A Passion for People: Multi-skilled Lenny's Sub Shop President Leads by Example
Lenny's Sub Shop President Brent Alvord lends new meaning to the term, well-rounded: an MBA in finance from the University of Memphis, 15 years as an executive with organizations such as Burger King, FedEx, and America Online, and a hands-on understanding of the restaurant industry he acquired as a youth working at Subway, Ruby Tuesday's, and Chili's. On top of that, he can quickly decipher a spreadsheet, design software to assist the business, create a marketing campaign, and motivate employees to do their best work.
So when he and his father, food and hospitality industry veteran George Alvord, acquired Lenny's in 2004, he was ready to jump in and help build the six-year-old sub sandwich business. Since then, along with their partners, they have grown the 40 shops to 150 increasingly popular restaurants in the southeastern U.S.
What motivates Alvord, a karate and photography buff, to succeed in business and life is his passion for people, as evidenced by his bachelor's degree in social work, his service on several nonprofit boards in the Memphis area, and his dedication to his wife and three children. "I really believe that with great success comes great responsibility. Because of all the blessings I have in my life, I continue to ask myself every day at work and at home: Am I living up to the potential God has for me?"
Name: Brent Alvord
Company: Lenny's Sub Shop
No. of units: 150 stores in 18 states
Family: Wife and three children
Years in franchising: 15
Years in current position: 7
What is your role as president?
I'm directly responsible for franchise development, marketing, finances, and IT, including building our own POS software program. My father, George Alvord, is chairman and CEO, and Carl Jacobson is general counsel and chief administrative officer.
I strive for excellence and expect those around me to strive for the same, knowing we're not always perfect. I'm direct, honest, and offer constructive feedback.
What has inspired your leadership style?
My father, and Paul Sherman, my boss at Burger King. But I also took an important message from the movie "Babe." The pig was trying to be a sheep herder and barked at the sheep that didn't do what she wanted. She learned that if she asked nicely, she'd get what she wanted. I've worked with people who barked first and it doesn't work. I ask nicely, try to take care of the employees, be flexible, and meet their needs. Servant leadership, rather than being the boss, is my philosophy.
Biggest leadership challenge?
In the franchising space, it's the adage "You can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink." We've set up our system to get the "horses" as close to drinking as we can so they can be successful. That means they need to do their P&Ls and finances and marketing on a regular basis. We point out that this will help them tremendously, but they don't always get it.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees?
They see me out and about, visiting the restaurants, and they know we're nice guys but tough if we have to be. We have a very positive relationship with our franchisees. They have invested their life's savings, so we listen intently, strive to satisfy their needs, and treat them as we would like to be treated. When we hire in the corporate office, we make sure that every person cares over and above their own job. Our value statements focus on honesty, respect, and commitment.
Best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ?
I have an MBA, but I believe the answer is OTJ. I joke that I use 5 percent of what I learned at school, and the rest comes from surrounding myself with great people, who end up rubbing off on me and making me live up to my higher potential.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
Generally speaking, no. Our company runs with an executive team of my father, my other partner Carl Jacobson, and me. We sit down and hash out the issues. I have opinions but I can be swayed by others. This is always a good plan no matter your company structure.
How do you make tough decisions?
I try to be guided by what is best for the individual or situation and to come up with as much of a win-win as I can.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
Advice to wannabe leaders?
Lead by example and learn a little of everything, from building a spreadsheet to understanding marketing strategies.
I'm hands-on when I need to be. If I detect that someone is not delivering to our level of excellence, I'll dive into the micro level of detail. If the person is sharp, I'll offer edit checks, but I'll let them take the ball and run.
Sharp people with fantastic experience and personalities.
How does your management team help you lead?
It comes back to caring. They bring a passion and enthusiasm to their jobs above and beyond the paycheck. By putting service first, they're effectively driving the business where it needs to go.
Favorite management gurus, books?
I like Shep Hyken's Moments of Magic, Eric Chester's Generation Why, and Richard Branson's Business Stripped Bare. I also like Zig Ziglar, Dale Carnegie, and Malcolm Gladwell.
What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"
Six years ago, I had conversations with a franchisee whose store had abysmal weekly sales. I said, "Look, you've got to make something happen or you're going to be closing your doors." I explained that he needed to focus on marketing and to be persistent in that arena. The last four years in a row, he's won top sales gross awards. The store that was doing $3,000 a week is now doing $15,000. He's making money and he's happy. It's rewarding to see someone on the verge of nose-diving turn it around to where he's living the American Dream. I like to see others succeed.
What time do you like to be at your desk?
Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch?
I exercise several days a week. No wine with lunch--not a drinker.
Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office?
If we're on trips, yes, but usually not locally. We believe people need time with their families.
What technology do you take on the road?
How do you balance life and work?
When I'm not working, I'm with my family. I try to dedicate the same passion I give on the job to my time with my kids.
Favorite vacation destination(s):
We like going to the beach and our favorite amusement parks.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes:
I'm not super-organized on sending notes, but I try to acknowledge birthdays.
Favorite company product:
As for product appeal, Lenny's hot pepper relish is awesome. My favorite service is that in all our sub shops, except for the Memphis airport store, there are no trash cans for guests. We bus tables for them so they can get up and walk out and others can sit down to a clean table.
Long-term goals for the company?
I'd like to see us hit 1,000 units and continue building our brand presence and fan following out there.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company?
It has made us more introspective in determining how to drive unit economics and more disciplined in monitoring the business.
Where can capital be found these days?
We're getting funding from SBA loans and 401(k)s.
How do you measure success?
The quick answer is happiness. Personally, I'm successful if I'm genuinely happy, meeting my goals doing what I want to do. But the personal mission that permeates every aspect of my life is my commitment to having the greatest impact that God allows me in my life.
What has been your greatest success?
The fact that my family loves me and believes I'm a great dad and husband. My wife was in a store with the kids, talking to some firemen just before Father's Day. When a fireman asked my 5-year-old son if he wanted to be a fireman someday, he answered, "No, I want to be just like my dad." Life is fleeting, and your impact on others is the legacy you leave behind.
There may be a few, but I also believe my experiences have made me who I am today. I don't dwell on the past but try to learn from my mistakes.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months?
Further growth and involvement in franchise development as well as an interesting referral program we're starting.
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