Would you believe that there are incomparable insights you can gain from actually talking to your employees, forming a relationship with them, without the burden of having the leadership divide in between? Guest Bryon Stephens, the co-founder at Pivotal Growth Partners, did just that by joining the CBS reality show, Undercover Boss. In this episode, he joins host, Steve Farber, to tell us about his experience and the great leadership lessons he learned from the show. He talks about the importance of leading with love and making decisions that are better for your clients, partners, and employees. What is more, Bryon explains why the key to seeing powerful growth is the company’s culture, laying down some tips on how you can create that within your team and more.
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Leadership Lessons From An Undercover Boss: The Role Of Love In The Growth Of The Enterprise With Bryon Stephens
My guest is my dear friend, Bryon Stephens. I’m going to read you his bio because this guy has had a stellar career and he still has but he’s coming from a significant track record in the world of branding in general and branding in the food industry in particular. Once upon a time, he started out as a dishwasher which was the beginning of his career, but the stellar nature of his career kicked in when he worked for A&W Restaurants where he led the development efforts that saw the start and evolution of co-branding putting two great brands together under one roof. If you’ve ever been to like a Taco Bell and a Pizza Hut together under the same roof. That co-branding was Bryon’s brainchild.
That initiative led to A&W’s acquisition of Long John Silver’s and Tricon Global Restaurants’ subsequent acquisition of Yorkshire Global Restaurants which turned into the famous Yum! Brands, which is the world’s largest restaurant company with more than 32,000 restaurants operating in 150 countries around the world. What Bryon has learned is that he believes that the key to seeing powerful growth is a result of a company’s culture.
By operating within a set of self-determined cultural beliefs, the company establishes tangible guidelines that each of its constituents can follow no matter how large the business grows. It’s important in any business, but particularly in a franchise operation. With that wisdom behind him and a part of him, Bryon joined Marco’s Pizza in 2004 as Vice President of Development, and then he grew into the Chief Operating Officer position and his innovative approach in that role led to a system-wide expansion.
The company achieved award-winning growth. He was finally named President of Marco’s in 2014. He focused on the strategic alignment of operations, marketing, supply chain, finance information, technology, and restaurant development to accomplish incredible sales and growth goals, keeping up and raising the standards of quality at the same time. Marco’s grew from 139 units to nearly 800 units by the end of 2017 and unit profitability at the same time increased significantly. System-wide sales increased to nearly $500 million annually.
When Bryon left Marco’s, he had a little interesting jaunt into the world of Extreme Leadership. Bryon was our CEO at the Extreme Leadership Institute for a period of time, getting us off the ground. Now he’s working with the new, up and coming franchise brands in the food industry bringing his expertise to bear on entrepreneurs all around the country and various parts of the world. With that storied background, welcome Bryon Stephens. It’s good to see you.
Thanks, Steve. It’s great being here with you. I appreciate every time we get a chance to talk. I’m looking forward to this.
What does it feel like hearing your eulogy while you’re still alive?
It was incredible. It was amazing. I’ve had some good runs of things. I’ve been blessed in this career. To note where it all started and where we’re at now, I’m thankful and grateful every day.
One of the things that bio leaves out is your brush with stardom when you were featured on an episode of Undercover Boss. That was during your tenure at Marco’s. That was right around the time that you and I met because you had been a longtime fan of The Radical Leap which is my first book. You invited me to come in and speak at Marco’s. That was the beginning of our history together.
It was a great honor to be able to represent the brand on the Undercover Boss. It turned out to be a great show. They’re great at editing because I don’t think that the show would have been anywhere near what it turned out to be had they not been great at their editing. It did showcase the brand well. It was a real eye-opener for me because it gave us an opportunity as a brand to do what I think LEAP principles are all about is lead with love. Not only for our franchisees but also for the people in our brand. In that particular show and that genre, you get an opportunity to meet people of where they’re at in their life and make a difference in their life. That was also operationalizing love in such a big way on that show.
The premise of Undercover Boss for those who haven’t seen it is you’re the boss, they disguise you and then you’d go out into the field and you have these personal interactions with various employees throughout the enterprise. In the end, it always reminds me of the greek myths where a deity would come down from the heavens and put on a disguise and show up as a beggar at the home of a normal human being. Based on how that person treats him, they would grant boons to that lowly mortal. That’s what happens with Undercover Boss. You learn all these stories and in the end, it was unbelievable the boons that you bestowed on these people. Tell us a little bit about what that process was like for you.
We were in disguise. CBS had asked me not to shave or cut my hair for about a year and have my own natural disguise because they said wigs and things like that threw people off. I did that and then we got to go out and go into these stores. I remember the first evening I asked the question, “Who am I meeting? What am I doing? What do you do here?” They said, “This is a reality TV. You’ve got to go wing it. Your job is to find out about them without tipping over the scale and letting them know who you are.” You form this little bond and this relationship around this false narrative, because I had a narrative of who I was and in the show context, and I’m helping them.It's amazing what you can do when you actually have the opportunity to lead people with love. Click To Tweet
I’m learning about them but they’re supposed to be vetting me as well for a prize that I wanted to win. My name was Jay. You formed this little bond by being together with this person over the course of 8 to 10-hour day and going through all this together. You ask and you find out about them. You find out about the personal things going on in their life. You also want to find out about how the business is showing up for them. How’s their life being taken care of, or what struggles do they have with the work that they do? How can we be better as an employer for them?
You’ve got to do all that without telling them who you are and it’s a lot of fun meeting great and incredible people. You find out these things but you also then find out that there are ways you can show up differently and make a difference for them to make their life better. That’s what I said about leading with love right there. It’s amazing what you can do when you have that opportunity to do that with people and it showcased us as a brand and gave us a great opportunity to make a difference in their life.
In all fairness, you look at it as an opportunity to demonstrate leading with love but that is not the premise of the show. In other words, that’s you bringing your perspective to bear on these situations that you had with your employees, but it was touching. You learn their stories. What were some of the gifts that Marco’s gave these people at the end of the episode? Do you remember?
I’ll talk about those, but I’m going to go back because you talk about how I identify this as operating from a position of love. That position of love is more comprehensive than we sometimes think about it because it’s not just about giving the gifts and showing up in these people’s lives. Every CEO that’s been able to do this show, I think they’re there because of love. They’re there because of the love they have for their brand and what they want to know about their brand.
They can re-examine why they exist, why these people work for them, and all these things. When I talk about love and we’ll talk about it more, it’s more than that fuzzy feeling that we talk about in the word love. It’s about how we love what we do and getting down to the purpose of it. That’s important. As far as the gifts go, we tried to make a difference. When we found out people were struggling to pay for a college education that they wanted to get this college education so they could be the first to graduate college in their family, we were reaching out and we were able to pay for that college.
We found out that one of our drivers on one of our delivery trucks was sleeping in his truck because he was working many hours. He wasn’t getting home because there are limits on how many hours you can put in on a truck and still be able to drive and he would have to sleep in his truck and not make it home. His family was struggling through that because he had young kids at home and a wife who works. We made sure that we gave him the money so he wouldn’t have to work all the overtime for the year and be on the road and sleeping in his truck all the time. Mind you, our trucks weren’t set up with the big sleeper cabins on them. He was sleeping in the seat of that truck. We made a difference there.
We helped pay off bills for people. We bought one young man a car. I was riding with one of our delivery drivers and it was a hot day in Texas. He has air conditioning that didn’t work. I went to roll down the window and the window of his car fell out. I felt awful about it. I asked him because his family had gone through some tough times. His father was in the military and was struggling with some things. They had moved and he was the primary breadwinner. That car was his way to make a living. I asked him, “What would you do if this car broke down, you couldn’t work. You’re carrying a load right now.”
He says, “Every day when I get in my car and I leave and I’m on my way to work, I say a prayer to God and I ask him, “Please let this car stay together one more trip.” I said, “That’s amazing.” I found out that he’s sleeping on a couch at this house because they were living with a friend. In that particular situation, we bought him a brand-new car that we unveiled. I gave him the keys on that final episode and then followed him out in the parking lot to see that.
We also showcased and gave the family a home for a year. We paid for their home to move into their own apartment. We outfitted the apartment for them so they could get on their feet. One young man, we gave him the opportunity to own his own Marco’s Pizza store. We showed up big time in their lives trying to make the difference for them so that their lives would go on and be better from that experience.
I want to build on that a little bit because none of what you said is warm touchy, huggy, feely stuff. It’s solving some deep primal bottom end of Maslow’s pyramid thing. For most companies anyway, it’s not practical for them to go out and discover all of those challenges among all of their employees and give those gifts. The attitude behind it, the desire to find some way to help. On a personal level, that is not new to you. I happened to know this because you and I know each other well.
I wrote about you in Love is Just Damn Good Business. I’m going to ask you a couple of pointed leading questions, not about the Bryon Stephens at this end of your career, but about where you started. As you were describing your experience in Undercover Boss and your ability to learn these people’s stories, it reminded me of the early days in your career when you were given the opportunity to run Ponderosa store 319. I’d love for you to tell us that story. How old were you in those days?
I was in my early twenties. I was not a lot older than the people that were the employees of that store. There were some people who were older than I was, but that was a great opportunity that was afforded to me to be able to run that store.
Tell us the story of how that came about.
The story about getting the opportunity to run the store is interesting because when I applied for the Ponderosa job, I applied to get a job in Indianapolis, Indiana. That’s where I went and interviewed and where I lived at that time. I was hired by the company and then when I got my final duty papers, they said I was going to Gary, Indiana. That’s not even remotely close to Indianapolis and I was challenged by that.
My first thoughts were, I don’t want to go to Gary Indiana, but I had been brash while I was going through training. I made a lot of statements that I was going to be the fastest promoted guy to multi-unit, etc., not knowing that that’s not how it works. I even had human resources come in training and tell me that they were concerned that they were investing a lot of money in me. I was then going to leave quickly because they weren’t going to be able to meet those opportunities for advancement that I wanted bad.
I told them, “Don’t worry about it. Give me a store and I’ll show you what I can do and we’ll go from there.” They did that and I got to the Gary, Indiana store. It was a great crew, a great team of people, but the store hadn’t been taken care of well by the corporate. The people had taken care of it as best they could, but the company hadn’t invested money in it. We set out with a vision to be the best Ponderosa Steakhouse in the region in the chain.
The crew rallied to that and we ended up being Ponderosa Steakhouse of the Year and I got the Manager of the Year Award and got my promotion within a year. Everything worked out well. The story you’re interested in hearing is when I got there, I realized I was dealing with some challenges that I didn’t deal with before in my career. People would sometimes show up late and you normally give them a warning like, “If show up late again, I’m going to fire you.”
People sometimes moderate their behavior but when you realize that many of your employees are coming on public transportation, they’re not able to jump in a car and drive there and get there on time. Their behavior wasn’t a result of their bad planning. This was something a bus ran late or something like that. I had to make the accommodations for that and some of the accommodations I made were to schedule people differently.
At times, I would even pick people up and bring them to work to ensure that they got there on time because if that was important to me, it needed to be important enough that I would go do that. I had some employees that didn’t have access to washers and dryers, and their uniforms were starting to look bad after a couple of days. I would tell them, “You’re going to have to be wearing your uniform. It’s going to have to be coming in crisp and clean.”
You then find out that they don’t access to the same facilities of washer and dryers. Without making a big to-do about it to certain people, I made sure that they had an extra uniform and I would take their uniforms home and I would wash and dry them and take them back to them so they could be in fresh, clean uniforms. Those are ways of solving the problem, being accountable for what we needed to be done. I didn’t look at it at the time as anything special. It’s what we did to get the job done.
I wonder how common it is for a manager of any age, but certainly a twenty-something manager to come into a store and saw that people’s uniforms are dirty, and then understand why they were dirty and then go and wash them themselves. You needed to do it to get the job done. That was your perspective on what needed to be done to get the job done. Not everybody is going to come to the same conclusion. You got more personally involved with some of these people too though, didn’t you?
As a matter of fact, I wanted to make sure we were working on their career too and making sure that they were going to be set up to do better things. Shift leads and people that were closers. I had worked out situations where I would take some of the dirty duty and I would wash the floors at night and I would do those things. I’d let them do management functions like do inventories and some of those things. I felt like it was a way for me to help train them, teach them. I even had opportunities to let some of them come in when they needed help with homework.
I’d set up an opportunity for them to come in and help them with their homework and doing different things like that. If I’d have been 50 years old, maybe I wouldn’t have done all that, but I was the same age as a lot of these people and had come recently from my experience of getting into this job from being a dishwasher. I knew that there was a lot of potential on those young people. I could see it because I saw me in them and I wanted to give them the opportunities that I had been given. It was about making a difference from that perspective.
What was the timeframe from dishwasher to the manager at Ponderosa store 319 in Gary, Indiana?
I took probably four years.There's no honor in what a man does for a living. The honor comes from how a man does it. Click To Tweet
It’s still fresh. When you were washing dishes, where was that?
At Holiday Inn in Logansport, Indiana.
What thoughts did you have for your career back then?
I took the job to be able to make ends meet because I’d worked in a factory environment. I was in a union job in a factory that everybody wanted to work in my hometown and it went on strike. I’d already bought a house and a truck. I had everything going and I needed a job to keep my bills paid. It was in the early ‘80s recession, and there weren’t a lot of other jobs, especially for a guy with no education and no skills. I needed to take a job anywhere I could. I picked up shifts, bartending, and washing dishes at the Holiday Inn.
I remember saying to my father before I went in, “I can’t believe I’m going to go and wash dishes here.” My dad says, “I taught you better than that. There’s no honor in what a man does for a living. The honor comes from how a man does it. I suggest you go in there and be the best dishwasher you can be and see where that takes you.” I had that attitude, “This is a job that’s going to help me keep my bills paid. I work with good people. These people were good enough to hire me. I might as well be the best dishwasher and let it be that.”
Was that your sole motivation where you said that “I want to be the best dishwasher?” Did you ever think ahead to where that might lead you?
I never thought of where it’s going to get me. I thought I would be there for a small period of time. We settled the strike and I’d go back and reclaim my job at the factory that I worked at. I won’t say I ever saw anything else of it and I don’t say I wanted to be the best dishwasher every single day. I’ve always said I work on two factors more than anything else. One is I’m neurotically insecure and I’m hyper-competitive. I didn’t want to be fired and I didn’t want anybody else to be a better dishwasher than me. I was operating from those two principles and that’s what led to where it led.
What happened? Did somebody recognize your potential and gave you an opportunity up? You didn’t engineer it yourself.
I didn’t even know the word ‘franchising’ existed back then. It sounds naïve but when I saw a Holiday Inn logo or a McDonald’s logo, I assumed those were part of a company. When I went to work there at that facility, I found out that an individual, a family-owned that Holiday Inn. They own 4 or 5 of them at that time. That was the first time I realized that you could be an individual and you could own a big business, like a Holiday Inn and a McDonald’s and those types of things. I became friends with the family from the relationship that I built there.
I was working hard to try to make a difference for them. Ted Hrysak and his family reached out and gave me the opportunity to get into management with them because they saw potential in me that maybe I hadn’t even seen in myself. That was great to be recognized like that. From that moment on, that’s what’s made a difference in my life. I’ve been in love with the restaurant business. I’ve been in love with franchising. That’s why I’ve done what I’ve done all my life not only because I see the difference that franchise businesses make for families, but also what they can do and how they can make a difference for other people as well.
You parlayed that passion into your tenure at Yum! Brands. That whole co-branding idea that now we’re thinking is normal. We walk down the street or drive down the street and we see all these co-branded fast-food places. What was the inspiration behind that?
I’d love to tell you it was the inspiration but it’s one of those things where you happened to be at the right place at the right time. The gas and convenience store industry started putting branded fast food into their facilities. We were fortunate enough to have A&W be one of those brands that the new Star Mart of businesses took on. I was meeting with them in Kansas City, Missouri, and talking about how our new A&W was working inside of the Star Mart.
The gentleman I was talking to, his name was Scott. I’ll never forget it because they were a huge partner of ours in the end. Scott said, “The A&W is doing fine. I do a phenomenal lunch business here. I’ve got a great one. I’ve got a Star Mart on the other side of town that’s got a KFC in it, and it’s doing great dinner business out there.” I said to him, “You should put both of us in a building and you would have great lunch and a great dinner.”
He stopped and he looked at me and he said, “Would you do that?” I said, “I would. I can’t tell you that KFC would.” It turns out that KFC said no they wouldn’t. They ultimately acquiesced and said yes. We went on one end of the building and they went on the other end of a building in the same Star Mart. It all worked well except for they had two managers, two crews, nothing was working synergistically together.
I approached KFC to say, “Can’t we do this synergistically.” They said no. I found out that there were two franchise groups in Utah and Montana who owned the franchise rights, and they couldn’t be bossed around by the parent company. I approached them and talked to them about synergistically putting A&W together with a KFC restaurant, not in a gas and convenience store. They love the idea. They took on the idea. They tried it and it worked extremely well.
I got the attention of KFC Corporate in Tricon. They acquiesced and let their franchisees begin to put that together and we did hundreds of those locations. It would transform the KFC business by bringing in that lunch day part, that burger concept, and the great root beer floats. It worked well that they ended up acquiring us, bought us and that’s what led to me being the guy that ran the Franchise Brands Development Department for a period of time.
You’re a modest guy being in the right place at the right time but there’s something about the way your mind works that says, “Why don’t we put these two together? Why don’t you put them in the same place?” That seems like an obvious question in retrospect but it’s not obvious if it’s never been done before. It’s a bit of an audacious mindset. I’m assuming you’ve had some significant mentors along the way in your career. Is there anybody that comes to mind for you that we should know about?
I’ve been blessed to have many. I talked about the Hrysak family from a franchising perspective. They were early mentors to me at the A&W opportunity where my career took off. I’ll say the number one mentor in business other than my parents because I had to say my parents were my greatest mentors and grandparents and people in my life. In a business setting, Sid Feltenstein came and he acquired A&W while I was already there. We did all this under his watch. He was a phenomenal mentor in the franchising business because that was the first time at A&W where I was on the franchise development side.
I’d gone out of operations and got into franchise development. He was all about making sure you did the right thing for your franchise partners and that’s what he said, “If every decision you make is to make them more successful, you’ll be richly rewarded in this industry.” That became a mindset and a way of thinking, “Is this decision going to be better for our franchisees?” That’s what led to co-branding. It was better for the franchisees. Having that mindset has allowed me to form great relationships with franchisees through the years, and be able to help them build their business enterprise and it’s been a wonderful match.
I’m thinking of the story that you told me once upon a time, and it might have been another mentor where you were given the opportunity to take over a new position and pick your team, and there was somebody that you wanted to fire.
When we made an acquisition, we had some people that were in the other organization. They didn’t like me much because I was the new guy and I didn’t find them easy to deal with. I thought, “The new knife cuts clean. Just sever them and replace them and move on about your business.” I shared it with Sid that I was going to terminate an employee. Sid said, “It’s your department. I don’t tell you what to do. You’ve got to run it the way you see fit. Before you fire them, I’d like to ask you a question.” I said, “What’s that?” He says, “What’s their dog’s name?”
I didn’t even know if they had a dog and I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if they have a dog.” He said, “You can fire him soon as you find out their dog’s name.” I left his office and I’m trying to figure out, “What the heck does he mean by all this?” I don’t want to go up and say, “What’s your dog’s name?” Then they tell me and I’ll say, “Good. You’re fired.” I knew there was a lesson in that simple question. What he was saying was, “You haven’t taken the time to get to know them. You haven’t given them a chance. You haven’t reached out. You haven’t done anything necessary to be able to be qualified to be the leader that they need for them.”
Instead of asking them what their dog’s name was, I went up and started to form a relationship. We went to lunch and started to get to know them and talked about how much I needed them to be the best they could be for the organization and how I needed to be able to count on them and this organization needed them, etc. We forged a relationship that lasted for many years, and it was phenomenal. It was one where we did special things at that company and that person who I would think and I was going to fire, was an important and integral part of what we accomplished at Yorkshire Global Restaurants.
Here’s what I’m seeing emerge here. You started out by telling us about your experience at Undercover Boss. You went in and you learned who these people are as human beings and what their challenges are. We rewind the tape and went all the way back to Gary, Indiana when you were a first-time manager, and what did you do there. You discovered what their needs were, what their challenges were and you helped them deal with those.
You told us about that opportunity that Sid reminded you of to sit down and learn who this person is personally, whether or not they had a dog is beside the point. There’s a clear theme emerging through all of this. In retrospect, we look at it and we say, “That is what love looks like.” When you love somebody, you care about who they are and you try to understand what their challenges are so you can help in some way. I’m guessing you didn’t attach that label to it back then or did you? Were you cognizant that that’s what that was or was it something more instinctual for you?If every decision you make is to make your franchise partners more successful, you'll be richly rewarded in this industry. Click To Tweet
It was instinctual back then. I did not contextualize it into love until my sister-in-law who knew that I love to read, had read your book and she said, “You have to read this book. This is you.” I was like, “Why would I read it if it’s already me?” She laughed and she said, “This is a phenomenal book.” I read the book and I saw the first principle which is love. I realized then that that was what I was doing and what I had seen done by the best leaders that I had worked with through the years.
The book you’re referring to is The Radical Leap. Thank you for saying that. It’s incredibly gratifying to hear. It reinforces for me that people who respond to this whole idea of love. For the most part, it’s a confirmation of what they are already doing or what they already believe. They just didn’t contextualize it that way or in some cases, they’ve had the impulse but have never acted on it. They thought that that’s what they should do, but everything around them told them something to the contrary so they kept it inside. I’ve heard that a lot over the years that it was like they were given permission to act on impulses that they already had. My question for you is, once you made that connection between what you were already doing and got a broader, more aspirational context of love, other than being able to put a label on it, did it change anything for you in your approach?
It did many ways from this sense. I was able to go in and be more diagnostic. When I saw something happening in an organization that was out of sync, they weren’t getting the results they wanted to get, etc., I would go back in and use the LEAP platform to understand where it was breaking down. Did they have a lack of audacious thinking? Were they lacking energy? You could always pull that back and understand that at the core, there was a lack of love somewhere.
You would be able to then talk about where that came from. Having people rediscover the why that they’re there, why they do what they do, why the employees work for this company. When you go and start to do that, you start to reconsider your purpose. That brings you back to that original love factor. I’ll never forget Steve Jobs said, “You better love what you do. You’re going to be spending your life doing it.” That’s about how that is and you think of all the successful people. You know they loved what they did. When you’re seeing an organization not work well, you can go back and understand where it’s breaking down but it always starts with the fact that there’s probably a lack of love somewhere along the way.
We know that engagement scores haven’t gone up in the last decade with all the leadership and management training. We know that because it’s tested around organizations. I think 78% of people say they are either passively or actively disengaged, not engaged. That means we only have 30% of the workforce fully engaged. That’s because there’s a lack of love, a lack of commitment to the business. You’ve got to go back in and re-energize people through that love and connect them to what’s important to them as well in that organization.
It sounds like putting the framework around something that you already knew and already practiced allowed you to be more conscious and intentional, not only in practicing it yourself but in helping other people to do the same.
There’s never been a more important time than right now in this COVID and what’s our world has gotten us to right now. The world seems like it’s melting down. The brands that I’ve been working with during COVID, I’ve seen many great examples of love, energy, audacity, improved playing out. That is amazing and those brands, even during a period of time where brands in their industry are down and suffering and struggling, I can say that every brand we’re working with is up in sales during the COVID timeframe. They weren’t when it first started, but they rechecked in with themselves. How can we recenter on this? How can we put love at the forefront? I’d like to give you an example of one of the brands that we’re working with.
I want to put a little context around it. The work that you’re doing now with Pivotal Growth Partners is you’re working with smaller brands. Are they all fast-food brands?
Not all, but most are in the food industry. Fast, casual, quick-serve, most of them are food-related.
They’re working with you because they want to grow. They want to either have a concept or they have 1 or 2 stores, or they have a bunch of stores and they want to blow it up. That’s the range. With that context, I’d love to hear about some of your experiences with some of these people.
We started working with a small brand in Atlanta. It’s an incredible authentic street taco concept, owned by a great guy who I don’t think he even knew how to operationalize love or didn’t know the context of it but that’s who he was. COVID hits and the governor of Georgia says we’re shutting down the restaurants. Seventy percent of his volume was dine-in restaurant customers. It’s only been open a year and a half.
He’s getting underway and getting started and his business drops by 50%. At 50% in the restaurant industry, you’re not going to survive. That was his first week. The second week wasn’t looking any better. He sat down with his employees and he said, “I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to keep you all employed, or even be able to keep the business open but we’re going to do the best we can. We’re going to have to look for ways to be able to serve our customers in a different format.
Things are going to have to change. I’m going to try to keep you employed, but I can’t promise it. I’ll tell you this. If I can’t keep you guys employed, you won’t have to worry about feeding your families. We’ve got coolers full of food. We’ll make sure that all of you can come here and get the food and the things you need to keep your families fed while the country is grappling with this COVID.” That was his way of showing love to his employees.
The employees’ comment back to him was, “We’ll work for free. You don’t have to pay us. You can pay us when the business comes back.” Fortunately, he didn’t have to not pay his employees and then make up that pay. They all sat down and decided after that display of love, they were bound with energy to work together and come up with audacious things. They reinvigorated and revamped their entire menu, their business, their packaging. They got these new sealable bags that they could put all their carry out orders in and seal them so that if the seal was broken, people would know that it had been exposed.
With that seal intact, the third-party delivery service has been able to deliver that food and having curbside pickup. They not only recovered their sales, but they are also up over in 2019. They’re hiring additional people because their sales are doing well. That’s a great example where other people have not been able to take that same attitude and didn’t have that same loyalty, people have closed. They’ve had good businesses close up and go out of business. That to me was one of the greatest examples I saw in this whole episode of COVID as somebody operationalizing the LEAP principles and having that show up in the way it did.
Can you tell us the name of the company?
It’s Beto’s Street Tacos.
How many stores do they have in Atlanta?
They have one store and we’re in discussions with a number of franchise groups to become first franchisees of that concept.
Let’s do a little forensic analysis of the story you told us. What is his name?
Roberto goes to his team and says, “I’ll feed you and your families. I’ll keep paying you as long as I can.” They said, “Don’t pay us.” This is an educated guess that there was a pre-existing condition before that conversation. There was a relationship between Roberto and his employees way before that. That whole thing was built on a pre-existing condition of love and trust. It can’t be any other way. Have you heard anything from him as to how he established that relationship, to begin with, or was it simple mutual care?
It comes down to the fact that this was Roberto’s first restaurant. He always wanted to be in the restaurant business. He started out as a dishwasher as well in hotels out in Las Vegas then worked his way up through cook and then got his job in another restaurant cooking and doing different things. He always dreamed of having his own restaurants. He then got himself a little taco cart and that taco cart would go to fairs and festivals and he would sell a couple of thousand tacos because his tacos were well-loved. Some gentlemen came up and said, “I’ll back you in being able to help you get your first restaurant.”
You’re dealing with a man who had the chance of a lifetime to build a restaurant. He built a crew and he care. He goes in and he measures the salt, the pepper, the cumin, everything, and every recipe every day. He teaches people that. He’s there taking care of those employees and they’re taking care of him every day because he is in love with what he does and with his customers. That relationship was forged out of the fact that he is doing what he is meant to do in his passion in life.
He poured himself not into the recipes, but also into his employees and teaching them what he knows and probably learning together along the way. I want to go to that store next time I’m in Atlanta.You better love what you do because you're going to be spending your life doing it. Click To Tweet
It’s in Suwanee, Georgia. You’ll have to go to it and soon to be in every nice town in America. We will franchise that, and it will be a great opportunity for people to share what Roberto has created.
I’m going to ask you a question and it’s a little bit unfair because I’m going to ask you to speak on his behalf, but based on how well you know him now, would you say that he was cognizant of the fact that what he was doing was demonstrating love for the business, employees and customers?
I think that’s who Roberto is. I know he cares deeply about people. Does he think about it as the word love, love these people and love all this? I think he does what he does out of the pure goodness of who he is and those types of things. I do know that he is conscious that he can make a difference in those people’s lives. It’s a tough question about using the word ‘love.’ Does he think of it as love? I can’t say that, but I know that he thinks of them as family. That would have a connotation of love to me.
That’s a good implication there. The reason I asked Bryon is that it’s the opposite of what the question implies. A lot of people make the mistake that operationalizing love is about using the language. Language is certainly powerful and it helps us to frame things up like we’ve been talking about. That’s not what this is about. It’s not about walking around saying, “I love you.” It’s about demonstrating it through the way that we act, whether we call it that or not.
I would put money on this and I’m not a betting man if I sat down with his employees and maybe you’ve had this conversation with them. I’ll ask them, “Tell me what you think about Roberto.” They’d say, “I love him.” I have no doubt about that because I hear it all the time. It creates an interesting dynamic. “Tell me about your team.” “I love them. They’re fantastic. I love this about them. I love that about them.”
I can ask that same person in a public context, maybe even in front of that team and say, “Tell me about your team.” “They are great.” Some people are self-conscious about it but what that does though, hearing Roberto’s story, it creates a wonderful example for the rest of us. That’s the power of hearing these stories. We can hear what’s going on in maybe an entirely different context. I’m not in the restaurant business, but I hear what Roberto did with his team and how they responded to him. He was there for them at a time of need.
They put all their energy together. They were audacious in their thinking and they created a business that surpassed what it was before. That’s a phenomenal story because it serves as an example for the rest of us. If this approach doesn’t get us results, then it’s a nice thing to do. There’s no problem with that, but if it’s a damn good business, it’s got to show up in the results. Are you seeing any other examples of that in the brands you’re working with now?
Everywhere. The brands that get it down to the core. There’s another brand in Toledo, Ohio called Balance Grille. It is owned by two college friends that started this brand. It’s an incredible brand and company. They have five locations. COVID hit hard and most of their business was dine-in but they pivoted and went to the curbside and doing all these different things. They went to investing more in their technology like a mobile app.
They love their brand. They love their employees. Their employees love them. It shows up everywhere. This is an interesting brand because when I first heard about it and wanted to get involved with it, the first thing they said is, “We run our stores and we don’t have any managers.” My first thought was, “This is a recipe for failure. This will never work.” He’s like, “We take all that management costs and we pay our employees more because people don’t like to be managed in a hierarchy. They like to be in teams.”
I’m thinking, “This is a Millennial business, all set up for failure, but I’m going to go look at it.” What I found was the most incredible thing. They respect all their employees. They pay them double what the marketplace pays because they don’t have all these bloated management costs. People are accountable for what they do. Everything works well and this company is like no other company. They’re up in sales during COVID as well.
They are some of the leaders in some of the restaurant processes. They got a shout out by the governor of Ohio one day when he was talking about how restaurants should act and what they should do to be safe. He talked about them and he said something like, “Go online and go to Balance Grille’s website and you’ll find what a restaurant should be doing.” It’s incredible little stories like that because these guys are passionate about what they do.
The objective behind these companies is they want to grow. I’m assuming they would love to grow huge, franchises in every corner. This is good advice for all of us, but what do they need to consider in keeping their culture vibrant, love-oriented, and keeping LEAP alive as they grow? A lot of organizations have this common story and often a tragic one that the culture that got them their initial success gets lost as they go to those next phases of growth.
What we have found is you have to be extremely intentional about making sure your culture stays intact. As you grow a franchise system, you’re bringing a lot of different individuals into that system to become franchisees. They all come with their own set of cultural norms, experiences, and belief structure. It’s critical that we call us around a unifying, “This is our brand culture.” We typically would go in and establish a series of cultural beliefs, that are beliefs necessary and needed to drive the business for that particular brand forward.
It’s how we think. It’s how we talk. It’s how we act, how purposeful we are in everything we do, how we make decisions, how we talk to one another when we have conflict. All of these things are built into the culture of an organization. The LEAP platform gives us a great platform to do a lot of that from. Being purposeful and ensuring that everybody lives that allows people to not come in and create chaos. Imagine 50 people coming in and everybody wanting to do it their way and their own cultural norms, that is the pure definition of chaos. We’re intentional about establishing the proper protocols around a cultural norm.
One of the things that makes a franchise a franchise is the replication of the product, the system, the structure, and all that. What I hear you say is it also needs to replicate those cultural beliefs. It’s easy to overlook. If I think I’ve got all the bells and whistles and the transactional stuff covered, then everything will take care of itself, but that’s not the case.
The processes, procedures, and systems help mechanically make sure that the burger or the taco or something like that is served the same way. I’ll give you an example. Chick-fil-A is known for being the greatest brand and quick-serve restaurant for service. I always ask people who is the best service-oriented, quick-serve restaurant? I could be one of those magicians who holds a sign up, “I’ll tell you what you’re going to say to me.” I asked this question, I turned around, and it’s Chick-fil-A every time. We always asked this question. You say thank you at Chick-fil-A, they always say, “My pleasure.” That’s a cultural element. That’s not a process. It’s coached. It’s managed as part of culture, how they smile, how they wave on people, all those things are culturally part of who they are. That becomes critically important as the processes, procedures, and the recipes.
As you look back over the lessons learned so far in your career, and you think about somebody who’s reading to our conversation, your message for franchise people is specific. What about somebody who’s working in a corporation? They’re not the position of leader. They’re not at the top of the company. They don’t have the crown and the scepter to wave around. What advice can you give us in terms of being the best leader that we could be regardless of where we sit on the org chart or the environment that we’re in?
You said it. Being the best you can be is always critical because that is being a leader, whether you have an org chart of 1 over 1, you are the only person. Being the best you can be will set a tone. It will get you recognized. It will set a tone for others in the organization. You can make a difference in an organization by being the best at answering the phones at the front desk because your behaviors and what you do will get you recognized.
People will then begin to want to emulate that. If the organization is geared properly, leadership shows up everywhere and anywhere all the time. I was at Marco’s and the woman who won the MVP award for the entire company was the receptionist. One could say, “It was a token. They just gave it to somebody.” Our franchisees said that one of the things that they love is when they called in, they always had this pleasant voice on the end answering the phones and the efficiency of getting people to where they needed to get to so they could get their problems handled appropriately.
If somebody didn’t pick up, the ability to have them pick back up. When you start to think about it, that’s incredible. Another person that can get overlooked in an organization sometimes can be the janitorial staff. You can be in the janitorial staff and people think, “They’re the janitors. They clean up the garbage.” I’d ask you a question. What will you do if you let your janitors all go on vacation for ten days and don’t hire a firm to come in and do what they do while they’re gone?
You’ll see how much everybody can appreciate what they do because they’re the ones that keep the ball rolling. I come in the office in the morning and everything’s clean. The trash cans are dumped and everything’s stacked and ready to be closed because my janitorial folks are in there, making sure that we came into that, everything’s set, and we can go right to work. If it’s not, it’s a mess then everybody starts complaining and it will be noon before everybody starts complaining about how dirty the place is.
All that productivity is gone. We have to always understand that everybody in the organization can play a leadership role in how they do what they do and how that can impact the overall results for a company. I think that if leadership at the top of an organization, you said the crown and the scepter. If they understand that down to the nth degree, they’ll be better leaders and they’ll set up the framework for their company to be far more successful because they realize that everybody plays an incredibly important role.
Needless to say, that leader at the top of the company, if he or she was a great leader, there would be no crown or scepter. This has been fantastic, Bryon. Thank you. The work that you guys are doing in helping fledgling brands with your incredible expertise, you’re bringing a great gift to these people. There may be some people reading who are thinking, “I’ve had this idea. I do have one restaurant. I’d love some help on this,” that’s maybe a potential client or some partner with Pivotal Growth Partners. How do people get in touch with you?
We can talk to anybody about what they’re doing in their businesses and help them grow. It’s Pivotal Growth Partners, PGP is what we go by. We’re out there working to help brands be able to scale what they’ve created and be able to create value for them, their shareholders, their families, whatever the case may be. I’m going to give you an opportunity to plug your stuff as well because I’ll tell you that and I’ve said it here.
Businesses now are struggling and suffering. A lot of them don’t know how to operationalize LEAP. I know you’ve pivoted your business. I’ve seen some stuff online. You’re doing some virtual things. If anybody is a business leader now and their business is not what it should be, and they’re struggling, they need to get involved in some of those virtual learning experiences so that they can understand how they can make a huge difference in their company by taking these principles and putting it to work because love is just damn good business.
Thank you, Bryon. I do appreciate that. Thank you for tuning into the show. I hope you join us next time, and between now and then, please do whatever you can to do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.
- Bryon Stephens
- Marco’s Pizza
- The Radical Leap
- Love is Just Damn Good Business
- Pivotal Growth Partners
- Beto’s Street Tacos
- Balance Grille