On Cathy Amato's first day as a Jack in the Box management trainee in the early 1980s, her trainer questioned whether Amato was up for the rigor ahead--changing grease vats, scrubbing floors, and crazy hours.
"He was really like, 'Real girls don't want to do this kind of work,'" Amato remembers.
He didn't know Amato, who along with partners Martha Jordan and Rick Riley, collectively own and operate 55 Subway restaurants in San Antonio and Austin, along with Mooyah and Ruby Tuesday brands. The winner of Multi-Unit Franchisee magazine's 2012 MVP Role Model Award truly believes she is in a business that rewards hard work with opportunity.
"I never had any aspiration or skill set that would necessarily help me be successful in the restaurant industry," she says. "I started at the ground floor and through hard work and applying myself I've been able to move up the ranks. But also, I have been able to go out on my own and build a substantial company."
She may not have predicted her career path, but it seems fitting that at 14, Amato's first job was as a busboy and dishwasher (by hand) at the Highway CafÃ© in La Vernia, Texas, outside San Antonio. Years later, when she "needed a break" from clerical work, she returned to the restaurant industry as a waitress. Amato fell in love with the people, the business, and the unstructured hours--and never looked back.
Lured by a Jack in the Box ad aimed at bringing more women into management, the budding restaurateur cleaned those vats, scrubbed those floors, clocked those crazy hours, and soaked up every facet of management, eventually becoming the corporate training manager for all of South Central Texas. After 15 years, Riley snatched up Amato for Subway, where she also works for the development office for South Central Texas, responsible for selling franchises, site selection, and leasing. With strong growth plans ahead and supported by an established infrastructure, Amato is passionate about promoting from within, developing in underserved areas of the city, and being a good corporate citizen.
Amato is a role model--on and off the field. She has served as a board member for the local advertising boards for Subway and is an advocate, with her husband, prominent businessman Charlie Amato, of child-related causes and animals, a natural for Amato, who has three dogs, two cats, and a parrot. She says the MVP Role Model Award "touched her heart" because she hopes it will inspire others.
"We all talk about what we are going to leave behind, we accumulate all these things," she says. "But I really feel that I will not have lived in vain if I can leave this planet with just a few people saying I inspired them to do better, they had an opportunity to do better, and somehow I made a difference in their life."
Name: Cathy Amato
Brands/units: 55 Subway, 3 Ruby Tuesday, 1 Mooyah Burgers & Fries
Years in franchising: 20
Years in current position: 20
Developing the Subway brand in South Central Texas, 420 units.
Sweat equity-only partners.
How do you spend a typical day?
Workout, work, community and social activities.
Whatever it takes.
Favorite fun activities:
Hanging with friends and a great martini, sharing dinner at great restaurants, exercising, reading, large family get-togethers, girlfriend trips.
6 a.m. CrossFit
Favorite tech toys:
What are you reading?
If the Buddha Got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path by Charlotte Sophia Kasl; Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo.
Do you have a favorite quote/advice?
"I'll think about it tomorrow." (Scarlett O'Hara)
Best advice you ever got:
Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers.
Grew up with parents with strong work ethics. Instilled from a very early age that if I wanted something I would have to work for it.
How do you balance life and work?
Work hard, play hard, sleep little.
Are you in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business? Why?
I want a proven concept. There is a greater chance of success with a proven brand. I love the people in the restaurant industry. They are special and interesting and usually outside the box.
As an operator, what are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Marketing plan and cost controls.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Got a lot to do.
What's your passion in business?
Seeing growth in the employees and business.
Management method or style:
Performance driven, balanced with caring about people. I really like the new way some companies are giving employees the latitude to accomplish objectives in their own way.
Get organized, stop doing things at the last minute (like this).
How close are you to operations?
I'm always looking from a customer perspective. My partner does the day-to-day operations and can catch the tiniest of details.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
In today's economy there has to be a value message along with any other marketing platform.
How is social media affecting your business operations?
Get with it or get left behind.
How do others describe you?
Fun, driven, determined, nice--and throw in a little overcommitted.
How do you hire and fire?
We promote quite a bit from inside while still making sure we hire from the outside so we don't get too "inbred." We try to balance the two to create a strong team of brand experts and new ideas. Employees fire themselves by their nonperformance.
How do you train and retain?
We have web-based training systems in our restaurants that are really state of the art.
How do you deal with problem employees?
Seriously, we give them every opportunity first to be retrained and remotivated.
$30 million projected (total for all brands)
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Same-store sales against prior year first, but it is fun to see your total revenue grow from adding additional units.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
Still in business and making a dollar. In 5 to 10 years, have some key people in place so I'm still involved but not bolted down.
How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers?
We are all faced with rising costs that affect our disposable income. We are all making buying decisions based on value and not spending as much as we used to. The days of wanton spending are gone and everyone is more cautious where and how they spend their money.
Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market?
We are lucky to be in San Antonio, Texas. We feel it, but not as badly as many parts of the country.
What did you change or do differently in this economy that you plan to continue doing?
Evaluate risk on new locations and ventures more closely. Nothing is a "gimme" anymore.
How do you forecast for your business in this economy?
I really read all the industry publications, as well as data sources, such as Sandelman's. It is also so important the franchisor is using their resources to keep us current on how not only our category is performing but how we are performing relative to the category.
Where do you find capital for expansion?
Long-term solid banking relationships.
Is capital getting easier to access? Why/why not?
Because of our 20 years in business with successful restaurants, we have been very fortunate and not had lending issues. A big goal in the past has been to pay down debt quickly so we look very good on our debt ratio. Individuals just getting started are finding it tough to get initial lending or having enough cash to put down.
Have you used private equity, local/national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
Local community banks are wonderful and still consider service an important part of banking.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
Thinking about it.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)?
Voting for politicians who are sensitive to the restaurant industry needs. Someone pays somewhere. At the end of the day, rising costs have to be passed down to consumers.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Advancement, bonuses, performance raises based on measurable accomplishments, employee award programs.
2012 MVP - Role Model Award
For providing an example for others to follow in franchise success
You were recognized with this year's MVP Role Model Award. Tell us more about what you did.
As a multi-unit franchisee, how have you raised the bar within your company?
Give us an example of innovations you have created and used to build your company.
What core values do you feel led you to winning this MVP Award?
Please understand that everything that I have accomplished would not have happened without my business partners and great management team. My partners balance my weaknesses and we have been fortunate that we are all driven to excel in different parts of the business. Our management teams are tenured and have taken us from the very start of our business with annual sales of less than $250,000 to many companies that together are projected to do $30 million in combined sales for 2012. I am very blessed to be surrounded by such individuals.
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