Working up through the ranks at Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, Pat Williamson gains the knowledge that enables him to become a successful multiunit, multi-concept franchisee
When Pat Williamson was a sophomore at the University of Georgia in 1969, he was home from school one weekend and heard about a summer job opportunity. A Frito-Lay route man stocking the shelves in Williamson's father's retail store had asked if there were any kids looking for a summer job. Williamson's grandfather overheard the request and passed along the info to young Pat.
Williamson landed that summer job and went back each summer until he graduated from college. He did such a remarkable job that Frito-Lay hired him full-time right out of college in 1972.
"The summertime experience had even led me to switch majors to marketing," says Williamson. "And I'd lined up a job in the sales department upon graduation." In his first 10 years with Frito-Lay, Williamson rose from route salesman to division sales manager.
In 1982, PepsiCo, Frito-Lay's parent company, moved him to its Pizza Hut operations, where he started as division vice president overseeing company-owned restaurants. He advanced to senior vice president of operations, and in 1990 became executive vice president of development for the brand. It was during this time that he began overseeing the company's Pizza Hut franchising, among other responsibilities.
"I had been really developing an understanding of most of the fundamentals of business operations through the years, but this was when I began to learn more about franchising," he says. Working directly with franchisees provided many new insights for Williamson. He tells one story in particular that sticks with him today.
"I was at a meeting with our franchisees and had just finished giving a presentation and opening the floor up for questions," he says. "A franchisee way in the back raised his hand and said, 'You'd feel different about this if it were your name on the lease.' I think that was the first time I fully understood things from a franchisee's perspective."
In 1997, PepsiCo exited the restaurant business, and Williamson, who had spent 25 years with the organization, cashed out his holdings. Around the same time, he heard of an existing Applebee's multiunit operation in South Carolina that was looking for a buyer. Williamson and his partners, Allan Huston and Bill Klepper, talked it over and founded TriJ Capital Partners (the names of the wives of all three men begin with the letter J).
In September 1998, the new company purchased 28 Applebee's located throughout South Carolina. "One of the things we liked about buying existing locations was the cash flow. We saw that as an advantage over building new locations," says Williamson.
The new company did well, and before long they were looking for more brands. Says Williamson, "There are three fundamentals that we look at in our company when considering franchises: One, does the franchise brand have a strategic long-term vision with a record of reinventing itself? Second, does the concept have mass appeal—will it work everywhere? And third, is it an economic model that will make us a lot of money?"
He says they had looked at more than 20 concepts before he came across a newspaper article about CiCi's Pizza in 2002. "There were some changes and good things going on with that brand, and so I told Allan [Huston] about it," says Williamson. They decided to jump on the opportunity and today operate seven CiCi's Pizzas in the Denver area. Additionally, the company has built up its Applebee's units to 32 locations (one in Georgia, four in North Carolina, and the rest in South Carolina).
Williamson notes the advantages of running a multiunit, multi-concept operation. "When your different brands are within the same territories, that's a big benefit in terms of leveraging your overhead," he says. Additionally, he points to TriJ's use of a third-party company that handles all their payroll and accounting for all units across both brands. And, he says, it's possible to pick up a tip from one concept that can be implemented at another.
"We noticed that Applebee's was really great at hiring and retaining their general managers," says Williamson, noting their program for profiling and identifying great managers. "We took that information and presented it to the CiCi's people. Sometimes techniques can be adopted at other brands and concepts."
Multiunit and multi-concept franchising has been good for Williamson and his partners at TriJ. Last year's revenue topped $70 million. He says one of their strategies has been to selectively choose a CEO for each of the two brands—and set it up so those CEOs can boost their earnings by running successful operations. "They have skin in the game," says Williamson. He says they try to hire and retain the best, and that to do so they know they must be well-compensated.
TriJ is presently looking at expanding into the Corner Bakery franchise with an eye on territory in Florida. Williamson hopes to know more soon. In the meantime, he'd like to see the company open four more CiCi's this year and continue that pace into the future.
Williamson believes his keys to success have been his passion for whatever he's doing, his ability to communicate with people at all levels, and his ability to learn from his mistakes.
Good thing grandpa was listening that day the Frito-Lay man stopped by 36 years ago.
Name: Pat Williamson
Company: TriJ Capital
No. of units: 32 Applebee's, 7 CiCi's Pizzas
Family: Wife Joan, and two daughters; and recently, two granddaughters
Years in current position: 10
Years in franchising: 25 in the restaurant business, 15 as a franchisor and 10 as a franchisee
Key accomplishments: As president of PepsiCo Express Restaurants I guided a $700 million business unit with 5,200 Pizza Huts, Taco Bells, and KFCs. I spent 25 years with that organization and learned a lot. I'm also proud of our franchise business today.
Biggest/smartest mistake: I like to tell the story of Sam Walton speaking at the Harvard Business School some years back. After his presentation, a student asked him, "How are you so successful?" Sam replied, "I can tell you in two words: good decisions." Another student stood up and asked, "How do you know how to make good decisions?" And Sam replied, "I can answer that in two words: bad decisions." In other words, learning from mistakes is key. You make good decisions by learning from the bad decisions you've made.
How do you spend a day, typically? I am semi-retired so I like spending time with my family, traveling, and playing golf. But I do spend time with our CiCi's and with the franchise advisory council for that concept.
Work week: I don't work full-time. I gave that up when I left PepsiCo 10 years ago. However, I'm on the phone with the CEO of our CiCi's nearly every day. We all have a conference call one each week discussing operations, labor, costs, etc. I'm on the franchise advisory committee for CiCi's, and we meet once each quarter. It's intellectually challenging for me to stay involved in some way or another.
Favorite activity: Playing golf.
Exercise: I work out three times each week.
What do you do for fun? Play golf and spend time doing things with my two granddaughters.
Books/magazines recently read/recommended: The Best Investment Advice I Ever Received by Liz Clamon.
Management method or style: Communicate expectations and then get out of the way. Expectations are important. Like I say, there's no finish line in customer satisfaction… you just keep going and keep raising that bar.
How close are you to operations? I'm semi-retired. We have strong qualified CEOs for each of our concepts and good people on the ground running them. And I have two great partners. That's really all we need.
Greatest challenge: Early in my career as a route salesman for Frito-Lay, there was an account that everybody said I could never get. I stopped by that place anyway and asked the owner about stocking our products. He said no. So I went back in there every week to buy gas for my truck. I never said anything to him, but he saw me coming by. After a few weeks of that, I went back inside and asked him again about stocking our products. Since he now saw me as his customer he looked at me differently and said, "Sure, put up a rack." Persistence pays off. But I never had to buy gas from him again.
Personality: Passionate. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it with everything I have. I've always been that way, in business and outside of it. I like to give the example of how I've been playing golf for only about 10 years, but I work at it because I want to be the best I can be. The passion to succeed separates the good from the bad.
How do you hire and fire? I'm not really involved in the hiring and firing.
Find good people? We use a company that has helped us develop a profile of the successful managers and employees in our system. We use that template during interviews to help gauge and identify the best candidates. I have always said I'll take a "B" player with passion over an "A" player without it any day of the week.
Train them? Both CiCi's and Applebee's provide excellent training. It's just important to make sure that we're executing that training and those policies. The training manuals cannot have dust on them.
Retain them? By training at a high standard and by compensating well.
"Growth meter"—How do you measure your growth? As a franchisee it's all about making money.
Annual revenue: $70 million
2008 goals: Show single-digit sales growth in both concepts.
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