Hometown Hero: 2019 MVP Veteran Entrepreneurship Award
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Hometown Hero: 2019 MVP Veteran Entrepreneurship Award

Hometown Hero: 2019 MVP Veteran Entrepreneurship Award

No matter what Joe Walker does, he leads by example. Walker is the 2019 recipient of Multi-Unit Franchisee's MVP Veteran Entrepreneurship Award for outstanding performance, leadership, and innovation by a military veteran.

The South Carolina entrepreneur spent 8 years in the military, including leading U.S. Army operations in Iraq, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. When Walker returned to his hometown of Columbia, it was only natural he would launch a business model that was all about efficiency.

"If you were to look at my org chart on paper and hold it next to a battalion level org chart from the Army, there would be a striking resemblance in how we cascaded our leadership and personnel from top to bottom," says Walker, who operates 19 Marco's Pizza restaurants across South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina, with aggressive plans for growth.

Walker's leadership resonates throughout his growing portfolio of businesses, which include Marco's Pizza; his own retail brand, Carolina Mattress and Furniture; along with marketing, construction, and real estate development companies, among other getting an offer to sell that he couldn't refuse.

"We are always looking for opportunities," he says. "I'm at the stage in my career if I exit a vertical it simply adds more fuel for me to go find the next one."

Called to enlist after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Walker graduated from Wofford College and served the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2008, and in the U.S Army National Guard from 2008 to 2012. He spent 11 months fighting in Baghdad during a time considered some of the bloodiest fighting of the war--three days of which were captured on a handheld camera by Australian journalist Michael "Mick" Ware, who was covering the war for Time magazine and CNN.

Ware's footage, featuring Walker, would later become the HBO documentary, "Only the Dead See the End of War." The Army platoon leader later appeared with Ware on panels at film festivals and press-related events to promote the documentary, now available on Netflix. "It was impactful to have a soldier from South Carolina who was just seen on film in combat," Walker says. "To allow them to see who we really were was amazingly beneficial. There was no narrative or spin. It ripped the politics right out of it."

Walker, who lives and leads his company by the Golden Rule, is focused on opportunities that will enable him to continue to build his company so he can give all he can back to his community and help others succeed.

The husband and father of four has often been known to go above and beyond, recently donating $10,000 toward a hypertension implant for a Marco's Pizza customer. He also shut down one of his stores for multiple days to make over 2,000 pizzas for families in need throughout his community.

Walker got into franchising with the help of Harold Tuma, an investor he had worked with in commercial real estate. Today he feels especially called to help young entrepreneurs get their own start and succeed in business. "I want to become what helped me get where I am today," he says.

Name: Joe Walker
Title: Owner/Managing Partner
No. of units: 18 Marco's Pizza
Age: 37
Family: Wife and four children
Years in franchising: 8
Years in current position: 8


Formative influences/events:
The example set by my family. I had a very close family growing up, held together by my grandparents (my father's parents). The way they chose to raise their families in proximity to my aunts, uncles, and cousins, who were like extended fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters to me, was an example of what I thought family should and could be. It was a tremendous blessing for me throughout my formative high school years before I left for college. September 11 was the next pivot point in my life. I was a sophomore at Wofford College and the events of that day led me to join the ROTC and, ultimately, the Army. Obviously, my experiences in the Army, more specifically my experiences in combat, were incredibly formative in many different ways--from the leadership and humility perspective, pain, and how to deal with loss perspective, but also from a faith perspective. That is where I was given the gift of the realization that I wasn't in control of my life and needed to yield the attempt to control my life to the Lord. Marrying my wife Haley, and experiencing the grace she provides, and the birth of all four of my children, has really allowed me to keep my focus on things that matter, things eternal, and how to live my life in a way that is not living for today, but understanding and living in a way where the best is yet to come.

Key accomplishments:
I would say having the opportunity to serve with the men I served with in combat, although not all of them came home. Growing this bond of brotherhood with those men, which truly does form, exist, and prevail, was very powerful and long-lasting for me. Marrying Haley and having four children with her and watching them grow. Also watching Haley grow in her faith and encouraging me to do the same. I would consider that a personal accomplishment. Building the team we have built here professionally and achieving some of the benchmark successes we have set for ourselves. Watching teammates accomplish their lifelong goals is to me an incredible personal accomplishment. I thrive more on the personal success of my teammates than I do on, "What am I able to do?"

Work week:
There is no such thing as a typical work week. We have a vast array of businesses that we run and operate, along with my other endeavors, having recently been elected to County Council here in the capital county of South Carolina. My work week is about constantly figuring out and being confronted with the issue of the day and being able to prioritize and understand what is extremely important.

What are you reading?
Them: Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal by Sen. Ben Sasse.

Best advice you ever got:
Do your best, have fun, and always tell the truth (from my father).


Business philosophy:
The Golden Rule: treat others as I would want to be treated. That applies to transactional philosophy as well as how we run our business.

Management method or style:
Hire the best. Trust and delegate. And inspect what you expect.

Greatest challenge:

How do others describe you?
I don't know, but I certainly hope and strive as Christ-centered, family-centered, and kind.

How do you hire and fire, train and retain?
I hire at a different level. I have an operational organization that allows me to hire at the C-suite level. They hire one level down to the area supervisor, and area supervisors hire one level down to the general manager. The general managers are tasked with staffing their stores. We hire and fire through delegation. At my level I always try to hire someone I would want to work for and who intimidates me with their expertise in the area I'm hiring. By intimidate, I mean that I try to hire people who know "it" better than I do. Training is built into the franchise model, and Marco's does a good job of pushing out training aids and training mechanisms. A lot of training is experience. You have to be in the stores and make pizza. Retention is culture-driven from the top down. My COO focuses on culture every day. Do we treat people the way we want to be treated? And that means all the way down the ladder to every person in our organization. We strive for the answer to be yes. Do we get it right every time? No. But we experience a better-than-most retention average in an industry sector plagued by high turnover because we try to do the right thing by every person every time.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:
$15 million.

2019 goals:
To understand and adjust to the implementation of Marco's new national advertising fund; growth through opportunistic acquisition; and regionally diversify my portfolio of holdings within Marco's.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Number of stores and revenue. Profitability is ultimately the major growth indicator.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
I am constantly looking for new businesses to add. I would like to have a diverse, robust portfolio that generates enough free cash flow to allow me to put young entrepreneurs into opportunities that they otherwise would not have a chance to capitalize on--whether I do that in 5 years or 10, and I would like to do it in 2 years. I don't really have a timetable associated with it, but that is the goal.

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
That occurs every day at the store level. Our general managers get treated with a certain level of respect just like I would do in the military. If I was going to ask a private to kick in the door, I wanted that private to see me kick in a door first. So what we do is respect our employees in a way that we won't ask them to do something we haven't already done or are not willing to do ourselves as leaders.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
Strategically, everything is built to sell. We are set up in a way that if an exit presented itself, we would be able to capitalize. I've already exited my Orangetheory vertical, so we have been through an exit before. My exit strategy is really more of a recycling strategy. It would simple parlay me into another opportunity.

MVP Questions

Why do you think you were recognized with this award?
Because of my team. I believe that every award presented to me is accepted by my team. I make sure they know that. I work with and alongside an amazing group of people. My personal success stems from the selection of good people at the top of each vertical, understanding that if I hire like-minded and like-hearted people to run a vertical, typically their influence flows down through it like mine would. So my success, and the recognition of my success, is really all attributed to my partners and employees.

How have you raised the bar in your own company?
Hopefully, by example. Again, it all points back to how we treat people, and that starts with me. It's how I treat not only the high-level people in my office day to day, but also the people when I walk into the stores, and an employee when I find out they are going through a hard time. It is how I treat the vendors, or someone cleaning the windows in one of our stores, and how that trickles down to the pizza delivery driver who may be walking by and hears that interaction. It all boils down to humility. I want to treat people the way I want to be treated. Whether I'm at the top of the podium or cleaning the podium that is how I live my life, and it is how I want my children to live their lives. I hope that influence is seen, absorbed, and implemented at every level of our operation and that, in and of itself, raises the bar.

What innovations you have created and used to build your company?
We have been innovative in our organizational structure and willing to spend a tremendous amount reinvesting in people. Bringing on people before we need them. Staffing to be a much larger company than we were at the time that we spent the money for staffing. Being prepared for growth, instead of acting because of growth, in building the team.

What core values do you think helped lead win this award?
Being respectful and being honest.

How important is community involvement to you and your company?
This community is my hometown. This is where I grew up. A tremendous number of customers are friends and family--not of just me, but of people involved in our company. We give back at every opportunity we have. I feel called. Part of culture is caring for those around us who need help. We participate in many different philanthropic endeavors and we want to do more. Other than helping other entrepreneurs get started and become successful, I would love to be able to give away more.

What leadership qualities are most important to you and your team?
They don't differ from some of my other answers. Hire people who are like-minded and like-hearted. I look for honesty first, and then I look for humility, which trickles down to respect.

Published: August 9th, 2019

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