Taking the Leap: Ditching his Day Job to build a Legacy Family Business
Name: Gary Avants
Title: Founder & President
Company: Avants Management Group
No. of units: 35 Zaxby's
Family: Wife, Sharon, 2 daughters, Melissa Crowe and MaryStuart Hulsey, 1 son, Jordan Avants
Years in franchising: 26
Years in current position: 26
When Gary Avants told his wife he was walking away from a successful career selling insurance to open a franchised chicken-focused restaurant, she began to cry.
It was a classic midlife crisis, he admits, but he also had a better sense than most about the franchise business, especially one in particular. He had sold car and homeowner’s insurance to the two founders of Zaxby’s. As he saw how well the franchise was doing, he considered his options. The insurance business was quite competitive, while the chicken restaurant franchise appeared to have the potential to do something that was—and remains—important to him: building a business that his children could join.
The first year was hard work, he says. It was early days for Zaxby’s, which now tops 900 locations. His first Zaxby’s was the brand’s 17th. The training was not what it is today, and Avants found himself at the restaurant from opening to closing and learned by doing. For instance, he realized he couldn’t take the best cooks or cashiers and make them managers. The skills they had in one area did not necessarily translate into the leadership skills managers needed.
Avants persisted, and he has not lost his enthusiasm. “I love what I’m doing, and I like this brand,” he says. And his dream of building a business his children could join came true. “I didn’t force it or push it,” he says, “but I did share and show them the business.” He also told them they couldn’t come into the business unless they were qualified. “They all worked their way up,” he says. Now, all three are involved in key positions, and Avants is looking to his grandchildren to one day join the family business. “We are building a future,” he says.
And, as you may have guessed, his wife dropped her objections years ago.
First job: Group benefit underwriter, Confederation Life Insurance, 1983.
Formative influences/events: I’m blessed to have had many formative influences. I always strive to surround myself with positive and successful individuals. I was greatly influenced by my high school football coaches, who preached hard work and discipline. They taught me that if I wanted to play the game, I had to outwork my competitors. This lesson has served me well in business.
Key accomplishments: Being married for 40 years to my high school sweetheart, Sharon, and having all three of my children in key management roles in our growing family business.
Biggest current challenge: Hiring enough quality team members to support our stores.
Next big goal: Build two Zaxby’s per year with 50% or more cash and reduce debt.
First turning point in your career: I opened my first Zaxby’s in Milledgeville, Georgia, at age 37 after being in the insurance industry for 14 years.
Best business decision: Investing in the Zaxby’s brand and owning the real estate for my locations as we have grown.
Hardest lesson learned: Growing too fast and not having the infrastructure in place to support the growth. Also, I became more humble after thinking every deal would be a home run.
Work week: At 63, I try to perform work-related business during the week (Monday to Friday). However, I find myself working on the weekends at times. My goal is to have a great management team that can handle the day-to-day operations.
Exercise/workout: I play tennis and pickleball and enjoy taking walks.
Best advice you ever got: Quit talking and start doing. The good Lord gave each one of us a gift, and we need to use it.
What’s your passion in business? Growing the business with my children and for our future generations.
How do you balance life and work? Work-life balance is very important to me. I find that when I consistently incorporate exercise into my routine—whether tennis, pickleball, or walking—I am at my best.
Guilty pleasure: Southern soul food.
Favorite book: The Bible.
Favorite movie: Any movie featuring Tom Hanks.
What do most people not know about you? I have a koi pond, and I like to spend time doing quiet thinking at the pond.
Pet peeve: Poor attitudes.
What did you want to be when you grew up? A football coach.
Last vacation: This past spring, my wife and I celebrated our 40th anniversary on a boat cruise down the Rhine River, visiting Amsterdam, Germany, and France.
Person I’d most like to have lunch with: Warren Buffet.
Business philosophy: Growth, creating wealth, investing excess profits into other investments, providing employment opportunities for family and non-family members, and giving back to the community.
Management method or style: Hire the best and let them manage.
Greatest challenge: Not getting complacent.
How do others describe you? (My daughter, Melissa Crowe, AMG vice president, answered this.) Gary’s team describes him as caring. Gary is a leader who understands that great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people. Gary is great at empowering others to do their best and giving them the resources and support they need to succeed.
One thing I’m looking to do better: I’m always looking to be a better leader, friend, parent, and husband—not just one thing.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment: We have biweekly meetings to keep clear lines of communication open at all times. We want managers to find solutions to problems, instead of leadership pointing them out. In our meetings, we discuss the issues with our team and how we can offer support and tools for them to deploy their own solutions.
How close are you to operations? Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, I can be reached with issues, and I stay in touch with what’s happening operationally at all times.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Trust and communication.
What I need from vendors: Trust and communication.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? Yes. We’ve shifted away from large corporate sponsorships and redirected our efforts toward local community involvement. Our main emphasis lies in partnering with local schools. They encompass a substantial portion of our customer base, including students, families, and staff. While we continue to fundraise for various groups, we’ve also increased our commitment to providing in-kind donations whenever feasible. Our goal is for our partners to enjoy our delicious food, rather than solely making monetary contributions.
How is social media affecting your business? Social media is a powerful tool for local store marketing, helping us foster positive community relationships. With dedicated social media platforms for each of our locations across our six states of operation, we share the Zaxby’s brand story locally, celebrate community partnerships, recognize exceptional employees, and promote exclusive events and offers. It’s also a direct line for issue resolution, showcasing our commitment to providing an exceptional guest experience. Our aim is to show every community we serve how much their support means to our family-run stores.
How do you hire and fire? We hire via Workstream, Indeed, and Snagajob. We have a clearly written termination policy we review with prospective employees as part of the hiring process.
How do you train and retain? We use online training accompanied by shoulder-to-shoulder training. For management training, we use training stores. Training stores are run by our top general managers, who are passionate about training and set the standard and expectations for our company. To help retain employees, we strive for a fun and friendly environment and offer excellent benefits and scholarships.
How do you deal with problem employees? We train and retrain as a first course of action and then follow our termination policy afterward.
Fastest way into my doghouse: I would say the same as my pet peeve answer: poor attitudes and negative energy.
How did Covid-19 affect your business? We had to close our dining rooms and lost employees because of people being fearful of working or being unable to work because they had contracted Covid-19. Although we had to close our dining rooms, we were lucky to have a drive-thru option in our stores, which kept our business prospering. With so many restaurants having dining rooms closed throughout the pandemic, a lot of traffic came our way because of our drive-thru. We executed very well once we adjusted our operations to accommodate this change and took the necessary steps to keep our employees and guests safe.
How have you responded? After managing drive-thru operations at a high level, our next priority was to work hard to get our dining rooms safely reopened. Face-to-face interaction with our guests is vital to our business success, so opening the doors and welcoming everyone back to the dining room was a must. With Covid, the added steps in cleanliness were of the utmost importance, so coming out of that Covid mindset, it was very important that we kept that cleanliness mindset at the forefront.
What changes do you think will be permanent? With Covid, we introduced outside order taking and curbside for our guests. These options have become a big part of our daily operations and will only continue to grow.
Annual revenue: $90 million-plus.
2023 and 2024 goals: I’ve challenged our team to increase sales by 5% in 2023 over 2022, but it has been a roller coaster. A lot of it has to do with food costs. For instance, I just got an email that chicken costs are going up. So setting goals for 2024… I just don’t know.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Sales, net income, and transactions.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? In 5 years, I’d like our company to be at 50 stores with $150 million in sales. In 10 years, I’d like us to be at 70 stores with $210 million in sales.
Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not? We have no other brands in our portfolio at this time. Zaxby’s growth plans for sales and territory, along with my goal of owning our locations’ real estate, fit well with our business success model. Additionally, our company has a strong relationship with the franchisor.
How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers? While hiring is improving across our operation, the cost of utilities, labor, food, repairs, taxes, and higher interest rates is having an impact on our bottom line. We had two menu price increases in the past 12 months to help offset these costs, but this affects our guests because they have to pay more.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market? Our data currently shows that we are experiencing higher growth in our suburban areas and flat growth in our urban markets.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business? There is a lot of competition in our business. We see fewer guests dining in and an increase in drive-thru and online ordering. To achieve the highest satisfaction for our guests, we must be quick to get the order out while simultaneously ensuring the food is at the right temperature and the entire order is correct. We also are training hard on guest service, which drives guest loyalty and retention.
How do you forecast for your business? Our leadership team meets with each department in our company regularly to discuss any trends that might affect sales, labor, food costs, etc. These include finance, operations, human resources, marketing, and construction. We also review P&Ls for the preceding 12 months to determine our forecast.
What are the best sources for capital expansion? We currently have a $25 million line of credit with Synovus for growth.
Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not? We used local banks to grow our business in the past, but 2 years ago, we refinanced everything with Synovus. In return, we eliminated personal guarantees and appraisals and opened a large line of credit to support our expansion plans.
What are you doing to take care of your employees? For all our salaried employees, the company pays 100% of their health, dental, vision, life, and long-term disability benefits. We also match up to 6% of their salary in our 401(k) program.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)? Mostly, we try not to pay overtime, which helps labor costs. During Covid, we had a lot of overtime because we did not have enough team members.
What laws and regulations affect your business and how are you dealing with them? Our HR department does a great job of keeping up with all current laws and regulations. Our insurance company, which provides employment practice coverage, also provides good consultation to ensure we stay compliant. In the last few years, any changes to the laws and regulations have had minimal impact on our operations.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? By giving back 10% to the management team. We believe that when a store is meeting its goals and performing at a high level, it is important to share our profit with them. We also utilize our recognition culture weekly, and it is a part of every upper management meeting. We use unique awards to make the recognition personal and fun.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? Our family has been working steadily on our succession plan for the past 3 years. So far, we’ve identified who will take my place, set up different trusts to offset taxes, transferred ownership, and are in the process of creating family and business covenants.
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