Kelly Saxton remembers his very first job flipping burgers at his grandfather's diner in South Hutchinson, Kansas. "I guess that means that I've been in the restaurant business my whole life! I come from several generations who have worked either in restaurants or in the food industry."
Today he is founder and executive chairman of The Saxton Group, a Dallas-based company that is the largest franchisee of McAlister's Deli, and operates 50 of the fast casual restaurants in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and four Pinkberry frozen dessert locations in the Dallas area. Recognized by Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business as one of the top Dallas companies for dynamic growth, the company has earned McAlister's Deli Franchisee of the Year and Developer of the Year awards numerous times.
Saxton has taken a family approach to building a business that has opened and operated more than 100 restaurants in his 30-year career. Whether talking about his two sons, Adam and Matthew, who are vice presidents at the company, his 1,000-plus employees, or the customers and markets the franchise and development company serves, Saxton understands the value and power of connections.
Saxton admittedly hails from generations who have worked in the restaurant and food business. Still, the fresh-faced college graduate wasn't thinking much about his roots when seizing an opportunity from his father and a family friend in 1982 to become a Mazzio's Pizza franchisee in suburban Jackson, Miss.
"Honestly, at that time, I'm 22, married and have a child. I wanted a job," says Saxton. Soon, he was hooked by the people and the multifaceted nature of a business that requires marketing, financial, human resources, and retail know-how to succeed. "We are in a business where you are measuring impact--moment-to-moment, customer-to-customer," says Saxton. "I thrived off the energy and still do today."
By 1999, Saxton owned more than 50 Mazzio's locations in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas and was on the hunt for a growth-oriented concept that wasn't as commodity-driven as a slice of pizza. He was drawn to McAlister's varied menu, which includes soups, salads, and spuds, the concept's appeal to women, a strong daytime presence, and a focus on service. He sold his pizza operation in 2004 to concentrate on developing the McAlister's brand, particularly in Texas, the company's best-performing state. In 2009, Saxton added the upscale Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt to his portfolio, the first Pinkberry franchise awarded outside of California and New York.
Five years ago, when we profiled The Saxton Group (then called Saxton Pierce Restaurant Corp.), it already was the largest McAlister's franchisee, with 30 units spread across Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Kansas. Late last year, Saxton's organization got even bigger with an acquisition that added 20 McAlister's in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. That acquisition--of Bothwell Saxton Restaurants, a company in which The Saxton Group had been a partner with Craig Bothwell--brought the Saxton Group's number of McAlister units to 50, with sales expected to reach $100 million in 2013. Saxton said he plans to add five or more McAlister's locations a year.
Along the way, sons Adam and Matt joined the company, working their way up through the ranks to their current positions as vice presidents. Both grew up in the restaurant industry, starting as teenagers. Adam, a graduate of SMU, focuses his analytical skills on long-term strategic real estate plans and brand positioning. Younger brother Matt, who earned his degree in hospitality management from the University of North Texas, works closely with vendors, architects, and contractors involved in new restaurant construction.
So how do the Saxtons, who often dine, work out, and vacation as a family, work and play so well together?
"We can disagree and at the end of the day we are friends who have a healthy respect for each other," the elder Saxton says. "It is most important to us--my wife and me--that we have the family dynamic first and business is a by-product... and there is always their mother to keep us in line."
At 52, Saxton has no plans to go anywhere but up, though he did transition in late 2011 from president to executive chairman to focus on strategic planning and long-term strategy. Kirk Lanier, who was a general manager for McAlister's before joining Saxton in 1998 to help expand the brand, was named company president. The restructuring has allowed Saxton to step away from daily operational duties and focus his leadership and energy on the company's big picture future.
"We have a very successful management team in place and we will continue to grow," says Saxton. "This also allows the team to grow and have longevity from that standpoint. For me, I've had this position for 30 years. It's not like I just showed up."
No matter where the development road takes the company, Saxton believes in developing brands within markets they know and understand. For Saxton, the aim is to be a "people-centered" business that connects with its employees, rather than just a company that operates a brand.
"If you are going to be a franchise company--which we are, and we love being a franchise company--you don't want your company to be just about your brand, because if that brand goes away, potentially your company goes away," says Saxton. "I want to be involved with my company forever. From an organizational standpoint, through people, you are managing the brand, but they are working for the same company, The Saxton Group. This is where they hang their hats, and we want them to be positive about this brand."
Name: Kelly Saxton
Title: Executive chairman and founder
Company: The Saxton Group
No. of units by brand: 50 McAlister's Deli (plus 3 under construction), 4 Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt
Family: Wife Vicky, sons Adam and Matt
Years in franchising: 30
Years in current position: 30
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