Mack Wilbourn knows how to get results
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Mack Wilbourn knows how to get results

Mack Wilbourn has a problem: What to do with the cartoon figures of Popeye, Olive Oyl and the rest that decorate his jet black Hummer. That was great when Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits had the license for the characters, but now that the chain is rebranding, the characters have to go.

"I haven't decided what to do yet," he says. "I had fun doing that. But those are the kinds of side things I've always done, my little twist on marketing. I'm not a marketer, I'm an operator, but I like to pull a twist on the brand."

Wilbourn has solved a lot of other, tougher problems, and he'll think of something. As for the rebranding, he says, it was the right thing for Popeyes to do. And what Wilbourn thinks is important; he owns the #1 and #3 stores in the chain, both located at the Atlanta airport.

He started out working at Jack In The Box, and quickly moved up to manager. After a few years, he opened his first restaurant as a franchisee--a McDonalds. "That was when Ray Kroc was chairman," he says. That was 1971, and Wilbourn was 26 years old.

Eventually he owned four McDonalds, but contrary to most peoples' assumptions, he was not making any significant money. So, after 22 years with McDonalds, he sold the locations to a corporation, which couldn't figure out how to manage them, and sold them again. Two of the restaurants are now closed.

The problem, Wilbourn says, was location. And he's not about to make the same mistake again. After selling his restaurants, he did food service for one of the large jails in Atlanta, serving about 10,000 meals a day. In 1996, there was an opportunity for a franchise at the Atlanta airport, and he applied for the locations, and got them.

"The opportunity was for a chicken franchise and an ice cream concept for the two locations I had in the terminal," he says. "I looked at all the fried chicken concepts and I liked Popeye's. Their national sales were good, their product was excellent."

What was most important to Wilbourn, because of the airport location, was a menu that would be broader and include breakfast.

"I knew that breakfast would be 25-30 percent of my sales so I very much concentrated on putting together an excellent breakfast," he says. "Popeyes was OK with that because they knew I needed that and they've been very supportive." Popeyes even developed cinnamon rolls separately from the company-owned Cinnabon chain. Another attraction was the Cajun menu items, because Wilbourn had noticed how quickly that style had caught on.

"Popeyes has been very flexible. They let me put in product that offered variety, like cookies." Wilbourn is quick to listen to the market: "There were customers who wanted bottled water, before that was every place. I'm real excited now that we are going into salads. It's the perfect thing for me and my operation at the airport."

When the opportunity came to buy out another operator at the airport, Wilbourn did not hesitate to open another Popeyes location.

The two stores, which are small--one is 500 square feet, the other about 1,200 square feet with 64 seats--have to be efficiently managed to do the volume they do. But, Wilbourn says, "We just need the space to serve the customer the way the customer wants to be served."

Meanwhile, he was working on his second airport location, an Edy's ice cream parlor. Edy's is not a franchise, but a license, so Wilbourn had a lot of leeway in developing the location. Wilbourn loves ice cream, and always like the parlor look, so he developed it to have that appeal.

Wilbourn is a hands-on kind of manager: "I visit all the stores every day; I see both shifts, sometimes even the third shift. I'm just a hands-on operator. My people like it."

Now he's bought into yet another concept, Brewster's Ice Cream, which he says is "something with a little less investment and a little less management." He likes the fact that there is a prototype building "that you can just plop right down." He knew the locations, and will be opening the two soon.

Now with 30 years in franchising, what does this quintessential hands-on operator expect from his franchisors?

"I look for the franchisor to keep the quality coming, to keep the marketing of the name strong; help me with any new twists and new ideas to make us be fresh, stay fresh."

For the rest, he has an organization that works smoothly.

"You grow your organization as you go," he says. "Like the ice cream: The new business will have its own division, its own management, and the airport will continue to have its own management. I'm moving up three or four people who have been with me three or four years at Edy's." He has an infrastructure to handle bookkeeping and human relations.

His hands-on approach extends to his employees.

"If they have personal problems, I deal with those," he says. He gets far more involved with their personal lives than most operators would. "I try to see if they need housing, if their insurance is at the right level. My theory is, I'm going to be nosy, I'm going to meddle in your business."

There are benefits to working for Wilbourn's Mac II, Inc. For example, if his banker is coming to the office, he offers the opportunity for all of his employees to talk to the banker. At the end of the year, he offers his managers the opportunity to talk to the company's CPA about taxes. He requires them to get a physical each year. He shows them how to clean up their credit rating and insists that they get a credit report every six months.

For all of this, he says, "You don't pay, you just go. You should do it for yourself first of all, and if you don't have sense enough to do it for yourself, do it for the company. But you really should be doing it for yourself."

"I enjoy doing that," he says. "If it doesn't make people more loyal, then they're missing out, and there are some that have missed out. Some that washed out and want to come back, but they messed up so bad that they can't come back. They really realize all that."

He still has a plan in the back of his mind to help talented and motivated employees get into business for themselves.

"I thought that with all my experience, I could help some people who maybe had 10-15 years' experience and a little money--maybe $5-10,000, but they had to put some money in and work up to own 25%, and then eventually be able to buy it all."

So far no one has stepped up who seems a likely candidate. "It's hard. They have to be people who are hungry. Even though there are some with that experience, they haven't wanted to take that on."

Like most multiple-unit, multiple-concept operators, Wilbourn always has an eye out for opportunities. He's thinking about other concepts that he's not yet ready to talk about. Meanwhile, he's about to take on vending at the airport, since he has a world headquarters with space and equipment nearby.

In any case, he says, "I won't ever get over seven or eight units. I see five more years of running like I'm running." Somehow it's hard to imagine that he'll stop.

Published: November 1st, 2003

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