When Kevin and Laurel Wilkerson, winners of Multi-Unit Franchisee magazine's Veteran Entrepreneurship Award, came to Marco's Pizza from the military using the IFA's Vetfran program, they were pretty sure their total of 44 combined years in the U.S. Army stood them in good stead.
"What I enjoyed most about the Army was the variety of things I did every day: decision-making, analysis, operations, logistics, training," says Kevin Wilkerson, who retired in 2005 after 24 years as an infantry office in the Army. "Franchising, especially multi-unit franchising, tends to be similar to that. When you look at what a multi-unit franchisee does in a typical day, you're talking about the fact that we can apply ourselves to lease negotiations, site selections, hard and soft science, construction, sequencing, marketing, operations, business analysis, personnel, training. That's the fun part to me, and it's hard to replicate just anywhere outside the Army."
Kevin, who also holds a master's degree from Harvard University, and his wife Laurel, an attorney who served 20 years as a JAG Corp officer in the Army, have found the transition to franchising pretty seamless. They've opened seven stores in their contract in just over three years.
The division of duties between the two owners of Boomer's Pizza LLC of Edmond, Oklahoma, is a natural one, they say. "She has a law degree so she handles a lot of HR, client and government issues and the kind of things that need to be handled any time you build a business. She's very involved with store openings as well as some of the training," says Kevin. "I tend to be more involved in site selection, design, operations, and finances."
The Wilkersons are happy with their relationship with the franchisor. "Marco's has allowed us to be innovative," he says. "It's big enough that you have a great system behind you but small enough for us to have input and offer innovations."
It's also been rewarding to form a network of friends who have become franchisees in other states, he says. "This allows us to leverage best practices with others."
During his three years with Marco's, he has served as inaugural president of the Area Representative Leadership Council (ARLC) and established, working with the franchisor, significant improvements to the franchise system.
The Wilkersons have also been quick to lend a helping hand to other new franchisees. On one occasion, Kevin, who's a pilot, loaded up his plane and flew supplies to a new Alabama store under the gun because sales volumes were more than double the projections. The distributor couldn't restock quickly enough, so without Wilkerson's help, the store would have closed. "That was fun," he recalls. "I had the capacity and the time. He would have done it for me had the tables been turned."
Wilkerson sees franchising as a great opportunity for other vets. "My best advice would be to throw the net wide and think more broadly in terms of what the business is. It's not just about selling pizza; it's about building a multi-unit, saleable business that you can take to any level."
Name: Kevin & Laurel Wilkerson
Company: Boomer Pizza LLC, Edmond, Okla.
No of units by brand: Marco's Pizza, 7
Age: Kevin, 54; Laurel, 49
Family: Daughter Amber and son Gary
Years in franchising: 3 ½ years
Years in current position: 3 ½ years
Kevin served 24 years as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army, and Laurel served 20 years as a JAGC Officer in the U.S. Army.
In September 2012, we had the highest opening sales of any Marco's in the country. In April 2013, we had the second highest opening sales of any Marco's in the U.S. In 2011, Kevin was selected as the Area Representative of the Year for Marco's. One of our units was acknowledged for being in the top 10 in sales for 2012.
Decision I wish I could do over:
I'd have joined Marco's Pizza earlier.
How do you spend a typical work week?
We focus on franchise sales, new store development, training, and daily operations.
What are you reading?
Change the Culture - Change the Game by Roger Connors and Tom Smith.
Best advice you ever got:
Do only those things that you can do; delegate the rest and supervise.
What's your passion in business?
Developing our employees, customer service, making our customers smile, and offering the highest quality pizza on the market.
How do you balance life and work?
If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life. We do enjoy travel, and it allows us time to relax, regroup, and sharpen our focus.
A week of snow skiing in Colorado with a fellow franchisee and his family.
Business philosophy/management style:
We establish parameters for our leaders, and let them use their creativity and initiative to accomplish our goals within those parameters.
We are in a very strong development phase right now, so time management between development and operations is a particular challenge at the moment.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
It starts with us leading by example in trying new things and being innovative, and we encourage our team to do the same. We highlight, celebrate, and learn from innovative mistakes.
How close are you to operations?
What do you rely on/expect from your franchisor?
We expect our franchisor to be a partner with us so we can grow our business and grow the brand.
What do you need from vendors?
Timely delivery, consistent products and service.
How is social media affecting your business?
Positively. As long as you provide a great product and superior service, word will spread.
How do you hire and fire?
We hire people based on a good attitude and a willingness to work as part of a team. Employees with a poor attitude or who cannot be relied upon are counseled. The employees themselves normally discover they are not a good fit for our business and move on.
Fastest way in my doghouse:
Tell me you are going to do something and then don't follow through.
Approximately $8 million.
We have doubled the number of units in our territory every year since 2010. We plan to double again this year. Additionally, we are focused on increasing same store sales over the past year.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Development of our people, same store sales, and number of units in territory.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Have our territory completely developed. 10 years? We hope to have purchased another Marco's territory and be developing it.
How do you forecast for your business?
When looking at forecasting, we look at a couple of different layers. On one hand, how many stores will we build next year in our territory personally and as a group? What are sales and stretch goals? Certainly we also look at same store sales, trying to forecast based on realistic but stretched goals. In store development, so far we've doubled the number of stores every year since we started. We'll go from 9 to 18 this year, but that's getting tougher every year.
Where do you find capital for growth, expansion?
We have funded internally or taken advantage of SBA conventional loan programs.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
This starts with providing a positive work environment. We try to establish a place where they are developed, challenged, and enjoy coming to work every day. Pizza is fun. This is still work but we try to make it a fun work environment.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)?
We try to minimize employee turnover and establish a stabilized work force. We are currently trying to determine the impact of the Affordable Healthcare Act and ultimately, the costs will be passed on to consumers.
How do you recognize top performing employees?
We love catching employees doing the right thing. In these cases we give immediate recognition along with a financial bonus to the employee. At store level, when we have a store reach 90 days without a customer complaint, the entire store receives an incentive (for example: a Marco's jacket or movie tickets). At the management level, managers who achieve key results are rewarded with trips for two along with financial incentives.
2013 MVP Questions
Why do you think you were recognized with the Veteran Entrepreneurship Award?
As a multi-unit franchisee, how have you raised the bar in your own company?
Give an example of innovations you have created and used to build your company:
What core values do you have that you feel led you to winning the MVP Award?
Explain the role of community involvement to you and your company.
What are the important leadership qualities to you and to your team?
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