Partners and Friends: 30-year Relationship Blossoms in Perennial Success By Helen Bond
Franchisees looking for insights into succeeding with a partner can learn a thing or two from multi-brand franchisees Judy Ewing-Lonetti and Sandy Dunn. Mutual respect is the cornerstone of their 30-year business relationship. They know they wouldn't be where they are today without one another.
Their company, Charlotte-based Ewing-Dunn, is a mainstay at North Carolina's Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where they operate coveted food franchise locations under three different brands: Brioche Dorée, Cinnabon, and TCBY. In the coming months, they will add an Auntie Anne's and at least one additional food franchise when construction is completed on a new concourse at the airport, which set an all-time record in 2014 with more than 44 million travelers.
The pair met at a gift show 35 years ago when Ewing-Lonetti, as national sales director for a large gift company, was selling and Dunn, general manager at Charlotte Douglas for Dobbs House, was buying. Five years later, their complementary expertise, along with Dunn's proven airport experience, would help them land a successful bid for their first airport location. Their strong wholesale and retail backgrounds made the pair a perfect fit to incorporate. But it was their special friendship that led to the turning point in their careers.
Ewing-Lonetti was simply supporting a friend when the pair met for lunch three decades ago to talk about Dunn's career options. Dobbs House had just lost a bid to HMSHost, and Dunn, divorced and a single mother, was mulling over her next move, including out-of-state to work for the concession operator at another airport.
"I told Judy, 'If I had any sense, I would probably propose an ice cream parlor at the airport myself, because it was a good location," remembers Dunn. "About 30 minutes later, Judy said, "Why don't we do it." When the opportunity came up for bid three weeks later, they formed Ewing-Dunn, which would evolve over the years to include gift stores and, 21 years ago, their first food franchise.
"I worked through high school and college and my brain, my way of thinking, has always been business-oriented," says Ewing-Lonetti, who serves as CEO of Ewing-Dunn. "I loved the airport business, so it was particularly intriguing to me to form a partnership with Sandy that would be our own entity." They didn't think much about what the future might hold--they were just trying to launch a business.
"I guess you are optimistic and always hope it will be a long-lasting partnership. But we were too busy to worry too much about that at the time," says Dunn, vice president in charge of daily operations.
These days, the partners focus on meeting the ever-changing needs of the traveling public and growth opportunities at one of the world's busiest airports, which recently announced a 20-year expansion plan. With all their brands under one roof, they take advantage of intelligence gathered from two sources: the brands, which know what their customers want; and constant survey data compiled by HMSHost to identify who is traveling through the Charlotte airport and what they are looking for in an airport store.
Both women say they are proud of the strong relationships they have created with franchises--even when a store hasn't worked out. "They understand it's just business and they have to get their act together and make serious changes if they want to stay at the airport," says Ewing-Lonetti. "They get pushed because we get pushed. Our city wants our airport to be the very best airport there is, and it is up to Sandy and me to do our part to ensure that everything looks great and is new and fresh."
Time has only enriched their business partnership and deepened a relationship that goes beyond friendship. Since that lunch date 30 years ago, when the idea for Ewing-Dunn was born, they have had each other's back through thick and thin: the death of Ewing-Lonetti's first husband, a serious health issue with Dunn's son, the marriages of their children, Ewing-Lonetti's remarriage, and grandkids.
"I don't think we would have gone into the venture if we didn't think we could make it work," says Dunn. "I think it has succeeded because we both have the same work ethic and vision of what we wanted to accomplish. It didn't hurt that we were friends before we were business partners."
Name: Judy Ewing-Lonetti and Sandy Dunn
Title: CEO and Vice President
Company: Ewing-Dunn Inc.
No. of units: 1 Brioche Dorée, 1 Cinnabon, 1 TCBY
Family: Judy, married, 3 daughters, 5 grandchildren; Sandy, 1 son, 4 grandchildren
Years in franchising: 21
Years in current position: 30
Sandy: Before Ewing-Dunn, I was the general manager for Dobbs House Inc., which handled food and retail at the Charlotte airport. The only other job I had before that was Mercy Hospital, where I worked in the dietary department for about a year, supervising the food service on the floors and working with the special diet patients on their menus.
Sandy: My grandfather and father both owned businesses and were a big influence on me.
Judy: We are very proud to be female multi-unit, multi-brand franchisees and to have been in business together for 30 years. We grew from owning an ice cream parlor to owning as many as five franchises at one time. We credit our friendship and complementary business skills as paramount to our success. I focus on strategy and long-term goals and Sandy focuses on day-to-day operations. Sandy: Our key accomplishment has been to grow from one ice cream parlor to as many as five stores at one time, both retail and food concessions.
Biggest current challenge:
Sandy: Our location at the airport. Growth opportunities are often dependent on new concourses being built at the airport. In terms of hiring and retaining staff, employees who work at the airport must deal with parking challenges, getting fingerprinted, and going through security each day.
Next big goal:
Judy: Our next big goal is to open our new Auntie's Anne's store at the airport this year.
First turning point in your career:
Judy: Forming our partnership and company and opening the ice cream parlor at the Charlotte airport 30 years ago. Sandy: The first turning point in my career is the same as our best business decision: going into business with Judy.
Best business decision:
Judy: Getting into the airport franchise business was our best business decision.
Hardest lesson learned:
Judy: Learning to be patient in business. Patience gives you a much better insight into what you're about to do. Sandy: To learn that I cannot expect all people to do the things the way I would do them. I have tried throughout my career to be accepting and balance perfectionism.
Sandy: Since airports are open 365 days a year, my work week expands to seven days a week, many weeks of the year.
Best advice you ever got:
Judy: From my husband who said, "Don't jump; think it through." This advice applies to everything. Sandy: Mine is from my parents, who told me to be honest and do things the right way the first time.
What's your passion in business?
Sandy: We love our jobs and coming to the airport each day. I love interacting with our staff and customers. We both always try to do everything as best as we can.
How do you balance life and work?
Sandy: At times, you do the best you can, especially when you're opening a business. You always have to take time for your family and friends.
Judy: "Gone with the Wind." Sandy: I love movies, but it's hard to pick a favorite.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Sandy: I wanted to go to college and study food and business, which I did at the University of Tennessee. Judy: My dream as a child was to move west and raise horses. I now have a horse farm outside Las Vegas.
Judy: My last vacation was to Italy, where I enjoyed the food, history, and friendly locals. Sandy: I enjoyed a fun beach vacation last year.
Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Judy: Harry Truman. Sandy: It's hard to pick just one. It ranges from Golda Meir to Oprah Winfrey.
Sandy: Enjoy what you do and do it the best you can with business integrity. Strive to be the best. Management method or style: Sandy: I train each of our employees individually. I don't ask any of our employees to do anything I wouldn't do myself. I work side by side with our employees.
Sandy: One of our challenges is recruiting and retaining really great employees. We have several employees who have been with us for 10-plus years.
How do others describe you?
Sandy: We are well respected by the airport community and by franchisors. Judy: Ewing-Dunn has always had a superior relationship with every franchise we have ever had. The ones we have had to give up still think we are terrific.
One thing I'm looking to do better:
Judy: We are proud of our 30-year tenure at the Charlotte airport. We are always striving to keep up with the competition and new trends, including improving social media skills.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
Sandy: We like to allow employees to experiment and innovate with their products. Any time you let your employees contribute they take more ownership of the business, which is positive, not only for our company, but also for our brands.
How close are you to operations?
Sandy: We are immersed in operations every day.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Sandy: Their industry expertise, strong products, and marketing and promotions support. Brioche Dorée, part of Le Duff America, provides regular support to local franchisees with regular promotions and social media outreach. They also helped build buzz locally and nationally through marketing and public relations efforts when we first opened their Brioche Dorée location in April 2014.
What I need from vendors:
Sandy: To make timely deliveries and understand airport security issues when making them.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
Judy: Being in the Charlotte airport, our market wasn't affected quite as strongly since our customers are international and national travelers. Sandy: We were fortunate that this airport was not affected by the recession as badly as some of the others. The marketing strategy for all our brands is influenced more by changes in what customers want: healthier and fresher products and more choices. Cinnabon presented new products and smaller portions to indulge yourself. Brioche Dorée stresses freshly prepared food and brings in "Limited Time Only" products, as well as new products to give people on the go more choices and healthier options. TCBY presented frozen Greek yogurt and Silk frozen yogurt for those allergic to dairy.
How is social media affecting your business?
Sandy: Social media is very important to business, but it doesn't affect our business quite as much. Charlotte residents cannot get to our business since it's past security, but increased name recognition from social media is always important.
How do you train and retain?
Sandy: We put a large focus on training managers and employees before they ever begin working on location. We also like to reward employees by promoting from within the company.
Judy: We will open Auntie Anne's this year. We are always working to keep brands fresh.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Sandy: By the increase in sales and profits.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
Judy: We are looking forward to continued growth and keeping current stores running well.
How is the economy in your region(s) affecting you, your employees, your customers?
Sandy: Since our stores are located in the airport, our customers come from all over the world so international economies play a key role. For example, if European markets are not performing well, consumers may cut back on international travel, which affects business at the airport.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
How do you forecast for your business?
Sandy: By following airport forecasts including airline enplanements and new concourse developments.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
Sandy: By being flexible with scheduling and recognizing them for their contributions.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
Sandy: With wage increases and shopping insurance plans.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Sandy: We like to promote from within. We recognize employees with lunches, gift cards, and time off.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
Sandy: We plan to continue our business for a long time. We don't have any intention of giving it up at this time.
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