When 19-year-old Atour Eyvazian fled from his native Iran in the early 1980s to escape persecution for being a Christian, he embarked on an odyssey that led through Turkey all the way to Los Angeles.
"After I left Iran I was captured in Turkey," he says. But using money his mother had sewn into his Levi's, the resourceful Eyvazian bribed his way out of prison. "Once I made a phone call to relatives in the U.S., my family in Iran had to leave. They were afraid for their lives. They met me in Turkey and we all went to the U.S. Embassy. We arrived in the U.S. on November 4, 1984."
Even though he spoke only Persian, Eyvazian started looking for work immediately and landed his first job working as a janitor in a local Jack in the Box. He learned his first few words of English from his co-workers, and after a few months he found himself promoted to the fryer.
"I was working part-time and learned a little bit of English so I could read the monitors in the kitchen," he says. "During all this time I went to night school to learn English and the folks at Jack in the Box were so helpful. When people see you're trying, everyone tries to help you. And folks would help me, teaching me how to say different things. Some bought small books, like a dictionary one person got me."
Jack in the Box not only gave him his first job, the company also helped with his education. Eyvazian made restaurant manager and then landed a corporate job with the company in 1989 that would last 16 years. In 2005, he and a partner, Anil Yadav, bought 10 Jack in the Box locations in Sacramento (for a profile of Yadav, see www.mufranchisee.com/article/657/).
"We ran those from 2005 to 2007 and did really, really good," says an enthusiastic Eyvazian. "Corporate liked us and we like this brand." But the Sacramento market had only a few dozen corporate stores. If the 45-year-old Eyvazian wanted to expand, he and his partner would have to look to other markets. His zeal to grow the franchise business led him to the booming city of Houston three years ago.
"This market has a lot of potential," he says. "And I know how strong this region is. When I was with corporate, I used to be a support person in Houston. I know how friendly people are here."
Today he and Yadav own 49 Jack in the Box restaurants in Houston, most in the southwestern section of the sprawling Texas metropolis. And they still own the 10 Sacramento locations.
But Eyvazian is far from finished. He has great things yet to do, and wants to earn the recognition that comes from great success. Disciplined and a longtime believer that hard work brings big rewards, Eyvazian has weathered every challenge that has come his way. But whether it was the Iranian revolution in 1979 or Hurricane Ike in 2008, which threatened to blow his business away, he has come out tougher and stronger than ever before.
These days, the recession has presented fresh challenges for his business. And once again, he's planning to come out of this in better shape than when he entered.
After working his way up from an entry-level job with no skills and little English to become the operating partner of a thriving restaurant business with more than 1,000 employees, Eyvazian knows in his heart that he can achieve all of his dreams.
- Name: Atour Eyvazian
- Title: Vice president and operating partner
- Company: AA Management
- No. of units: 59 Jack in the Box, 49 in Houston,10 in Sacramento
- Age: 45
- Family: Married with two kids, a daughter and son. My mother also lives with me.
- Years in current position: 5
- Years in franchising: 26
- Key accomplishments:
In 2007 I was named Regional Franchisee of the Year for Jack in the Box, and in 2008 I was the Franchisee of the Year for the whole system.
- Smartest mistake:
When Hurricane Ike came through Houston everyone was leaving, and I stayed because a lot of my people stayed. I sent my family to Austin. I was actually working in one of the stores until midnight. It was really, really bad and I thought at one point I might lose my life. If I had been hurt, that certainly would have been my biggest mistake. I was lucky, and it turned out to be my smartest mistake because I was able to get up and attend to my restaurants. I started working around 8 a.m. Saturday. My people saw me in town. It just brought the whole group together. We got very close. Right after that, Tina Turner came to town and the whole corporate team celebrated.
- How do you typically spend a day?
I work a lot of hours. I wake up very early. It doesn't matter what day of the week. Every day of the week is a normal day. I wake up at 5 or 5:30 and I go to sleep at 11 p.m. or midnight. I grab some coffee, read my paper, get on email, and I usually go out and visit some stores. They're spread out. I don't remember a day I haven't gone to a Jack in the Box.
- Work week:
It depends on what we're working on. But I work with people. I have over 1,000 employees and I know all my people. Most have been with me a long time. We are as strong as our weakest link. For me to grow I have to have the team that's best at what they do. I see myself as an influencer.
- Favorite fun activities:
I know it sounds like a cliché, but working for me is fun. I spend a lot of time at work. I take my kids to work a lot of times, on weekends and after school. I take golf lessons every few weeks. This kind of lifestyle gives me the flexibility to be around kids or with anyone I want to be with.
That's one thing I do for myself. I love to work out. I lift weights and I have all sorts of exercise machines and weights at home. It helps me stay balanced. After a long day, just working out a few minutes brings me back to the basics of life.
- Favorite stuff/tech toys:
I love technology. I haven't bought the latest stuff but I have an iPod. I'll visit stores to see the latest thing, like 4G broadband or the latest Bluetooth technology.
- What are you reading?
Usually it has something to do with business. I get the local papers, but books are usually about business. Right now it's the business book Execution. Before that, Lean Thinking.
- Do you have a favorite quote or advice you give?
I have a lot of these rules, like the meaning of LUCK: Labor Under Correct Knowledge. I've been using it for many years. They say so-and-so is lucky. If you know what to do and you do it, you get promoted and other folks will call you lucky.
- Best advice you ever got:
Work hard, my father always told me. I always remember him as a hardworking person. He'd say work hard and keep your eye on true north. Know what's right and keep your eye on the goal. I'm very self-driven.
- Formative influences/events:
I would say coming to the United States. That whole journey made me who I am.
- How do you balance life and work?
I don't balance it. My family is really good about it. They understand my work.
- Business philosophy:
You need to strive for constant and never-ending improvement. I don't compare myself to others. I know what my best is. And though others may tell me "That's great," I know when I didn't do my best. That's my philosophy.
- Would you say you are in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business?
If I have a fourth option, I would say I'm in the people business. Whatever we do, we're in the people business. I have chosen this lifestyle and through my line of work I provide comfort to other people. A clean restroom, a clean place to eat, good food and drink. If a guest comes through Jack in the Box and they're short a couple of bucks, I don't have a problem helping them out. What goes around comes around.
- What gets you out of bed in the morning?
It's about what I do and live for. My kids and work get me out of the bed. I feel a lot of people need me to get up and do things for them.
- What's your passion in business?
I'll see a person who's been with me for two years or so and they have a moment when they get it. It's like a light goes on, and now they're doing so good. When they say, "Thanks, without you I couldn't do it," that gives me juice in my life. I love to see my kids and employees grow and learn something new.
- Management method or style:
I have a little bit of everything. After almost 26 years with Jack in the Box I've worked almost every position. I'm very assertive but I'm very interpersonal. I see everything around me. I don't miss much. I believe that you take care of employees and they take care of guests. If they need a few hundred dollars to take care of bills, school, or something, I'll often help them. The good Lord has been good to me. I like to help folks. I don't see people as just employees. I see them as whole human beings.
- Greatest challenge:
I would say I don't have enough time in the day. I personally don't like to say no to people and when I have a lot of requests my greatest challenge is taking care of all of these issues. I don't have that much time.
- How close are you to operations?
Very close. My goal is helping people get to the next level.
- How do others describe you?
I think most people would say I'm very self-motivated. They have told me I'm laser-sharp. I may be slow to get it, but once I get it I'm self-driven and very disciplined, very positive.
- How do you hire and fire?
I think we hire very, very slowly. I put people through different interview processes. With a new manager or assistant manager, I get involved in that process at some point. The director of operations and I have the last say. But we terminate very quickly. We know what's good for business and we don't surprise anybody. We share up front what we're for and what we do, and if somebody goes against that our job is to take that person out.
- How do you train and retain?
In Jack in the Box we're very lucky. We have a very good training program. As a franchisee, these are the things that keep me loyal to the brand. They update training modules all the time. Every person we hire goes through that system to be trained. Folks come looking for a place to work but they stay because of the bosses we have. We keep them through how we treat them.
- How do you deal with problem employees?
Just the way I described it. I'm about what we need to do for customers. If a person makes a mistake, I don't call that a problem. But if someone is on a different path and wants to go a different direction, it doesn't make sense for that person to stay in the company.
- How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)?
There are some things we can't control. It hits all of us. I focus on the things I can control. At the end of the day, terminating people is the most costly thing when it comes to employees. We keep getting feedback and giving feedback.
- How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
We have a ton of them. From production employee to director of operations, we have a lot of indicators that tell us how we're doing. Everybody knows the goals. When a restaurant manager has a good audit, straight A, that person gets a couple hundred cash. Some people may get a couple of baseball tickets, maybe a dinner. Our bonus system is pretty strong. Managers get a special night out, and they come up with it. If I get what I want, what do they get from me? Red carpet treatment. They choose a night they want to go out. I rent a limo and bring area managers together who hit an area goal. I don't need superstars. I need super teams.
- Annual revenue: Undisclosed
- 2010 goals: Our goal has been and will be to do the right thing for folks around us.
- Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Every restaurant has numbers that they produce. Every year I want to do the best I can in that one location, and then it doesn't matter how many locations you have.
- Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
I want to be the most admired franchisee, somebody who everybody will say, "We want to know how he did it."
- How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers?
Just like everybody else, sales have softened. Depending on the market I'm in, sales are down but I would say that we've focused on the basics, trying to do them perfectly. We've focused on everything in the business and we'll come out stronger than before.
- Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market?
I don't know if I'm noticing a recovery. But based on what I'm seeing the bottom is here.
- What did you change or do differently during the recent tough economic times that you plan to continue doing into the future?
Every business has some basic rules and do's and don'ts. We have been trying our best to keep the restaurants clean, the food hot, and make sure employees are taken care of. It's important to focus on what's right for the business and location and learn.
- How do you forecast for your business during trying times? Can you even forecast at all?
- Where do you find capital for expansion?
We have used different banks in the past, before things dried up a couple of years ago. I would say money still exists to borrow but what you do for borrowing is different. They want you to provide documentation, do due diligence, but money is available.
- Is capital getting easier to access?
It's not as easy as four or five years ago. But the capital is available.
- Have you used private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions?
We get our capital through local or national banks.
- What kind of exit strategy do you have in place for your business?
I don't, man. That's the one thing I should be focused on.