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Man on a Mission: Building An Empire On A Foundation Of Smiles

Amit Kleinberger rattles off the business start-ups he's launched like a general listing the cities he's seized. There was the chain of equipment stores, a window and glass distribution company in Los Angeles, and the assisted living building for Alzheimer's and dementia care.

He got each of the operations up and running and then sold them, restlessly on, looking for a new mission: that one big concept he could take global.

Then he got very, very interested in a partnership where he had invested a significant amount of time and money. Menchie's, a self-serve concept, had all of one store open when Kleinberger got involved with the original two partners. It was close to four years ago when he decided to lead the company forward. Since then, he's devoted most of his waking hours to making it one of the fastest-growing franchise operations in the country.

"We have today over 200 franchisees in the United States and globally with 118 open stores," says Kleinberger. But the U.S. market isn't big enough to contain his ambition. "In addition we have 154 stores being developed as we speak. Within just shy of 4.5 years we should have 250 open stores in the U.S., Canada, and other countries, with our first store in the Middle East opening in three months."

Internationally, he says, Menchie's has stores being developed in the U.K., Mexico, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, and soon China and India--and more countries are being added regularly to the development plan. He's made it his mission to make Menchie's the largest franchisor of self-serve frozen yogurt in the world by next spring, he says. If successful, he will lead an army of thousands.

Before he ever started a company, hired his first employee, or learned much about Kleinberger was a soldier in the infantry ground forces. At the end of his three-year-stint, the active duty combat sergeant had learned something about people, leadership,and inspiring people to do their very best. And he was determined to put some of those ideas to work.

"I call myself an optimist, a positive personality by nature, and I believe that business should focus around making people smile," says the franchisor with his trademark eagerness. "My other businesses were great, but none of them provided fulfillment from an inner perspective. I believe people buy the why--the reason for doing things--not the what. This is a business that can create positive feelings in the world."

That's why, when Kleinberger is asked how he measures success, he cites a favorite goal in life: sparking new smiles. He likes to see smiles, particularly when it's a customer or a franchisee. It's part of the why.

"The other businesses I started were just businesses," he says. "What we do today is a mission. Business is usually a way to earn a living, but here it's a cause, a reason for being. The most important thing in business is to love what you do and do what you love."

Kleinberger makes no apologies for being passionate about his goals. That kind of passion breeds success. And he is far from being close to achieving his goals for Menchie's, where today a franchisee can expect to spend, on average, $350,000 to $375,000 to open a new operation. "We've really moved mountains," he says. "We are driven by the cause, by the mission, and I could not have done any of this without my beloved team, as they all believe in making people smile."

Name: Amit Kleinberger
Title: CEO
Company: Menchie's Group Inc.
No. of units: 118
Age: 31
Family: Wife
Years in franchising: 4
Years in current position: 4

Leadership

What is your role as CEO?
My principal role is to continuously strategize and propel the vision and the mission, and to cultivate the culture of the organization throughout all its members and aspects. That's the bottom line. At Menchie's, where we have more than 2,000 team members under our umbrella, it is our mission to make our stakeholders smile. How do we do it? By making sure the vision, mission, and values are being upheld.

Leadership style?
I have to say a "thank you" to the military. In the military you deal with life-and-death situations, and you learn that people do things best when they believe in the common vision and in what you as a leader stand for. Successful leaders inspire people to action, rather than just tell them what to do. My style of leadership is leading by example and following the "be-know-do" leadership principles. "Be" the person with the values you believe in. "Know" what you are doing, how to be competent. And "do"--execute on the plan of action; don't let life pass while observing. Act! Most important, my team members come first and before myself, and they are the highest priority!

What has inspired your leadership style?
A combination of two things. First, it was the military. As the world's leading leadership institute, it molded my leadership style as I learned from the best that people come first. I was privileged to be around leaders and see what it takes to become one. People don't do what they need to do; people do what they want to do. A good leader inspires people into showing them what the team members want to do--and why. When I have a task in mind, I show my team members why this may be the right thing to do, and what's the reason for doing it. Having your team's buy-in is a key element, as teamwork makes things happen. The second inspiration to my style was simply making leadership mistakes through the years and learning from them. Those who don't do, don't make mistakes. We need to learn and grow from each one!

Biggest leadership challenge?
The one that most CEOs deal with: how to maintain a warm and friendly environment with a rapidly growing organization; how to maintain warmth with size. During the course of leading a company, CEOs face decisions that are either people- or business-oriented. My preference was, is, and will be people, and that is hard to maintain with a rapidly growing organization.

How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees?
Communication and people! We put an emphasis on communication and an open and safe environment to express opinions and thoughts. We recently implemented a weekly "all hands" meeting with team members to discuss strategy and provide a comfortable platform to bring up any topic the team may have on their mind. The culture will set the tone of the organization's behavior, performance, and long-term results. When we meet with team members, we get their buy-in, provide them with empowerment to make decisions, and cultivate our "we make you smile" philosophy throughout every aspect of our environment as best we can. Setting the culture is a constant work in progress.

Best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA or OTJ?
Both are of high value. Yet, through the years, I have seen evidence that can support that the best place is often on the job. Though I do not have an MBA, I am aware that it's a valuable yet I've come across enough MBA graduates alongside individuals with heavy experience and no MBA, and can almost categorically say that the on-the-job experience usually leads to better leaders and results.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
No. Often my leadership team sits around a large table and we try to make tough decisions together. Not always is it doable, but as a general principle that is our preference. I like to get more people involved and opinions offered. When you create a group effort, you increase the probability for a better and more informed decision.

How do you make tough decisions?
Large groups have a wide range. There's a spectrum of factors in making a decision and you can really think. We make collaborative decisions, and we make the right ones.

Do you want to be liked or respected?
Respected first. I believe that wanting to be liked is a mistake that leaders sometimes make. When leaders are liked they are not necessarily respected. But when leaders are respected, most likely they are liked as well. I believe respect means the general consensus is that you are leading in the right way. Whereas, "liked" may not necessarily mean that--you may do things that can be wrong but that can get you liked.

Advice to wannabe leaders?
Always set the example. People follow leaders that believe in what they do and set an example for the rest. Practice what you preach and preach what you practice. Be, know, and do. Second, you can't please everyone. Just try to do what you believe to be the right thing for the team that you lead.

Management

Management style?
It starts with avoiding the word "management." We believe in leadership. To manage is to tell people what to do; to lead is to inspire people into the right action. We empower and communicate. We trust the team to make the right decisions. At the end of the day, you hired them to make decisions, to do the right thing, so you might as well let them do what you hired them for.

Management team?
I hire character first. Our leadership team has a high level of character and mutually believes in our values. It's a strong leadership team that shares a passion for making people smile. The emotional intelligence and passion in our group is unparalleled. Building a good leadership team takes time and nurturing. Communication is key, and we meet every week religiously to touch base and connect with each other. We are a close group and the bond between the team is evident in their performance.

How does your management team help you lead?
They follow the principles that they believe in, such as inspiring people into action. The team needs to believe in each other, coexist harmoniously with each other, and believe in the vision, mission, and values of the organization. My leadership team helps me lead by communicating to me the matters that are on their minds, and representing their team members' best interest, which is important. We believe in being unified and supportive, which helps all of us with leading the organization. I have a top-notch team that understands the importance of creating an environment that is warm and produces positive results.

Favorite management gurus, books?
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Good to Great by Jim Collins, and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"
I do things from the why, and not for the what. I do what I do because I believe that our mission is something that was engraved in me since my childhood. I remember that as a child I liked being around happy people and seeing good things take place. I love to do things that can help people. That's why I love franchising. It's the only business I know of where you can be an ambassador of the business and introduce more people into the entrepreneurial world. There is a multitude of positive things that our franchisees/entrepreneurs bring to the world: they provide jobs for the community, they propel entities that are among the highest collective tax contributors for our country, and they provide a pleasant environment for our guests to enjoy with their families. What is there not to like?

Personal

What time do you like to be at your desk?
Usually 8:30 a.m.

Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch?
Generally I do not consume alcohol. I exercise at night and my day spans from 8:30 to around midnight, 7 days a week.

Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office?
Not as much as I would like to. I'm still trying to find more time for those things. I believe that socializing with the team is fun as they are great people

What technology do you take on the road?
I take my BlackBerry, my laptop, and my iPad.

How do you balance life and work?
Most would say that I don't balance those two. In my view, I am one of those lucky people who is able to enjoy every minute of their work, and when you love your work you won't work a day in your life!

Favorite destination:
Europe.

Favorite occasions to send employees notes:
Birthdays, significant accomplishments, celebrations, family occasions, and sometimes just the simple things can warm one's heart.

Favorite company product:
I am a "cookies and cream" man in all my heart.

Bottom Line

Long-term goals for the company?
We are going to be the next McDonald's, and put smiles on people's around the world.

Has the economy changed your goals for your company?
Not at all. It encouraged them. We are a living and breathing proof that when things are done right and come from the right place that even in tough economies companies can make it.

Where can capital be found these days?
Good companies should have no problem to source capital. The banking environment is becoming easier. We have our own personal resources.

How do you measure success?
By how many people we made smile.

What has been your greatest success?
Seeing our franchisees bring their business ownership dreams to life, and helping in making them smile.

Any regrets?
Yes, we should have started franchising in the '90s.

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months?
First, you can expect us to continue to make our guests smile. We are a guest-experience-focused company, so you can expect us to advance and innovate our Menchie's in-store experience. We do not just sell yogurt, we provide an experience that is complete and flawlessly fun. Menchie's will provide guests with the most interactive environment in the frozen category. It's not only about the product, it's about coming into our stores and leaving with a big smile.

We are in the process of innovating and reinventing our product line, placing community before commerce, and focusing on the highest quality out there, ensuring that we have the leading product and experience in the marketplace. From a positioning standpoint, we will become the largest self-serve frozen yogurt retailer worldwide by June 2012. There will be a lot of international expansion in the next year, with openings in more than 10 countries. Our guests can expect improved guest care programs with further interactive features and guest touch points in our stores that will make them smile even more. Bottom line: the Menchie's in-store experience will only get better in the year to come!

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