1,000 Units Anyone? This Couple Dreams Big!
Tropical Smoothie franchisees Jennifer and Rylan Miller get asked all the time what their secret is to successfully working together as a married couple.
"I think it is key for a husband-and-wife team to lean on each other's strengths," says Jennifer. "People say, 'How can you work with your husband?' Honestly, it is difficult to work without him. We work better as a team."
This strong sense of teamwork and drive for excellence make the Millers a perfect fit for the 2019 MVP Influencer Award for Husband & Wife Team. And the South Carolina-based couple are just getting started. With seven locations in two states, the Millers are gearing up for immediate growth with Tropical Smoothie, along with a longer-term vision that includes future expansion through the addition of multiple brands.
"We should be up to 15 Tropical Smoothie units this year," says Rylan. "I think this is going to be a really good building number going forward into the next 15 to 20 years to get us to that 1,000-unit mark."
The couple first fell in love with their neighborhood Tropical Smoothie in Virginia Beach, where Rylan was stationed with the U.S. Navy. He served 5 years before deciding to transition into a contract role as a mission commander and UAV pilot for the Department of Defense. Along the way, the pair began saving to make the jump into franchising--and their wedding. Married in Pawleys Island, South Carolina in 2013, the Millers signed on with Tropical Smoothie the next year and opened their first store in Myrtle Beach in 2016.
"We started off with a single unit and before we even got it opened, we bought a second unit because we just believed so much in the brand and the growth we wanted to achieve with it," says Rylan, who was deployed 11 times handling aviation missions across the world, most recently in Libya, before joining his wife in franchising full-time in 2018.
While Rylan was on deployment, Jennifer worked vigorously, running the business as usual. Now, with Rylan back, they have learned to divide and conquer. Jennifer is the hands-on face of the company handling operations, training, and marketing, while Rylan uses the analytical skills he learned in the military to build the business.
"We identified our strengths and weaknesses," says Rylan. "At the very beginning, we were both doing both of our jobs, so there is an appreciation there. And if anything comes up, we are able to pick up the ball and run with it."
The Millers are set to pick up the pace, expanding the franchise company and their own family, eager to welcome the birth of their first child in July. They are also busy putting together a strong management team to gear up for growth and scale as they analyze adding new brands.
Passionate about serving the community and sharing the power of franchising with other veterans, the Millers are reaping the rewards of their success. Along with being honored as a 2019 MVP they are celebrating their recognition as the brand's top multi-unit franchisee, awarded at the 2019 Tropical Smoothie Cafe Convention.
"We are completely humbled and honored by all the recognition and awards we have received," says Jennifer.
Name: Jennifer and Rylan Miller
Title: Multi-unit franchisees
No. of units: 7 Tropical Smoothie Cafe
Age: Rylan 32, Jennifer 29
Family: We are expecting our first child, a daughter, in July
Years in franchising: 4
Years in current position: 4
RM: Serving in the military and deploying 11 times. Over the years of being gone, I often was faced with remembering what the most important things are in life. Being away gave me a true appreciation for family and the desire to succeed.
RM: Opening our first Tropical Smoothie Cafe! It was a very long time in the making. We feel very accomplished that we finally have units open and operating. I am almost done with my bachelor's degree from American Military University. I have four classes left and I have been chipping away at it. Although I haven't accomplished it yet, I feel good that I am almost done.
What are you reading?
RM: Five Stars by Carmine Gallo.
JM: We've been so busy with the acquisition of three cafes in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the opening of a new one in the Myrtle Beach market, the only thing I've been reading lately is emails.
Best advice you ever got:
RM: It is hard to identify one specific thing that I would label "The Best." I get great advice all the time.
JM: Be here, now. Often we are a few months ahead of ourselves (you have to be in our line of work), but taking time to focus on the here and now keeps me grounded and helps me not become consumed with the many tasks that lie ahead. It is very easy to let yourself be consumed with stress, but yoga is my way to take a break from that, and "be here, now" is my mantra.
RM: My philosophy comes from a quote that inspires me: "Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return." I found this quote when I was getting my commercial pilot's license and it has resonated with me ever since. This is truly the feeling I get when I fly an airplane, but that feeling is also so similar to how it feels when building relationships, mentoring leaders, and building businesses. There is an attraction to business that can only be satisfied by more business.
Management method or style:
RM: Consultative. I find that giving employees and especially leaders in the businesses the ability to be heard helps foster trust and build strong relationships.
JM: Lead from the front. There is not anything I would ask my employees to do that I would not first do myself.
RM: Finding good leaders. Filling critical roles in our organizations. For us, we feel that there has to be a relationship that we can build on in some way. We want to know that there is a certain amount of loyalty.
JM: Engaging Millennials to become invested in the long-term goal. While I understand that we are an entry-level job, there is plenty of room for growth within our organization since we are multi-unit, multi-state operators. It is easy to inform the team members of this growth potential, but sometimes difficult to get them to realize and understand that it's within their reach if they want to put in the sweat equity. We are very old-school in the manner that we value hard work and unparalleled work ethic. It can be challenging to inspire and motivate this work ethic among some, not all, of the Millennials we employ. For example, we have one young woman who has worked with us since we opened one of our cafes. She joined our team when she was 15 and is now months away from graduating high school and pursuing a degree in business administration. As I type this, she is assisting in the opening of another one of our cafes, solely handling seven new employees working their first day of operations. It's hard to find the words to express how proud I am of her.
How do others describe you?
JM: This is a difficult question for me to answer, so much so that I had to reach out to a former employee who is now a good friend. She describes me as "hard-working, dedicated, and passionate about her business and her employees." She goes on to say that I answer any questions that team members may have without belittling them or making them feel as if they can't come to me.
How do you hire and fire, train and retain?
We try to hire the best candidates, train them through our leadership team in the cafes, and keep them by cultivating a strong relationship based on trust. We do our best to be the employer of choice in the food industry.
Grow to 15 units--and give birth to our first daughter.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
This will change over time, but right now our growth meter for us is units, how many units we are adding.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
RM: I would like us to have four-plus brands, with over 100 units. In 10 to 20 years, we will be surpassing the 1,000 unit-mark.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
JM: We have various bonus incentives for managers that hinge on key metrics in the cafe that include labor, cost of goods, and customer satisfaction. Additionally, we try to reward individual crew members for their hard work with surprises such as gift cards and other items. For example, this past Christmas we used our cash-back rewards from business credit cards to host a Christmas party where we provided gifts for a white elephant gift exchange. Top prizes included big ticket tech items.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
We work to keep the unit economics as best as possible. As an example, this means going into individual cafes and fixing things that would cost hundreds of dollars to call in professional help. There is a point where this will no longer be feasible, but for now doing things like this keeps profits up and the businesses attractive from a valuation standpoint in case the situation arises to sell.
Why do you think you were recognized with this award?
RM: Jennifer and I work hard as franchisees and are willing to go the extra mile to help others in our industry. We often host new franchisees at our cafes for training and will field phone calls and help out where we can when others in our brand reach out.
JM: Integrity. This is a big one for us. This attribute is key because it makes us better as an organization. For example, if someone makes a mistake, we require ownership of it. With this mentality, we can learn from our mistakes and continue evolving.
How have you raised the bar in your own company?
By implementing procedural changes that start from the cafe level. This means that employees have real checklists to follow on an iPad to perform actions. This is one small thing we do that results in consistency across our cafes.
What innovations you have created and used to build your company?
JM: We do a lot of community outreach locally to grow the brand in the Myrtle Beach area. I also suggested doing a school supply drive that corporate ended up taking on and implemented across the nation with all Tropical Smoothies.
What core values do you think helped you win this award?
Integrity. This is a big one for us. This attribute is key because it makes us better as an organization. For example, if someone makes a mistake, we require ownership of it. With this mentality, we can learn from our mistakes and continue evolving.
How important is community involvement to you and your company?
RM: We really love our national charity partner, Camp Sunshine. Every year, Tropical Smoothie raises money for the organization through National Flip Flop Day. We host an annual event to drive donations at the cafe level where customers come in wearing flip-flops and receive a free smoothie. The idea is that they also will donate to Camp Sunshine. Additionally, we are animal lovers and really like doing fundraisers for animal shelters and hospitals in our towns. We do this by driving traffic into the cafes through advertising and then give a percentage of sales to the organizations.
JM: Being a part of the local community is an integral part of running a successful and thriving business. People want to support a business they know and trust. We foster these relationships by partnering with local teams, schools, and nonprofits to help raise funds for their efforts. Recently, we celebrated the 3-year anniversary of our North Myrtle Beach cafe and donated 15 percent of our anniversary sales back to The Humane Society of North Myrtle Beach. We've also partnered with our local Boy Scout troop to help them raise money during the annual Blessing of the Inlet, held in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. We donated smoothies for them to sell at the event. They kept half of the proceeds, while the other half was donated to our national charity partner Camp Sunshine.
What leadership qualities are important to you and to your team?
Accountability and leading from the front. It's important that we as leaders are accountable for our own mistakes. Not only that, but leading by example is such an effective way to show people you are invested in the organization and the jobs they do.
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