Atta Grl!: Army Vet Ignores her Critics and Plows Ahead
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Atta Grl!: Army Vet Ignores her Critics and Plows Ahead

Atta Grl!: Army Vet Ignores her Critics and Plows Ahead

Emily Harrington has spent her life as a high achiever and shows no signs of slowing down.

New Jersey born and raised, she earned a B.S. in engineering management from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she was a four-year women's soccer varsity letter winner. She earned her MBA from Cameron University while serving 5 years of active duty in the U.S. Army as Signal Corps Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer, and Special Assistant to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Europe.

After the Army, Harrington enjoyed a successful nine-year run in the financial services industry in Boston, working in private equity fundraising and fixed income institutional sales. When not working, she pursued biking, rowing, Olympic weight lifting, and high-intensity interval training--and is an avid musician, playing the violin since age four.

It wasn't until she was 35 that Harrington realized that the corporate world wasn't for her. "I learned a lot and it was a great experience because I was exposed to financial markets, but at the end of the day I realized that I'd spent five years in the Army and nine years working for other people in large organizations and it was not a good fit for me. These were great experiences, but when I look back, I kick myself that I didn't come to that realization sooner," she says.

"I'd also like to add something else because it defines who I am," she says. "For a long time, I allowed other people to tell me what I was capable of and I finally got tired of it. When I told my family I was quitting my corporate life to run hamburger restaurants, they were supportive, but concerned. And many friends thought I was crazy. That's when I learned not to listen to other people, to the naysayers."

Harrington, high energy and highly driven, didn't spend much time on regrets or the opinions of others.

Before going into franchising, she looked at a variety of different brands and available deals. "I didn't want to move someplace where I'd be swimming against the tide with labor law difficulties and economic forces not working in my favor. I also knew that if I moved to a metro area or growing state, incomes would be rising and good, long-term economic opportunities would be there. That knocked out the Northeast because the population isn't growing, and the Midwest because incomes aren't rising, so I focused on places where I could grow the business and find available real estate," she says.

Tampa, one of the nation's fastest-growing regions, ticked off all those boxes and had the added incentive for Harrington of warm weather year-round. "I wanted to move someplace where I could be outside all year long," she says.

As for a brand, since they had no previous restaurant experience, Harrington and her husband sought to invest in a proven one, and chose Hardee's. In 2013, they acquired their first 10 restaurants and in just a few years had grown the business to more than 40 units.

When the couple divorced, they agreed that he was a great fit for Hardee's, while she preferred to invest in a brand that aligned with her own healthy approach to living. "I'm an avid fitness buff. I exercise five times a week. I eat clean and healthy. I wanted a brand that was more modern and fresh and healthy and with a lot of upside. Is Tropical Smoothie Cafe riskier from a brand standpoint? Yes, it is. But the upside is greater--there's more potential reward being involved with the brand," she says.

Naming her new Odessa, Fla.-based company Three Grls LLC (for herself and her two young daughters), Harrington bought three Tropical Smoothie Cafes in 2016 and another in 2017. Her newest cafe (and her first new build) was set to open in January 2018, and she intends to open four this year. Looking ahead, she is aiming for 20 units in the next 5 years, and 50 in the next 10.

Harrington says she and her new brand are a perfect match. "I was not familiar with Tropical Smoothie until I moved to Florida. I discovered them while on the road traveling between meetings and was wowed by the menu. There is some overlap on the menu with Panera Bread, but we are by far the better value," she says. "I researched the brand, went to Atlanta and met with the ownership group, and found a lot of alignment between what we want. Being part of a brand where the franchisee and the franchisor are like-minded is important to me. That gave me a lot of confidence."

Harrington said she is aware of the challenges she faces as she grows her new brand. "My ultimate goal is to get to 50 cafes, which I'll probably do through acquisitions and organic growth. I told my franchisor that how rapidly we grow depends on the real estate market. In Tampa, it's very competitive with all brands growing. There may be 30 other concepts looking at the same real estate that I am. So to be able to capture a deal and get across the finish line is not always easy."

Fortunately, she says, there still is a lot of room to grow in Florida right now. "North of Hillsborough County, where my four cafes sit, there are no Tropical Smoothie Cafes for 100 to 150 miles. I'm actually getting ready to buy out that county from corporate."

Already with a wealth of experience at 40, Harrington offers some advice for would-be franchisees. "When I first decided to look at franchises, I told myself I'd never consider restaurants. The reason I said that was because everybody thinks restaurants are too difficult. Again, you can't listen to the naysayers. For me, when I look at my restaurants and how they operate and the people I employ, I see that what I do is similar to my experience in the Army. I want people to show up on time, in uniform, with a good attitude, and work well together. That's literally the Army!"

Harrington, who says she is the happiest and most satisfied she's ever been, adds one more thought. "I'm really good at operating restaurants, and I didn't even consider them at first because I was afraid. My advice is to keep an open mind. Don't have preconceived notions about an industry without doing your research and due diligence and talking to people who work in it."

Name: Emily Harrington
Title: President, CEO
Company: Three Grls LLC
No. of units: Tropical Smoothie Cafe, 5
Age: 40
Family: Daughters Mary 7, and Lilly 4
Years in franchising: 4
Years in current position: 20 months


First job:
Second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Formative influences/events:
My high school basketball coach taught me that grit and motivation are more valuable than talent. I learned from 9/11 that not everyone on this planet agrees with our way of life, and I learned from the 2008 financial crisis that cash is king and one must be prepared at all times.

Key accomplishments:
Graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, earning an MBA while stationed overseas, and starting Three Grls as a single mother.

Biggest current challenge:
Right now it's finding balance between growing my business and growing my girls.

Next big goal:
Opening my fifth cafe this January, followed by the sixth, seventh, and eighth--all in 2018.

First turning point in your career:
Realizing that a traditional corporate job was not for me. This took me some time to figure out--I was 35. But once I had that level of clarity, I was able to focus on exactly what I wanted to do.

Best business decision:
Deciding to leave my corporate life in Boston to buy restaurants. My family and friends thought I was crazy!

Hardest lesson learned:
You cannot wait for an opportunity--you must create your own.

Work week:
I am in my cafes probably five days a week, and not necessarily Monday through Friday. I am very rarely completely disengaged from my business. Even when not in the cafes, I am either in my office at home or contemplating my growth strategy, personnel development, etc.

Biking, rowing, Olympic weight lifting, and high-intensity interval training.

Best advice you ever got:
Ignore your critics!

What's your passion in business?
Giving people the opportunity to better their lives, whether through employment opportunities or delicious and healthy food.

How do you balance life and work?
As best I can. I have a goal of traveling for pleasure once per quarter. I'm not there yet, but it's on my list for 2018. I believe that traveling to a place I have never been feeds my spirit and reminds me of what is truly important in life. Next on my list: the Grand Canyon, Bhutan, and Sonoma County.

Guilty pleasure:
Wine and cheese.

Favorite book:
The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer.

Favorite movie:
"The Shawshank Redemption."

What do most people not know about you?
That I am an avid musician, playing both violin and piano. I started playing violin when I was four years old.

Pet peeve:
Straw wrappers on the floors of my cafes.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A chef!

Last vacation:
Ummmm... what's vacation? I took my girls to Disney World for their birthdays. Does that count?

Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and a true visionary who has built a world-class sports franchise and will completely transform the city of Tampa and the west coast of Florida.


Business philosophy:
Feed People Well, Treat People Well, Do Well. I can't take credit for that. It's from Tropical Smoothie corporate, but I truly believe it and endeavor to instill this in my team members every day. Also, I am a firm believer in following through. If you want people's trust, you need to follow through.

Management method or style:
I'm very hands-on, but I also trust my people to do the right thing.

Greatest challenge:
Growing the right people in the right way to foster development.

How do others describe you?
Intense and dedicated.

One thing I'm looking to do better:
Maintain my calendar!

How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
I recently gave each of my general managers the task of creating a company policy: uniform policy, cell phone policy, eating and drinking policy, cash handling policy, and scheduling policy. I asked each of them to research, create, and write our company policies. If they create it, they will internalize it. I also sit with each of them every month and review their cafes' individual P&Ls so they know exactly how they have performed. It inspires them to take ownership and focus on growing sales and controlling COGS and operating expenses. They have the latitude to not only suggest, but also to execute local store marketing ideas to drive sales and promote brand awareness.

How close are you to operations?
Very close. I have no problem jumping into the smoothie line or onto the register. I am also intimately involved in every pay raise discussion, promotion, inventory management, etc.

What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
An inspirational menu and technological innovation, be it our rewards app or state-of-the-art POS.

What I need from vendors:
Timeliness and honesty.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
The future of advertising is digital. Traditional advertising is not nearly as cost-effective and the delivery method is not nearly as efficient as digital. The one exception would be directional billboards, which I find have the most immediate impact on my sales.

How is social media affecting your business?
Social media is transforming the way restaurant operators treat guests--for the better! If a guest has a negative experience, the market will know almost immediately.

How do you hire and fire?
Because my company is growing so rapidly, we are always hiring. We are implementing a consistent set of interview questions throughout each cafe to pinpoint the applicants who are going to fit our brand the best. Fortunately, Tropical Smoothie Cafe is a modern and fresh brand that attracts a lot of talented young people. We receive a lot of walk-in applicants and people who apply online. I have also relied on a couple of different subscription-based recruiting websites and have had some success in sourcing general managers. Of course, my strong preference is to promote from within, but there are times when a supervisor isn't ready for the full responsibilities of management, and the worst thing would be to promote them and possibly set them up for failure.

How do you train and retain?
Training is an ongoing process in the company. I rely on my general managers and supervisors to train team members on the basics of our operation, but I have recently engaged with Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment to assist me in putting together a customer service training program specific to my cafes and my brand. They created a concept called Blue Ribbon Service within their own organization (they own the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tampa Bay Storm) and have won numerous awards and accolades. I am working closely with their management team to emulate and implement some of the same assessment tools, training, and employee recognition programs within Three Grls.

How do you deal with problem employees?
I have a very low tolerance for team members who do not buy in to our mission. I understand that we are not for everyone. If someone cannot follow the basic policies and procedures, then there is very little preventing me from "re-gifting" them to the job market. It doesn't mean they are bad people, it just means we were not a good fit.

Fastest way into my doghouse:
Failing to take responsibility for one's actions.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:
$2.5 million (approx.).

2018 goals:
Opening four more cafes and keeping overall company employee turnover under 100 percent.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
At a strategic level, I measure growth in terms of year-over-year same store sales and the number of units I am operating. At a tactical level, each of my managers has a development plan, and their growth is of the utmost importance to me. If they grow professionally and personally, I am successful.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
In 5 years, I'd like to have 20 cafes with $20 million in gross revenue. In 10 years, 50 cafes with $60 million in gross revenue.

How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers?
The economy in the Tampa DMA is booming. This is great for sales and I have been able to gradually increase prices. However, hiring is a challenge when the economy is growing so quickly. Many of my competitors are also growing. I invite competition--it makes me better, but it takes longer to source the cream of the crop.

Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
Yes, Tampa and its surrounding DMA is consistently listed as a Top 20 market for economic growth in the U.S. Growth is tremendous, which is exciting. However, it comes with potentially higher development costs in the form of impact fees and overall rising real estate costs, be it land prices or construction costs.

How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
See above.

How do you forecast for your business?
I am very conservative when it comes to putting together projections. I never assume that a particular location with a new cafe or an existing cafe post-remodel will transform into a top-performing cafe in the system. I base my forecasts on past performance. If things turn out for the better, then it's all gravy.

What are the best sources for capital expansion?
The absolute best source for capital expansion right now is a combination of personal savings and borrowing. With the stock market at an all-time high, I would rather bet on myself and invest in a brand that has tremendous upside. I shy away from equity partners. If I need additional capital and cannot provide it myself, then certainly a local bank is the next best option.

Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
Yes, yes, and yes. When I first got into the business, I used a national bank for my commercial banking requirements. It was not a good fit. Nowadays I feel strongly about using a local bank that understands 1) the potential seasonality of the Florida market, and 2) local real estate. Many of my bankers are also my customers and I truly feel as though I am a part of the community. I have also enjoyed working with some private equity-backed lenders, who are much more efficient and aggressive than a traditional bank. A private equity-backed lender might be more expensive in terms of interest rate, but in return I don't have to spend months in underwriting. There are pros and cons to each.

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
Ninety percent of my employees are Millennials. The most important thing I can do to take care of them is to give them a purpose. If they believe in the mission and the vision of my company and the brand, then they know they are a part of something greater than themselves. Certainly, money can motivate, and I do reward those who go above and beyond with consistent wage increases and promotion opportunities. My team members know we are growing. They are aware of the company's vision of 50 cafes in 10 years. My goal is to ensure that they understand that they have an opportunity to build a long-term career with Three Grls, and that they can feel good about what they do each day.

How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
I don't view any of these as a cost, but rather as an investment. I firmly believe that I am in the people business. I happen to sell delicious smoothies and food, but ultimately I am growing people. I get out of bed every day feeling fortunate to have the opportunity to serve the people I employ. Each brings a special set of skills and talent to my company. It is my privilege to foster their development and growth.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Admittedly, I have not cracked this nut yet. I do some of the traditional things, like bonuses and gift cards, but I am finding that many people are not motivated by money. I think providing employees with a career path and an understanding that there is opportunity for them in my company is the most important thing I can do as an owner/operator. Defining this in exact terms is something I am still working on.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
First and foremost, I am a long-term believer and therefore, long-term owner, of Tropical Smoothie Cafe. My children are part owners and I view this business as a 20- to 25-year investment. I truly believe that the best days for the brand and its franchisees are ahead. If I had to select an exit strategy it would be handing the reins over to my two girls.

Published: March 19th, 2018

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