When Tony Lutfi was asked back in 2009 where he'd like to be in five years, he said 100 units. At that time he had 52. Boy does he mean business. Today his MarLu Investment Group operates 134 franchise units including Arby's, Church's Chicken, Jack in the Box, Little Caesars, Sizzler, Sears Appliance Showrooms, and Sears Hardware & Appliance.
"We accomplished that goal in three years," he says today, "in part because we keep the same focus on culture that has kept us in business and away from trouble." Lutfi's culture promotes teamwork and cross-functionality with a sense of ownership. His managers treat the business as if they own it and, he says, that has been the driving factor behind their cost controls and the real engine for their growth. "No organization can survive without great unit managers, especially in a multi-unit, multi-brand, multi-state setting."
Lutfi likes to promote from within and realizes that he must be committed to his teams' personal and professional development. "Our managers are our greatest assets. Our management turnover is among the lowest in our segment, and it is mostly due to the culture that we operate within. Our biggest challenge as we get larger and more spread out is how to maintain this culture of a family atmosphere and continue the collaboration that we've enjoyed for so many years."
A lot has happened for Lutfi in the past three years. In 2010, he acquired 21 Jack in the Box units in Northern California that are now operated by his oldest son, 27-year-old Metri Lutfi. All units have been totally re-imaged since the acquisition and new signage is planned for this year.
In 2011, he acquired five Sizzler restaurants in Northern California and signed a development agreement to open five additional Sizzlers after he completes remodeling four of the five units (one was already complete before acquisition). Before 2011 had ended, he acquired seven Sears Hardware & Appliance stores in Houston and St. Louis and seven Sears Appliance Showrooms in Dallas and St. Louis.
This past November, he bought 42 company-owned Arby's locations in Seattle and Portland, Ore. As part of the sale, he agreed to redesign 17 of the stores and will open five new Arby's over the next several years. Before the purchase, Lutfi owned one franchised Arby's unit, but before 2001 had owned 28, which he sold off during the past 10 years to pursue other brands.
So in a little more than three years, his company's annual revenue has nearly quadrupled from $40 million to $150 million, he's gone from 900 to 2,800 employees, and he's operating 7 brands in 7 states. Who knows what he'll do in another three years!
Name: Tony Lutfi
Company: MarLu Investment Group
No. of units by brand: 43 Arby's, 46 Church's Chicken, 21 Jack in the Box, 5 Little Caesars, 5 Sizzler, 8 Sears Appliance Showrooms, 6 Sears Hardware & Appliance
Family: Married 28 years, 3 children: Metri 27, director of operations with Jack in the Box; Stephen, 25, civil engineer with plans to join the family business; Ramsey, 20, Fresno State accounting student, also with plans to join the business.
Years in franchising: 21
Years in current position: 15
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