Persistence and Faith: "In the end we're just cooking, we're not saving the world"

It's fitting that Johnny Collins runs marathons. The persistence and long-term needed to finish a 26.1-mile race is mirrored in Collins' long, difficult quest to start his own business.

Collins had worked for years as a fireman and officer before he set out on his own. At first, the going was tough. Several businesses he started didn't make it. Even after he opened his first Wingstop in McAllen, Texas, making the store work seemed like a test of his faith. "Several times, I said, 'Oh my goodness, what did I go do?'" Collins says. "I'd get on my knees and pray."

One problem was that Wingstop was an unknown quantity in his market. In that area, he says, small, mom-and-pop restaurants open up regularly--and shut down just as regularly. Potential customers didn't seem to be giving Wingstop a chance. So Collins hung flyers on every door within a three-mile radius. Sometimes he'd take free samples into the neighborhood.

His persistence paid off. Collins was recently honored as the Multi-Unit Operator of the Year by Wingstop for his three-store, $5 million operation. And now he's opening Mooyah Burgers & Fries locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They're still new, but Collins is confident they'll pay off. "Our first store doesn't have big numbers yet, but I know it will do huge," he says. "Even our second location is already pretty busy."

If Collins's previous long-term goal was starting a business, now it's passing that business on to his son, Brian. The 23-year-old North Texas State University student works with his father part-time. The two also run together and share ideas. "Now that he's older, I give him some pointers," says Dad.

With the new Mooyah Burgers stores, Collins divides his time between Dallas-Fort Worth and the Rio Grande Valley. He spends up to 10 days a month with the Wingstop locations, relying on his general manager, his sister-in-law Esthela Vallejo, for day-to-day operations.

Next up for him? Real estate. While Collins is always looking to grow his sales, he's also into the property side of the business, away from leased space and toward building his own locations. "That way the rent I pay is to myself," Collins says. "That's how I'm looking to grow now."

Name: Johnny Collins
Title: Owner
Company: Several, including South of the Border Wings
No. of units: 3 Wingstops, 2 Mooyah Burgers


Age: 55
Family: Wife and son.
Years in franchising: 8
Years in current position: 8

Key accomplishments:
I was a fireman and security officer for a defense contractor, but my goal was to open my own business. Now, thanks to the Lord, I have two stores in the top 10 in the nation, and one, our McAllen store, that's top 20 in the nation. It's been a very good blessing, a good investment.

Biggest mistake:
I don't think of anything as a mistake. Everything I've done with franchising I've learned so much from. People are very helpful. They'll give you a push and you take off.

Smartest mistake:
Getting into my own business. At first it seemed like a mistake. It took about two years to get it going better. At first just a few people came back, then they'd tell other people, and it kept growing and growing.

How do you spend a typical day?
Generally, I get up in the morning and spend some time with the Lord. After that I get dressed and check email, check with the stores, make sure everything is working properly, that all the employees are showing up. Then I go to a store, walk the floor myself, talk to the customers. I try to make some time in there to get a 6- to 8-mile run. It relaxes me and gives me good ideas. I also make time to spend with my wife, and often, my son will run with me now. It gets us together.

Work week:
I spend my time 50/50 between the Rio Grande Valley and Wingstop stores, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area Mooyah Burgers. Generally, I go to the Valley the latter part of every month, to make sure everything is running properly. My wife's sister, Esthela Vallejo, is my general manager at Wingstop. She runs a great business, a strict operation.

Favorite fun activities:
Running, skiing, and reading.

I'm not much of a weight person, but I work out every now and then. I run at least five times a week, usually six miles. When I train for a marathon, I'll do 50 to 60 miles a week.

Favorite tech toys:
My son finally convinced me to get an iPhone, and I like it. It's easy to take pictures and send them. When we get merchandise that's damaged I can take a picture on the phone and send it in real quick.

What are you reading?
I just read a book called Heaven Is for Real, very heartwarming. I'm also reading Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Meyer. I enjoy reading books. My only magazine is Runner's World.

Do you have a favorite quote/advice?
Put God first in everything you do and he'll make your path straight.

Best advice you ever got:
Be humble. Work hard and be humble.

Formative influences/events:
Joining the military when I got out of high school was a big, big step. I wanted to see the world, get out of the Rio Grande Valley, and the military enabled me to do that. My captain later on helped me to get a job at Vought Aircraft. While there I was able to save money, save and save, so that when I approached Wingstop, I had liquid cash and good credit. The military got me out of the Valley, and I'm glad I did it.

How do you balance life and work?
My wife and I make dinner dates and lunch dates. I wish we could have more nights out, but sometimes when you get older you're happy to go home and relax.


Business philosophy:
Treat your employees the best you can, because you really need them. And I treat customers the best I can, because I need them to survive. If you do that, if you treat employees well, and appreciate customers, they'll come back to you.

Are you in the franchising, or customer service business? Why?
Customer service. I say that because I want to make sure my customers are treated to the best of our ability.

As an operator, what are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Guidance. If I should get off the track, guidance to get back on. That and opportunities to grow.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Just giving thanks to the Lord that he gave me another day.

What's your passion in business?
The opportunity to make money. When you work for someone else, you work 40 hours and get paid 40 hours. In business, you can be open 80 hours, so your business is making money for you all those hours. You may work 8 hours in a day, but if you have 5 stores, you're looking at 60 money-making hours in one day. The sky's the limit. If you operate effectively, you can grow as quickly as you want, or as slowly. It's up to you.

Management method or style:
My management style is to be friendly but firm. You have to make sure that you're not so friendly that people take advantage of you.

Greatest challenge:
Trying to do everything that I've got lined up. Just sitting down answering emails is a full-time job. I have to wake up earlier and earlier to keep up. That and paperwork. I hate paperwork.

How do others describe you?
I think they'd describe me as a hard-working, honest person.

How close are you to operations?
Very close. I'm involved every single day. I like to be part of the business, to make sure everything is done right. I'll mop the floors, talk to my customers, make sure my employees come in with a happy attitude and have a happier attitude when they leave. Employees see me working, scrubbing the floor, cleaning the tables. Sometimes, with customers I know, I'll buy them a round of beers. I believe when you take a real interest in your customers, they can sense that.

How do you hire and fire?
I listen to what my employees and prospective employees tell me. In interviews I ask them for some of their best qualities, why I should hire them, why they'd be good for my business. The majority will say the same thing: I'm a hard worker, I'll be there on time. But I also ask questions about working with other people. I'll ask about small details. If they sound positive on the details, I'll take a chance with them.

How do you train and retain?
Wingstop provides us with training videos. After the employees have viewed them, we match them with another employee in the same position to work together hands-on.

How do you deal with problem employees?
I never raise my voice. I describe the situation, and if I have to let them go, just say I can't have it. I never get angry or raise my voice. I used to but now I don't think there's any point in it. That's one thing I pray for: Help me to be mellow. In the end we're just cooking, we're not saving the world.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
Not really. We advertise on the store register tape. I advertise in local magazines. I go talk to schools, and try to be a part of the community as much as possible. We do fundraisers for churches and youth organizations.

How is social media affecting your business operations?
The corporate people handle that. We have our Facebook page out, and we'll see how that goes. I see us doing more of that as time goes on.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:
$5 million from Wingstop, plus the brand-new burger stores

2012 goals:
I want to continue doing what we're doing. My goal is to just talk to other people about the Lord.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
The way I look at it is, How is each of my restaurants growing? I'm also now growing in another sense by buying property to build my own stores.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
I want to be in good and for my son to be more involved in the business, take more and more of the reins. I'll probably hand it all over to my son. I'll be there, helping him out, giving him advice.

How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers?
In the Valley, the economy has still been good. It hasn't affected us down there as it has across the U.S. We still get customers in from Mexico with a lot of disposable income.

Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market?

What did you change or do differently in this economy that you plan to continue doing?
It's just been business as usual, and we'll keep doing the same thing. Stay involved with schools and churches, continue treating everybody fairly.

How do you forecast for your business in this economy?
We look for consistent growth from year to year. If I'm doing anywhere from 3 percent to 8 percent growth I'm happy with it.

Where do you find capital for expansion?
A lot of it I have saved. I use my own money. Other than that, I just go to a bank and ask for an SBA

Is capital getting easier to access? Why/why not?
I've noticed it's a bit more difficult. Banks are asking more and more questions. They want more collateral.

Have you used private equity, local/national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
Local banks where I keep my accounts.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
I want to stick with it for now, and get my son more and more involved. If he's doing a good job, taking care of the business well, keeping the numbers positive, I'll start exiting slowly.

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We give them Christmas bonuses, and during the year I'll give them little incentives, where they can make extra money. When we get inspected by the department or by Wingstop and we pass, they get a bonus. After they've been with me a year, they get a week's paid Everyone, not just supervisors. Now I'm looking to provide to supervisors.

How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)?
Taxes have gone up, but that's just standard. You make more money, you pay more taxes. I'm just glad I have the money to pay.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
I guess I really haven't at this point. It's something I need to look at. There's one thing: All of them get Christmas bonuses, even if they've just been with me for one day, but the employees who are really much, much better get a higher percentage bonus.

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