were all about the same age as Henry, decided to make a run for it and escape. They were ready for anything because anything was better than the way of life in which they found themselves.
They and their aunts cautiously planned a risky escape.
They used two canoe-sized boats to transport the group out to sea to board his aunt’s larger fishing boat they were using for the voyage. This “larger” boat was only 25 feet long, short for a vessel whose cargo was 23 people.
The group began their trip of a lifetime by heading north from Vietnam, around the always dangerous Cambodia to Thailand with 23 people, including Henry’s wife, 2 aunts, an uncle and 12-year-old brother whom Henry insisted on taking.
They weren’t long at sea before they were caught in the evening by a Vietnam coast guard boat out of Cambodia. This could only mean trouble. It was after midnight and “we were scared as hell,” said Henry as he described the trip.
Henry was quick to alert his passengers of the potential danger and covered them with a large tarpaulin.
The passengers hid under the tarp in the boat’s hold as Henry commanded, “’Be quiet!” And they were. Very quiet.
Meanwhile Henry put on some Vietnamese army clothes he had brought along for situations such as this.
The big boat approached Henry’s boat. Its captain noticed the uniform and the lack of people on board, waved to Henry who continued on his previous course.
Feeling better about their situation, Henry’s passengers relaxed.
Soon an explosion of loud thunder and torrential rain rocked the boat. Most of the passengers were not accustomed to storms at sea and they were scared. Henry noticed their fear and steered the boat to the shore of a nearby island to wait out the storm.
An hour later they were back at sea again and they continued their voyage to Thailand.
They were next encountered by two boats. The first boat gave them water, large shrimp and other food. The people on that boat saw Henry’s people, but thankfully said nothing.
The second boat wanted to take all of their gold and rape one of the women. The first boat saw what was happening, turned around and stopped them.
All this had happened hundreds of miles at sea on a boat that lacked navigation equipment, even compasses. They were without electronics of any kind. What they did have was a diesel engine that pushed them through hundreds of miles of sea at night.
As they neared their Thailand destination they met up with another boat with a single fisherman. Henry followed him in and saw that he had been robbed. Then, the fisherman directed Henry to “Park right here,” pointing to a slip, and the fisherman was robbed again of his gold and the robbers groped a woman with him. The next morning they tried to rob him again and tried to take everything.
Henry estimates there were between 10 and 20 robbers that approached them along the way. He had slept through much of the danger he was so tired. “I had no energy left at all,” he said.
They moved on until Henry’s group had finally reached their destination, the police station, where they were fed and enjoyed showers. Once the police saw that the group was non-violent they kept them at the police station for a month.
On April 30, 1982, when Henry was 18, the police took everyone who was on the boat to Siekiew Camp, a huge refugee camp.
Accommodations were extremely tight at Siekiew. Each person was allotted a small space measuring 18 inches wide and 7 feet long. That was all the space one could use for sitting, standing, sleeping—everything.
There were no curtains or drapes to create privacy, facilities were public, and rice was dumped onto plates with a scoop daily. Henry was not impressed with the 100 chickens that were added to the menu because the rice and chickens were meant to feed 10,000 people per day. Not much. But “I discovered how to make tofu and sold it back to Siekiew,” Henry told me.
Although conditions could have been better, Henry was considered a hero for freeing all those people from communist rule. He was now 18 years old.
Finally, after 2 ½ years of loose captivity at Siekiew, a United States organization called IMS took Henry’s group to Indonesia for 8 months of cultural training to prepare them for life in America.
While there, they experienced true freedom for the first time and were free to walk around outside, go to school, stores, and wherever they desired.
One of their friends could not believe he had an entire chicken leg to eat all for himself!
Following “graduation” Henry, his wife, Sonny and their aunt and uncle were flown to San Francisco where they stayed overnight. He had $5 to his name.
The next day they were flown to Lafayette, Louisiana which was to be their new home. Henry and Sonny had an aunt who lived there. They were assisted by Catholic Charities in their move.
While they approached their destination by train from the Lafayette airport Henry looked out the window and commented, “Those are boxes. Do we have to live in those?” When they arrived his aunt assured him that the “boxes” were very livable, which they were.
The boxes turned out to be mobile homes. The next day they moved into one and were very happy with the living conditions they afforded.
Henry was quick to find a job at a greenhouse, plus he took a second job washing dishes at a restaurant. This situation lasted 10 months and enabled Henry to save money.
His next job was to repair fishing nets and he did that for one year working for Cameron Fish, a seafood supplier.
His next job was to fish using his aunts’ boat, which he did for one year with a friend. He was able to save even more money.
Henry was constantly bullied by fishermen who were native to Louisiana.
“Go back where you came from,” was heard often.
The Ku Klux Klan often threatened to kill the Vietnam fishermen, who had more to lose and worked hard for long hours to maintain their freedom. The KKK cut Henry’s fishing nets several times in an effort to scare him off.
He then bought a boat with a friend, but after 7 months he left a valve open accidently and the boat sank, ending that venture.
Henry lost everything.
Henry then switched career paths again and worked for the Electric Bazooka, a company that manufactured amplifiers. While there he learned how to assemble PC boards. These Bazooka amplifiers were sold at Circuit City, a strong retailer at the time.
Henry was so good at his job that Electric Bazooka eventually eliminated 19 positions due to his managerial talents and promoted him to run the entire manufacturing section.
“That was good money for about 6 years,” said Henry. “But then Taiwan began to make them cheaper, and the Chinese made them even for less,” said Henry, so that career ended. The company closed putting Henry out of a job again.
Henry then opened a nail salon and kept it going for two years. It wasn’t enough and he closed it.
After several attempts at other business ventures Henry moved to Tampa Bay where his two sons had moved to attend the University of South Florida.
This opened up an opportunity for another business as a cabinet maker. A short time later the cabinet business folded and took all of his assets. Henry was broke.
But throughout his life—especially his business life—Henry always relied on his creativity and ingenuity to try something new. Despite his failures he always found the grit to come back for more, try something new.
Finally, while in Tampa helping a friend fix a hot water heater, Henry stumbled on the idea of powering infrared tankless water heaters with quartz piping. These units eliminate the biggest problem facing traditional water heaters—corrosion.
Despite the lack of training in engineering, Henry developed the successful Infrared Tankless SioGreen Water Heater. This patented invention, able to be utilized anywhere hot water is needed, uses cutting edge Quartz Infrared technology to create heating elements that do not corrode.
This technology enables the SioGreen system to deliver clean water on demand at a continuous flow with a 65% cost savings.
Since Henry introduced the first InfaredSioGreen system in 2008 more than 10,000 units have been installed with a life expectancy of 20 years.
So what makes an independent business owner find success after a constant and continuous barrage of day to day challenges? What makes he or she push forward to find new solutions even when problems seem insurmountable?
According to Henry Mai, “Never Quit!”
By Ralph Schroeder