If you've played, coached, or watched a sport on the University of South Carolina (USC) campus, there's a good chance you've eaten a Firehouse Sub from Judy and Charlie Divita.
The Divitas operate six Firehouse Subs in the greater Columbia, S.C., area, including one nestled in the heart of the USC campus. They made their competitive mark by developing a proprietary customer database catering to visiting college sports teams. Their blueprint has evolved over the years to include a commitment to all facets of educational life and the communities their restaurants serve. This synergy between business smarts and higher learning is a natural for the Divitas, winners of Multi-Unit Franchisee magazine's 2012 MVP Innovation Award.
The couple, both quality specialists, are now knee-deep into their second career and are making the most of it. Charlie, 69, is a former university full professor and consultant, and Judy, 65, boasts a corporate background of organizational development, training, and human relations. Instead of relaxing into the world of retirement, the couple launched Divita Concepts Group in 2003, eager to put their skills to work as business owners in a way that would offer them more control of their future.
The move to Columbia--the college town where the pair, married 39 years, first met--was purposeful, yet inspired by more than just feeding piping hot subs to the hungry student masses. "We wanted to be part of a whole life of a university," says Judy. "It's new kids coming in all the time, and every four years you see a great transformation of your customer base. It's just fun for us."
In 2006, the Divitas opened their third restaurant on the USC campus, a strategy that would serve as a springboard to new business opportunities. To boost weekend traffic, they began to market their subs to opponents in town for the more than 400 annual Gamecock sporting events held on campus. The home teams soon became big fans of Firehouse Subs too. The Divitas expanded the restaurant's presence with athletic team and summer camp sponsorships and developed an award-winning customer database and catering execution system.
With projected 2012 revenue of $4.5 million, Judy and Charlie always look for novel ways to build business. "The franchise gives you the basic things to put you in business pretty quickly," says Charlie. "What we found is that you have to take it beyond that and be creative to come up with new and novel ways of doing things that are particular to your company and your community."
The Divitas say they are a team with complementary strengths. Charlie, who served three years on the Firehouse Subs national marketing board of directors, focuses on business development, marketing, and customer relations. Judy pays attention to managing costs and human relations.
"I can't see the trees through the forest and Judy can't see the forest for the trees," says Charlie. "She is much more detail-specific, mind-down, and much deeper into the details of something than I am. I think that I have a bigger picture vision of things."
The couple are most proud of their strong connection to the community and their work through the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, highlighted by a 2008 donation of lifesaving equipment to two city fire stations. The gesture honored the six USC students and one Clemson University student who died in a beach house fire. The tragedy hit close to home. The couple's own daughter, Ryan, a former USC student, was burned in a 2003 car accident and spent six weeks in a Georgia hospital burn unit.
Forging community ties also helped the Divitas creatively build the Firehouse Subs brand in their early days when there was no marketing budget and little name recognition.
"When we came to Columbia, Firehouse was not known very broadly in South Carolina, nor in Columbia," says Judy. "So it wasn't like you could open the doors and they will come. You have to get out and make yourself known--who you are, what your brand is, and what you offer. It just takes that customer building, one at a time, to make it clear that this is the place you want to go."
Name: Judy and Charles Divita
Company: Divita Concepts Group, LLC
No. of units by brand: 6 Firehouse Subs