Chief Vibe Officer: Which Wich's Jeff Sinelli Brings a Unique Approach to Leadership
Jeff Sinelli likes to be called CVO--as in chief vibe officer. It may seem slightly irreverent, but the founder and CEO of Which Wich is not your ordinary leader. You won't catch him wearing a suit at headquarters or visiting the stores, but instead donning the brand's black-and-yellow colors.
His leadership and unique approach allowed him to enter a busy sandwich sector and differentiate his way straight to success. "We took on a crowded market," says Sinelli. "We took ordinary sandwiches and made them extraordinary. We did it in two ways: with the unique and interactive ordering system, and with the product itself. We also stepped it up with superior service. We elevated the sandwich, the experience, and the environment."
Success is not new to Sinelli. By the age of 40 he'd founded three restaurant concepts. In 1998 he launched Genghis Grill, a chain of Mongolian barbecue restaurants, before selling it and creating Which Wich in 2003. Both brands have been recognized with the Hot Concepts award from Nation's Restaurant News.
Now 47, Sinelli has shown he has a knack for turning risks into success. He credits his understanding of the hospitality industry to his father, who owned two sports bars in the Detroit area. Following college in 1994, he headed to Dallas and cut his teeth developing a number of successful independent restaurants, bars, and nightclubs before deciding to focus on national concepts.
Now, some 20 years later, he's the visionary behind the popular Which Wich brand, which opened its first store in 2003 in downtown Dallas. The company has been selling franchises since 2005 and demand remains high. Which Wich has grown to 400 locations open or in development in 38 states and 8 countries and has continued to rack up awards and recognition. In 2014, it was named a Best Franchise Deal bby QSR and one of the 30 Best Franchises To Buy from Forbes.
But don't expect Sinelli to sit back and enjoy his success. "I don't consider this work. I consider this play. And I am only getting started," he says.
Name: Jeff Sinelli
Title: Founder, CEO, and Chief Vibe Officer
Company: Which Wich Superior Sandwiches
Family: Wife, Courtney; 2 daughters, Story, 6 and Sky, 3; yellow Lab, Moonlight
What is your role as CEO?
To ensure that Which Wich continues to grow domestically and abroad as the superior sandwich concept. To achieve this, I energize my staff and franchisees to maintain our commitment to offering guests the best possible product and service by listening to their feedback and investing in research and development. My goal is to ensure that Which Wich never becomes stale. I'm constantly thinking of new ways to improve our food, service, social impact, and overall experience--especially for the customer.
Describe your leadership style.
I trust in all of my team members and welcome constructive feedback from staff at all levels. I have great respect for individuals who are confident in themselves and their ideas. I believe in giving everyone a chance to make their mark.
What has inspired your leadership style?
Which Wich would not have been possible if it weren't for others believing in me and giving me a chance. Before the brand was a reality, all I had was business cards and a logo that I had printed to bring to a restaurant show. By taking risks and absorbing feedback I was able to launch as a viable franchise.
What is your biggest leadership challenge?
My biggest personal challenge is implementing change. I am a highly creative person and love change, which I believe is necessary for progress. However, I find myself walking on eggshells when I bring up new ideas to the team. Change scares people sometimes.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees?
First and foremost, our culture of positivity is instilled within every member of Which Wich, from our corporate executives to the front-line employees, because having a positive vibe is a quality that we look for in our hiring process. We have a policy where corporate staff members wear the brand's vibrant colors (black and yellow) in the office, which aligns them with the front-line employees who wear our branded uniforms. I also make it a priority to travel the country and actually meet our line employees, working as brand ambassadors in all of our stores. I host what we call "Vibe Visits," where I can meet hundreds of team members and get to know them in a casual environment. I want them to know I care about each and every person wearing black and yellow.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ?
I believe that formal education is important if you want to be promoted within the workplace. An MBA validates you as an intelligent professional and gets your foot in the door--it's a qualifier. However, if you do things the textbook way, you will get textbook results. If you do things the entrepreneurial way, you have the ability to achieve exponential results--high risks lead to high reward. While I hold an MBA, I have always carved my own path through trial and error. Entrepreneurs keep knocking on doors even after getting 99 "No's." You just have to find one person to say "Yes."
Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions?
I am extremely open to getting input from those around me to help me process ideas before I make a decision. My best decisions come first thing in the morning when I wake up, after I have absorbed all the information and am fully charged and refreshed.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
I want to be understood. If you understand me, there's the potential that you'll both like and respect me. If you understand where I'm coming from, we can focus on our intents and build a deeper relationship.
Advice to CEO wannabes:
Tackle the title - if you want to be a CEO you have to start acting like one, dressing like one, surrounding yourself with other CEOs, and establishing a network. When I was a young CEO, I'd go to the cocktail parties with the older CEOs and figure out what they did and how they did it. After modeling yourself on CEOs you respect, you will then be able to surpass them with your unique style of leadership.
Describe your management style:
I state my vision and put trust in my team members to turn my vision into a reality.
What does your management team look like?
My team leaders are creative, confident, and collaborative. We bounce ideas off each other and work together to come up with solutions.
How does your management team help you lead?
They help me hone in on all the ideas that I have and turn all the good ones into a reality. My management team all have a positive, can-do attitude, and while we all believe anything is possible, they will certainly tell me their opinions. I'm not afraid of asking for advice and they're not afraid of giving some.
Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books?
I buy a lot of books. Recently I have been reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and Good to Great by Jim Collins. I usually skim through a lot of books. I get through a few chapters and then I'm on to the next. Every once in a while I go deep and read the book slowly.
What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"?
When I see the smile on someone's face after they take a bite out of a Which Wich sandwich. This particularly applies to seeing smiles as a result of our philanthropic campaign, Project PB&J, where for every PB&J bought in-store, one is donated to a local organization and another is banked in a global fund. Through Project PB&J I have been able to make a significant positive difference in the lives of those less fortunate by providing them with food they may not have had access to otherwise.
What time do you like to be at your desk?
The magic happens after 5 p.m. when most people are packing up. I like to be at my desk at 9:30 a.m. because from 8:30 to 9:30 people are hitting balls on the range (they're getting set up for the day).
Exercise in the morning?
Yes, I enjoy exercising in the morning to energize before I arrive in the office.
Wine with lunch?
No, and I rarely have wine with dinner because it puts me at a competitive disadvantage for the next day.
Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office?
I believe in letting things happen organically. If circumstances are naturally setting us up to socialize, we will.
Last two books read:
I always have several books going at once, but one I go back to often is Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and his quote, "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." I've always believed in the power of positive thinking, and the ability to achieve great things if you set your mind on a goal and keep pushing toward it.
What technology do you take on the road?
"i" everything: iPhone, iPad, iPod, and iWatch. It allows me to stay connected without carrying big hardware.
How do you relax/balance life and work?
My wife is awesome. She gives me the freedom to run the business and we have our own version of cross-functional meetings, also known as pillow talk, so I can contribute to the family and she can contribute to the business.
Favorite vacation destination:
Anywhere that deals with major adjustments to your body clock. If it's a full day behind or ahead, you have to really get in sync with the country's time zone by resting your body, which is a vacation in and of itself.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes:
I'm a huge proponent of giving credit when credit is due. If one of my employees has done something exceptional, I'll always pick up the phone, call them out in a team huddle, send a text... something to let them know I think they're great.
Favorite company product/service:
I'm a fan of brands that have great designs and are architecturally significant, such as design firm Pininfarina, which does everything from cars to buildings to the Coke Freestyle machine. I also am a huge fan of companies that stand behind their product, such as Patagonia, which offers a no-questions-asked guarantee. I respect brands that are confident enough in their product that they don't need to worry about returns. I also like brands that shine in service, such as Nordstrom. I have modeled my business after brands that offer product guarantee and great service.
What are your long-term goals for the company?
We have already grown significantly and steadily across the U.S. We are now positioned for aggressive global growth as well.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company?
It hasn't. We were in a down economy when we launched and still experienced growth, and as the economy gets better our growth continues. I believe there are opportunities in both economies, you just have to adjust your business to capitalize in both.
How do you measure success?
What has been your greatest success?
Health, health, and health--aka H3. Health personally. Health with your family. And health in your business. This is how I view success.
Yes, not starting a family and Which Wich sooner. I wish I would have started the brand 20 years ago so I could have gone head-to-head with Subway. If I had launched Which Wich earlier I think the world would have looked a little more yellow.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months?
Flavorful food. Colorful culinary creations. Global growth.
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