Nobly Done!: Commitment to Community Knows No Bounds
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Nobly Done!: Commitment to Community Knows No Bounds

Nobly Done!: Commitment to Community Knows No Bounds

When Bret Stewart was growing up, he dreamed of being a doctor so he could help people. Life may have led him down a different path, but his desire to positively influence the lives of those around him is realized every day.

Stewart, president of Woodinville, Wash.-based CenterTwist Inc., is the recipient of the 2017 MVP Noble Cause Award for his dedication and passion toward those in need.

A multi-unit franchisee with 17 Auntie Anne's, 2 Schlotzsky's, and 1 Cinnabon in Washington state and Alaska, Stewart's creative commitment to his employees and community knows no bounds. His good works have encouraged employees to pursue their passions, provided jobs to those with special needs, and enabled the company to feed and fund countless community projects and programs.

Stewart didn't have to look far for a corporate role model. Inspired by the giving spirit of Anne Beiler, who founded Auntie Anne's with "caring for others in mind," he created his own Dream Builders program to help fund the goals and aspirations of his team members.

Every Dream Builders recipient has a story. The fund has covered dance academy tuition for an employee who is now a member of her college dance team; paid for airfare to enable another worker to travel on a mission to treat Indonesians with AIDS; and covered the application fees for funding to provide hearings aids to an employee who could not otherwise afford them.

This year, the company will award college scholarships to working students and help many employees with financial hardships. The program is funded by company profits and overseen by a general manager, says Stewart, who knows firsthand what can happen when someone believes in you: he attended the University of Washington on a scholarship given to disadvantaged youths with potential and aspirations for college.

"I want the people who work at my Auntie Anne's, Cinnabon, or Schlotzsky's to look back and think that was one of the best jobs they ever had," he says. "Part of this, I think, is creating amazing opportunities for people to have access to or achieve something they never thought possible."

Stewart's contributions have been well received within the communities he serves. Two of his Auntie Anne's locations are owned by the social enterprise organization Washington Vocational Services (WVS). Stewart oversees the operations and management of the WVS locations, in which the profits are used to fund the organization's mission to provide employment services for people with disabilities. Most of his locations have someone on their staff referred by a social service agency. His company also gives mightily to raise money for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, Auntie Anne's national charitable partner that fights childhood cancer, and supports the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

It was a Children's Miracle Network radiothon that provided Stewart with a powerful epiphany on the power of giving: when manning the phones he took a pledge from a little boy and his sister who wanted to donate all the money they had in their piggy bank.

"I was on the phone for 10 minutes while they counted the change," he recalls. "I will always remember feeling that this donation (something like $2.48) was the biggest donation I took that day. It wasn't the size of the gift, it was the spirit of giving what they could. That still resonates with me and we do what we can, when we can. I always get inspired by others who give to their community in creative ways, especially those who don't have a lot to give but still find a way."

Leading with a noble purpose, Stewart says, is about reaching out. "You don't have to do much, just a little, and it can really make a difference," Stewart advises his fellow franchisees. "Some things might really catch on and be amazing! But even a little help to someone that needs it matters. I think most everyone wants to find ways to help others."

Sometimes, all it takes is a dream.

Name: Bret Stewart
Title: President/owner
No. of units: 17 Auntie Anne's Pretzels, 2 Schlotzsky's, 1 Cinnabon
Age: 50
Family: Two sons, 25 and 20
Years in franchising: 25
Years in current position: 16


Formative influences/events:
I grew up on a farm--and also in the city of Chicago. My parents were sort of hippies who wanted to get out of the big city and live off the land, but they got divorced and I moved around a lot between homes and states, farms, and cities. My last three years of high school in Snohomish, Washington, was the longest, continuous period of time spent at any one school growing up. I went to college at the University of Washington on a scholarship for disadvantaged youth. I worked my way up from a dishwasher in high school to a line cook at a local restaurant. In my sophomore year in college, I got a summer job at a pie shop (The Pie Pantry) at the Seattle Center in 1986. It would be the last job interview I ever had. I worked my way through the management ranks and also got scholarship help from that 24-location multi-concept company (Orange Julius, Dairy Queen, A&W, Auntie Anne's, as well as independent concepts like the Pie Pantry). I became a partner in 1993 and eventually bought the seven Auntie Anne's franchises in 2001. Eleven days after the deal was closed the towers were hit in NYC and we went into a pretty deep recession--but we made it!

Key accomplishments:
Started a social enterprise business (Auntie Anne's) with a nonprofit that works with people with disabilities. Income from that over the years has helped support their organization. Recognized as a Medium Private Employer in the U.S. for hiring people with disabilities (1994) and won again in 2004 as a Small Private Employer for Washington state after I bought the Auntie Anne's. Past chair of the Washington Restaurant Association and current board member of the National Restaurant Association. Elected by my fellow Auntie Anne's franchisees to be president of the Western Region of Auntie Anne's franchise advisory council various times over the years. Opened my first Cinnabon bakery in 2015. I also started a small mystery shopping business with my best friend in 1993 that is still in business today!

Work week:
Always with my phone/email. I do travel a lot, but Wi-Fi on the plane helps me keep current and productive.

What are you reading?
Game of Thrones (again).

Best advice you ever got:
Be tough on standards, but easy on people.

What's your passion in business?
Seeing people grow and either get promoted with us, or move on to their next phase in life. I love creating places that people want to work and stay engaged, where they have fun and feel good about themselves.


Business philosophy:
Be positively engaged. Find solutions to challenges and make a difference. Act honestly and ethically in all affairs. Always focus on the long term, not the short term.

Management method or style:
Trust your people, but verify with your systems. Promote from within, celebrate successes, and care for those who stumble. Take care of the details of your people, so they can take care of the details of the guests. I don't micro-manage! I also want working in my company to be part of someone's life, not their whole life--just a successful part of it.

Greatest challenge:
Evolving the business model in this dynamic new retail and governmental regulatory environment. I recently terminated a lease for a 3-year-old location in Seattle because of increasingly burdensome and untenable regulations for a business my size.

How do others describe you?
Friendly, outgoing, optimistic, and kind. (I hope anyway!)

How do you hire and fire, train and retain?
I think friendly team members and clean stores attract people who want to work in friendly, clean, and busy stores. It's not just good customer service, but it attracts those people who want to be part of that. Keeping people is the most important thing I focus on. It starts the first day on the job! We need to be really organized and get the paperwork out of the way, but then make sure the new people are welcomed and have fun right away. We want them to experience rolling a pretzel on their very first day--not in the back doing dishes. From there, we hope we can be consistent and flexible with their schedules and give room for internal growth. Our shift leaders help interview new applicants, and supervisors also share in bonuses for sales, food, and labor control. We have Pretzel Olympics every other year. Stores compete with two of the best from each location. It's a great event and I always look forward to it. We also have a Dream Builders fund where our people can apply for funds to help them achieve a dream or personal goal. Financial assistance is also available from this as well. We are giving scholarships away to our working students. Basically, we invest in our people with decent uniforms, through training and participating in choosing new hires, and we try to be a resource for them to move on in their life in a positive way.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:
A bit over $11 million in 2016.

2017 goals:
Look to diversify service and delivery models, renew/remodel five existing locations, look for opportunities that might arise where it makes sense. Add one to two more Cinnabon locations.

Growth meter:
Not really looking at a number of locations, rather just maximizing and/or surviving the current landscape and growing where and when it makes sense.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
This is a good question, and one I need to perhaps think about more. I feel like I am trying to adjust, survive, and thrive in the current year and 2018. Beyond that I have not firmed up yet!

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
Creating hybrid jobs that help us as we grow and that also leverage their unique skills (IT, marketing/social media, maintenance tech, multi-unit). I try to create career paths and added value for the company for long-term employees when it seems a good fit. Our Dream Builders fund allows me to donate money to help fulfill our team members' dreams or ambitions. This has also evolved into an employee assistance fund for those in need. We offer more than just money, also providing advice and methods to help them long term, not just pay a bill. Recently, I have been coordinating personal financial workshops with insurance brokers and bankers. Many people did not get financial coaching or skills from their parents or in school and do not know how to budget their own money and save. We have 40- to 45-hour work weeks for managers (average around 42). And we try to pay our shift leaders and supervisors competitively so managers are able to retain a good team. We have fun contests and I love to take all my managers to franchisor conventions and business trips whenever possible.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
There really isn't an exit strategy for me. I guess renewing leases where it makes sense and diversifying my concepts and locations that allow us to grow smartly.

Noble Cause Award

Why do you think you were recognized with this award?
We have raised money for the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation and Seattle Children's Hospital over the years, but I think our Dream Builders is what is so unique. We have really engaged some people into looking into their future and seeing what their dreams are. We have bought airfare for a couple of people to go on missions. We have paid dancing school tuition. We have helped a deaf employee get hearing aids he could not afford, and we are giving away scholarships to our working students this year. Also, our employee assistance fund for those who need a little help has been an increasing focus for us. We have always hired people with special needs and have some individuals in most, if not every, store who use supported employment. I have always been an advocate for hiring people with disabilities and have seen so many lives affected by all companies that practice this. Most of these things are just being good members of the community and are what I see a lot of restaurant companies doing. It surprised me to get the award. Maybe it was the variety of things we do, but the theme is always helping people, especially those who can't really help themselves, or who are doing all they can. I really want to help them--like I was helped when I was growing up.

How have you raised the bar in your own company?
I try to be a positive influence with our leaders. I want them to feel proud of where they work and to get the recognition of working for the best company compared with other franchisees. I love it when they win awards for being Pretzel Perfect, or for sales increases, marketing ideas, or fundraising. I also get involved in franchise leadership at the corporate level as best I can with our brands, and also in our industry. I think that my managers are aware of that and proud that our organization takes a leadership role.

What innovations have you created and used to build your company?
We have had a deliberate focus on manager and leader retention and promoting from within. Tenure is very real in my manager's longevity! We have compensation strategies, benefits, and HR policies that evolve to help retain our leaders (including annual contests and a culture of giving back and helping those in need). These don't just happen, they need to be intentional, simple, consistent, and be always practiced.

What core values do you think helped you to win this award?
Helping others, being a good example for others, being positive, and giving opportunities to people to realize their potential.

How important is community involvement to you and your team?
As mostly a snack brand (Auntie Anne's), our role is to support the community by hiring, and to provide fundraising opportunities to our local community groups. I want to have a solid long-term reputation as being a great place to work. For hiring people with disabilities, I feel we are a great fit, as all our positions are customer contact. They all involve interaction with the public, even if it is just greeting people walking past the store. I think this is important as it shows people that there can be good jobs for everyone in their community. Last year I attended the funeral of an employee who passed away. I heard so many people comment at his service that they saw him in the mall, and they would talk to him about his job at church. I didn't know him really well. He worked a couple of days per week, five to eight hours a week, for a number of years. But that was a big part of his world and his family's world as well. I was proud to have been a happy part of his life.

What leadership qualities are most important to you and your team?
Trust. Be a good example. It's okay to make mistakes--and fix them. Do the right thing. Have fun.

Published: September 21st, 2017

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