Tony Lutfi, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, is one of the most successful QSR franchisees in the country, rapidly growing his five food brands to market domination and record revenues.
Lutfi, who first ventured into franchise ownership in the early 1990s as a franchisee of Arby’s and Long John Silver’s in Northern California, now owns a whopping 130-plus restaurants in California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and Missouri.
No one-trick pony, in 2011 began diversifying his portfolio beyond food, and just 3 years later operates a total of 29 Sears retail stores: 17 Sears Home Appliance Showrooms, 3 Sears Appliance & Hardware stores, and 9 Sears Outlet stores.
His MarLu Investment Group was able to accomplish such rapid growth across brands because, he says, “We keep the same focus on culture that has kept us in business and away from trouble.” Lutfi’s culture promotes teamwork and cross-functionality, and a sense of ownership for the store managers. “This has been the driving factor behind our cost controls and the real engine for our growth,” he says. “No organization can survive without great unit managers, especially in a multi-unit, multi-brand, multi-state setting.”
A family man and philanthropist, Lutfi, who has added more than 100 units in the past 5 years, is still not done growing his 160-unit organization. He plans to continue moving ahead with each of his brands, and is looking forward to a time when his company will have developed the necessary experience to buy a brand and become a franchisor. “Our biggest challenge as we get larger and more spread out is how to maintain our culture of family atmosphere and enjoy the collaboration that we’ve enjoyed for so many years.”
Name: Tony Lutfi
Title: CEO, President, MarLu Investment Group, Elk Grove, Calif
No. of units: Arby’s, 53; Church’s Chicken, 47; Jack in the Box, 21; Little Caesars, 5 (plus 12 more this quarter); Sizzler, 5; Sears Home Appliance Showroom, 17; Sears Outlet 9; Sears Appliance & Hardware, 3 (and managing 13 Sears locations for another franchisee)
Family: Married for 30 years to Anna; 3 children, Metri, Stephen, and Ramsey; twin grandchildren,d Beckham and Mya
Years in franchising: 21
Years in current position: 21
I have been fortunate enough to have been mentored by some of the very best in the business, but my parents and older siblings deserve the credit for their influence and confidence in me.
Being happily married for 30 years with a wonderful family.
Six days. My day starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. I travel 10 to 12 days a month.
What are you reading?
Best advice you ever got:
When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!
What’s your passion in business?
I love and appreciate our employees and feel privileged that they allow us to be part of their lives. Our employees become an extension of our family, and watching them achieve and grow is extremely rewarding.
Under promise and over deliver repeatedly.
Management method or style:
Tell the truth and encourage others in the company to do the same.
It is difficult for me to give up on people, so I am often too slow to fire.
How do others describe you?
Truthful and caring as a human being, but hard-working and committed as a businessman.
How do you hire and fire, train and retain?
We are committed to promoting from within and have had great success in maintaining minimum turnover because of it. I was given opportunities to grow by others who mentored me, and I wish to do the same for the very best of our team members. Retaining people is easy for us because we are respectful and appreciative of our extended family members. Best hiring is when someone is recommended by our best employees.
Prefer not to say.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
By revenue dollars, but also how we affect the lives of our employees for the better.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
We certainly wish to grow with each of the brands, but we hope that we will have developed the necessary experience to buy a brand and become a franchisor. We also wish to expand our commercial real estate portfolio.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
I have been fortunate to have had the best employers during my career who have taken the time to mentor me and teach me along the way. Several of our past employees have moved into ownership and a couple of them have had major successes in our space. I believe that an employer can best take care of employees by providing for growth opportunities and mentoring them to overcome fears and challenges so they’re prepared for their own story to be written.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
We are most focused on teaching the next generation to care for and grow our organization. I really do not think of it as an exit strategy since it is a family business and our obligation is to protect it for future generations.
2014 MVP Multi-Brand Growth Leadership Award
FOR ACHIEVING BRAND LEADERSHIP IN MULTI-BRAND EXPANSION
Why do you think you were recognized with this award?
Being recognized at the Multi-Unit Franchising Conference was an honor and for it I am very appreciative. I believe we were selected for this category mainly because of our rapid and successful growth in the past 5 years by adding more than 100 units across brands to our portfolio.
How have you raised the bar in your own company?
We strive to be a model franchisee in every brand. We recognize that protecting and promoting the brand ultimately serves our company best. Our focus is to be a top performer with each of our franchise scorecards. Of course this is a very difficult goal because of our size and geographical range, but our teams take pride and ownership of this lofty goal.
What innovations have you created and used to build your company?
We hardly try to innovate, but what we do is learn the simplest and most efficient ways to conduct business and do it in a fashion that involves our core employees and leaders, as it is they who carry it forward to become cultural in nature.
What core values do you think led you to win this MVP Award?
Our core values are respect, honesty, and teamwork. Others are to have passion for safety; think big—don’t act big; be kind; be friendly; work hard; be loyal; be smart; be fair; compete and be relevant; and have fun.
How important is community involvement to you and your company?
We have supported many local and national causes over the years with recent fundraising efforts for No Kid Hungry campaigns with the Arby’s and Sizzler brands. In 2013, we successfully raised more than $120,000. I currently serve on the Church’s Partners Foundation, an organization that works hard to provide educational funding as well as assistance for individuals who have been struck by tragedy. Our goal is to establish a MarLu Foundation in 2015, raising money throughout the year for various causes such as education, hunger relief, and providing a safer environment for the youth.
What leadership qualities are important to you and your team?
Be respectful and kind to all, but also be passionate about teamwork and employee safety.