Pizza Pioneer Steve Jackson has been a part of Hungry Howie's since 1973
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Pizza Pioneer Steve Jackson has been a part of Hungry Howie's since 1973

Pizza Pioneer Steve Jackson has been a part of Hungry Howie's since 1973

Name: Steve Jackson

Title: President/CEO

Company: Hungry Howie’s Pizza

Units: 550

Age: 66

Years in franchising: 44+

Years in current position: 40+

Steve Jackson is the personification of loyalty. He was there when Hungry Howie’s Pizza was launched in 1973 when he worked as a delivery boy for the company’s founder, Jim Hearn. He went on to open the company’s second location. Today, nearly 50 years later, the 66-year-old is president and CEO of the pizza brand, which has 550 locations in 21 states and consistently ranks in the top 10 of the nation’s largest pizza franchises.

Covid-19 brought Hungry Howie’s and other pizza brands a mixed bag of good and bad news over the past 18 months. Fortunately, the model was set up for success during the pandemic because the brand had offered delivery and pickup orders for years. However, the shortage of employees has caused headaches and continues to be an ongoing issue. “There’s an industry-wide labor shortage of food service workers,” says Jackson. “We’ve simplified our menu to keep labor low and minimize waste.”

Still, the pizza business is resilient and has survived and even prospered during the pandemic, just as it’s done during other crises. In fact, Hungry Howie’s has picked up the pace since the pandemic. “Customers have been spending more and have increased the average ticket close to 20%,” says Jackson.

The brand’s recession-resistant business model gives Jackson a good feeling about Hungry Howie’s future. “The pizza business is the shining star of the restaurant category,” he says. “Now is a great opportunity to grow our business at a faster pace than we have in a very long time.” The brand has invested heavily in technology, he says, which provides real-time information and the ability to make quicker, better business decisions.

Working together with his leadership team and dedicated franchisees, Jackson sees blue skies ahead for Hungry Howie’s.

LEADERSHIP

What is your role as CEO? My responsibilities include communicating and directing my leadership team while managing the overall operations and resources of the company. I also lead the Franchise Marketing Advisory Council, which directs the marketing of the brand. Through our public relations firm, I communicate with all media as the voice of the brand.

How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? We were very blessed to have our business be considered essential during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, tens of thousands of restaurants were forced to close. The last 18 months have been the most challenging time for our brand since we started in 1973. We were forced to restructure our business model to be able to serve our customers, along with instituting initiatives to protect the safety of both our employees and customers.

When the shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March 2020, our leadership team met every morning, on Microsoft Teams to review operational changes that would be needed to operate. We were forced to modify our business model by offering contactless delivery, increasing sanitation procedures in stores, installing counter shields, securing masks and gloves, offering curbside delivery, and adding social distancing floor stickers in store lobbies to comply with the new regulations. Additionally, we developed a Covid-19 manual that offered direction to our franchisees on how to deal with all of the challenges to operate during these challenging times. 

The biggest challenge the hospitality industry was faced with—and is still faced with today—is the lack of available staffing. The majority of our store’s team members are 16 to 24 years old. At the beginning of the pandemic, parents quickly made the decision that they didn’t want their children working and being exposed to possible infection, which forced an immediate reduction in staff for all our locations. 

I am very proud to say that our franchisees realized the need to support their community hospitals and first responders and donated thousands of pizzas to feed them as they worked countless hours supporting those in need.

Describe your leadership style. I would say it’s working with my leadership team in a collaborative effort. I have always believed that being a good listener is an important quality of a good leader. Active listening is often an overlooked leadership quality. I feel it is important to get the necessary information by identifying issues, discussing them, and then developing a solution that allows me to make better decisions.

What has inspired your leadership style? I have always looked up to the top leaders of all successful businesses to help foster and mentor the leadership qualities. I have become a better leader by surrounding myself with good people.

What is your biggest leadership challenge? That I am loyal to a fault. There have been times I should have made staff changes over the years, and because of my loyalty I have hesitated to do so. Working with family members can also offer its challenges.

How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees? Back several years ago, we hired a leadership team coach who asked us to define the company’s core values that made our brand successful. After weeks of reviewing what we believed made Hungry Howie’s what it is today, we defined these core values. 1) Treat everyone like family. 2) Have integrity. 3) Do what you say. 4) Be hungry for growth. 5) Have positive energy. We have made every effort to instill these core values throughout our company, starting with the corporate office team, and then to the franchisees and into their locations and team members on the front lines. We integrate them into the company’s daily operations by reinforcing these values in all communication and messaging.

How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? The CEO must have a close working relationship with the CMO to be fully aligned and communicate a clear marketing message on behalf of the company. I have been very fortunate to work with Rob Elliott for more than 10 years, where his direction has molded our brand from a regional to a national brand. Rob brought the necessary experience to us from working with multiple large brands for decades. The CEO and CMO must foster a collaborative relationship to maintain a shared vision of the company’s purpose, strategic planning, and resources required to build the brand.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership, an MBA school or OTJ? I ended up in the pizza business by default. My goal was to be in education, but because of the lack of teaching jobs available I found myself looking for other opportunities. I had delivered pizzas in high school for Jim Hearn, who opened the first Hungry Howie’s in 1973. While attending college I stayed in contact with Jim because he was a friend and I admired his business success. Jim offered me the opportunity to open the second location in 1976, so I made the difficult decision to quit college and quit a job at Ford Motor Company. That said, my leadership has been developed by on-the-job training, which I believe worked for me. Having an MBA would be a benefit, but everyone still needs on-the-job training to build any business.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? When I must make big decisions, I consult with my leadership team or the necessary resources to weigh my options. I look for their knowledge, expertise, and perspective to help me make the best decisions.

Do you want to be liked or respected? I believe it is important for a CEO to want to be both respected and liked, but I feel it is more important to be respected as a leader. Respect is earned, and it is equally important for a CEO to show respect by setting an example of showing mutual respect in the workplace.

Advice to CEO wannabes: To attain the title of CEO, individuals must develop the necessary skills to understand and lead a business in operations, marketing, and accounting. Without a clear understanding of those departments, it would be challenging to make any business successful. People are a business’s most important asset, so hire strong leaders in all departments and let them do their job. Listen and respect what they have to say because they have the knowledge to help take the company to the next level. Strong leaders will constantly challenge the status quo, which will help make relevant changes to build the brand.

MANAGEMENT

Describe your management style: I would say my management style is a balance between being supportive and defining accountability. Our leadership team uses a platform that sets company and department quarterly goals. We meet weekly to determine if they are on track and discuss any issues that have occurred and must be addressed. In turn, I do my best to support each department, providing the resources and assets they need to succeed and achieve their goals.

What does your management team look like? Our leadership team is made up of the department VPs of marketing, operations, technology, finance, legal, and development and meets every Tuesday morning. The individuals on the leadership team have more than 250 years of combined experience in the restaurant category.

How does your management team help you lead? The leadership team are my eyes and ears! I can only be in one place at a time, so I am grateful to have a group that not only provides me with insight, but also helps me to make the best decisions for the company. I surround myself with team members who can lend their strengths and expertise in all areas of the company.

Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books? I don’t often take the time to read management books, but two that come to mind are Traction by Gino Wickman and Good to Great by Jim Collins. I am a newspaper, Internet, and magazine reader and look at multiple publications daily and subscribe to industry-related sites. I read all IFA publications, Nation’s Restaurant News, and The Wall Street Journal. I also keep an eye on global and state news looking at the political landscape and government regulations as those decisions affect all small businesses. 

What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? If you look back at the first core value of our company, it is “Treat everyone like family.” We have operated our business like a family for more than 48 years. We have built lifelong friendships with our franchisees, and I feel personally responsible for doing everything we can to continue their business success. I enjoy working with the corporate team, franchisees, vendors, and suppliers. It is important for me to build this brand to help foster success for everyone.

OPERATIONS

What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your stores? Pizza was an easy decision for customers during the pandemic as it is affordable and extremely convenient. Before the pandemic, we already offered home delivery, carryout, and online ordering, so our business model fit the needs of the pandemic. Customers have been spending more and have increased the average ticket close to 20%. The stimulus money people continue to receive gives them spending money they didn’t have before the pandemic. As those funds are eliminated, we are waiting to see what impact that will have on customer spending and available people looking for work. It is hard to predict what will happen as these changes take place.

How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system? The pizza category has been in price wars for decades based on value and discounts. During the pandemic, most chains held back on the major discounting because of staffing issues. As a result, our average ticket has increased significantly during Covid. However, we are struggling to find the labor to be able to meet these demands at our locations. Some locations have been forced to reduce hours of operation because of the lack of available staffing. Additionally, as restaurants reopen, it is undetermined what effect that may have on the pizza industry. As we get back to some level of normalcy, customers will have many food options.

What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? With the current state of the economy, it is very hard to predict the future. Decisions that local, state, and federal governments are making can change the future of business drastically. At the same time, with the closing of nearly 100,000 restaurants across the country, there may be interesting real estate available for companies in a position to expand.

Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units? In the last 18 months, there has been a lot of fear and anxiety in all business sectors. Based on the fact that the pizza business was the shining star of the restaurant business, we feel Hungry Howie’s is in a perfect position to grow the brand. We feel this has opened the eyes of both our franchisees and of prospective franchisees who are seriously considering franchising. The pizza business could be attractive to multi-unit franchisees who operated brands that did not do well this past year and could potentially be open to developing with our brand. Hungry Howie’s is attractive because we have more than 500 locations, yet still have many prime territories open for development.

Are commodity/supplies costs any cause for concern in your system? There has been a significant fluctuation in protein costs and availability during the past year. The corrugated market, which we depend on for our pizza boxes, has had price increases because of the demand for packaging for companies like Amazon. The shortage of labor has a direct impact on commodity costs as well because manufacturers are unable to staff their facilities. Every industry is challenged with labor costs that have a direct impact on commodity/supplies costs.

How are political/global issues affecting the market and your brand? The decisions made by local, state, and federal governments have a significant impact on all businesses. Before 2016, many government regulations were instituted that had a negative effect on small businesses. From 2016 to 2020 we saw relief of government regulations from the administration in Washington. The most recent administration is moving back to adding regulations that make it difficult for small-business owners. And since our franchise locations are owned by individual business owners, the government changes affect each owner directly. All franchisees must comply with the local, state, or federal regulations on licenses, business taxes, sales taxes, wage laws, labor laws, environmental regulations, insurance, and advertising. My advice to our franchise base is to control what you have the ability to control.

PERSONAL

What time do you like to be at your desk? Our team is still working remotely, so I am typically at my desk around 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. When I’m commuting to the office, I’m usually in by 8 a.m.

Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? Neither. I enjoy golfing and walking the courses in the afternoon and I never drink wine at lunch. I do enjoy drinking good wine at dinner.

Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office? I rarely socialize with my team outside of the office. Golf has been synonymous with business networking for a long time, and I try to play as often as possible. I also make an effort to talk with each team member regularly to discuss business and personal life.

Last two books read: Traction by Gino Wickman and by Jim Collins. The book I’m currently reading is The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever by Mark Frost.

What technology do you take on the road? I usually take my laptop to catch up on work when I travel, but lately I’m managing with my smartphone and iPad.

How do you relax/balance life and work? After my workday, I like to enjoy golf, socialize, and dine with friends.

Favorite vacation destination: Italy is my favorite country with so many places to explore including Rome, Venice, Florence, Sicily, and the Amalfi Coast, to name a few. They have an amazing culture with incredible food and wine.

Favorite occasions to send employees notes: I make every effort to acknowledge people’s birthdays. I also like to celebrate the major holidays with my team and highlight their achievements and accomplishments throughout the company.

Favorite company product/service: My favorite product at Hungry Howie’s is our pizza. I’d recommended the Stuffed Crust Large Cheese & Pepperoni Pizza with Butter Parmesan Crust.

BOTTOM LINE

What are your long-term goals for the company? We feel that 2021 is a great opportunity to grow and that Hungry Howie’s offers a great opportunity. We provide the time-tested opportunity of education, resources, and tools needed to succeed in the pizza business with more than 48 years of experience. The company is well-positioned to pick the right franchisees to expand our footprint across the country.

How has the economy changed your goals for your company? The Covid-19 pandemic triggered the deepest economic recession in nearly a century, changing our goals. With business sales up, our goal of opening more stores has improved. The pizza industry has been booming and we’ve become much more attractive with our business model. But there’s still an unpredictability on the decisions local, state, and federal governments will be making that will determine the future success of our goals. As I’ve said, there’s an industry-wide labor shortage of food service workers. The status of the people receiving extended unemployment insurance challenges the availability of workers. Once these government regulations and unemployment insurance decisions are executed, we’ll respond accordingly.

Where can capital be found these days? Most of our franchisees use the SBA. We also send candidates to companies like Directed Equity and Benetrends, which work with them to determine the best financing options.

How do you measure success? Throughout my life, I’ve set short-term goals that are realistic and attainable. Once I’ve accomplished the goal, I immediately set a new one. Fortunately, I have not disappointed myself often because it is important to set realistic goals. Success is not a destination. Success is continuing to evolve and celebrating the small wins when you accomplish each goal.

What has been your greatest success? Success is measured far beyond revenue. We have so many pillars in our life including family, career, business relationships, personal friendships, and our faith. There are great moments and achievements in my life that make it difficult to determine and define my one greatest success.

Any regrets? Everyone looks back and sees opportunities in the past, thinking about what they could have done differently. I think about past regrets at times, but I never focus on these moments because they are the past. We learn from our mistakes and move forward. Those moments influence future choices and help shape the person I am today.

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? We have opened multiple stores in multiple states this year and are excited to continue our franchise growth. Because of our unique positioning in the pizza category, Hungry Howie’s is poised to take advantage of higher-level growth—as long we aren’t faced with any setbacks. As the global economy recovers, we are watching closely to determine how to set our future planning.

Published: November 8th, 2021

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