Slam Dunk: Shaquille O'Neal Is the 2023 Influencer for Former Pro Athlete MVP
Shaquille O’Neal is the 2023 Influencer for Former Pro Athlete MVP (Most Valuable Performer), awarded for achieving excellence in franchising as a former professional athlete. O’Neal was unavailable by press time, so Big Chicken CEO Josh Halpern stepped in.
Name: Josh Halpern
Company: Big Chicken
Family: Wife, 3 kids
Years in franchising: 6
Years in current position: 2
Josh Halpern met Shaquille O’Neal in 2015, through mutual friends and began a long, drawn-out process to follow up on a “Let’s work together” conversation. Halpern, with an MBA from Babson College, spent the earlier part of his career as a consultant and advisor until moving on to an enterprise called Beer Park, whose first location was on a Las Vegas rooftop.
When O’Neal called to ask if he wanted to help him ramp up Big Chicken, Halpern did not hesitate. O’Neal, says Halpern, is a big fan of franchising. “He loves the ability for an entrepreneur to select a franchise system and know that if they execute well they have a good shot at doing well for themselves.”
Big Chicken, he says, is unlike the other franchise brands O’Neal was involved in. The concept is based on the kinds of meals Shaq recalls as his favorites, and he is the largest shareholder. For O’Neal, Big Chicken is personal.
“Shaquille wants it to be his legacy,” Halpern says. “This is a brand rooted in his childhood, and our goal is to bring it to the world.” The first Big Chicken opened in Las Vegas in 2018, and in 2021 began franchising. Two years in, Big Chicken has about 300 units in development.
Why do you think he was recognized with this award? Shaquille is someone who legitimately makes everything better for the people he is around. For example, he came into Papa John’s at the most delicate moment in the brand’s history and changed the narrative for the better.
What innovations have you and he created and used to build your company? The way the franchise is growing is one of our more innovative approaches. We are building our supply chain so we can open anywhere in a short time.
What core values do you think helped him win this award? Shaquille’s values are well integrated into the franchise’s team. It’s about building an ecosystem, maintaining continuous improvement, cherishing the big wins loudly, and having serious discussions when you’re not.
How important is community involvement to the company? O’Neal has his own foundation, and when it comes to kids, he wants to help shape their future.
What leadership qualities are most important to the company? Servant leadership is what it boils down to. It’s moments like the one where I might ask Shaquille for a favor, and it’s done. Or considering how hr can touch others in a way that’s special and will leave a mark in their hearts.
O’Neal, says Halpern, is a values-driven human being whose history in athletics has formed some of his approach to life and business. Unsurprisingly, he often uses basketball metaphors to express what he sees as his franchise team’s most effective way to work. “We’re just like a basketball team,” Halpern says. “We all play our own role, but we work together.”
What also impresses Halpern is O’Neal’s modesty about the thoughtful gestures he makes. “He never says, ‘Look what I did,’ but he took the time to make short videos to help the youth basketball team my son is part of,” says Halpern. “He likes to put smiles on children’s faces. And for him, it is still family first.” Nor has O’Neal ever lost his passion for connecting with people. Halpern has seen him visit a Big Chicken, greet everyone and quietly slide his credit card across the counter to cover all the customers’ checks. “He has never lost sight of who he is. He is just the most authentic person.”
Management method or style: Shaquille asks great questions and gets you talking about the business. If he needs to make a direct point he will. His focus is always on the guest. And if the guest loves our product, the brand and the franchisees are going to win, too.
Greatest challenge: I joke around that I have 99 things done for me because of Shaquille and 99 problems because of Shaquille. What’s happening now with Big Chicken—our development roster includes locations in the U.S. and the U.K.—doesn’t happen unless you have Shaquille. We had to build up our supply chain quickly to keep up with the interest. Starting with only multi-units at first is another part of the plan. So have been pop-ups on cruise ships. It all came fast. We started financing and all of a sudden we had deals because of how big Shaq is.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Big Chicken’s view is that if we are all pulling together, our franchisees could end up with strong top-and-bottom-line results, not only fulfilling agreements but keeping on growing.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? We are trying to operate a business in the right way, to work with franchisees who are willing to listen to feedback.
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