Whatever It Takes!: Smoothie Operator Flourishes in Florida
Jason Mann learned early that a career in advertising sales could get you just so far in life. And he wanted to go much, much further. So in 1999, at the age of 30, Mann stepped out of his sales role and joined forces with his father to enter the franchising business.
After seeing a Planet Smoothie in operation at a local convenience store, his father suggested to him that this was the best way to start in franchising. First good sign: people were lined up to buy smoothies. Second good sign: one employee was able to handle all the work. Third good sign: the trash can was full of empty straw wrappers, indicating that demand was steady and strong.
"In the sales industry, the better you do the more they cut your commissions and territory," says Mann. "I had no command over my future. But I'd always been very entrepreneurial and I wanted to do something on my own. I was green. I didn't know anything about restaurant operations. But Planet Smoothie is a simple business--not easy, but simple."
They started with one location. "It was the classic story. My wife and I worked behind the counter 14 hours a day with 3 days off during the year: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter."
Just months after the couple got their start, they were building out their second location in the Orlando market and negotiating for two more. They got them--and more. Their operation eventually grew to six locations before he decided to sell off many of them and concentrate on working the region as an area representative. Today he's helping `counsel franchisees with 28 locations in Florida while managing his own operations with wife and business partner, Connie Jane.
"As an area rep I'm a hybrid between a franchisor and a franchisee," says Mann. "The franchisor has support groups for marketing, operations, store development, consultants, and so on. I handle each one of those groups for my franchisees."
Mann, who is refreshingly focused on doing whatever must be done, has handled everything from working the streets as a costumed banana to building out multiple locations. "Whatever my franchisees need is what my week entails," says Mann, who has also helped create a new, healthier product for the brand. And in one of the toughest state economies in the U.S., he's stayed excited about growing his business.
"I'll spend 80 percent of my time on area representative work and 20 percent on personal operations. Day-to-day may include counseling franchisees, working with new prospects, improving in-store operations, assisting the corporate office with ongoing projects, or something as simple as screwing in a light bulb. Sometimes I call myself a glorified maintenance man."
No matter what title he gives himself at any given time, the one he likes best is "being my own boss." It's why he got into franchising, the reason he's successful at it, and a big part of why he plans to stick with it for years to come.
Name: Jason Mann
Company: Mann's Diversified Industries and FSSG
No. of units: 2 locations; area rep for 28 others
Family: Wife and a daughter
Years in franchising: 11
Years in current position: 11
Building high-volume stores consistently throughout our time with Planet Smoothie and being a strong influence on other franchisees. When franchisees first get started, they go through hardships. They doubt themselves and they need a beacon of hope. My big accomplishment is to be that person and help people become successful along with us.
Oh, I've made a few. I probably picked a few locations I shouldn't have; not paying attention to unit economics; and signing a lease that cost too much.
We signed leases on multiple locations when we first signed. After opening our first location and realizing I was too green for multiple operations, we backed down to one location. Another group ended up building out the location but was unable to effectively operate the store, so a year and a half later I was able to take over that location at a lower cost. That store was, and still is, our highest-volume store.
How do you spend a typical day?
Wow. It is all over the board, quite frankly. I do wear different hats. I start by getting in tune with sales from the day before, digging into the sales data. I try to determine who needs to hear from me first. It gives me a beat for what is happening out in the field. If I have someone struggling, I need to get out and get in touch and see how they can improve.
My week covers the gamut of franchise support. I'm digging into the in-store operations, helping franchisees improve, and recently I have been spending a lot of time helping the franchisor develop new products. Last week I was helping a franchisee install a POS system because it was down. Like I said, I wear a lot of hats.
Favorite fun activities:
Fishing, skiing, anything on water.
I am in the gym 3 to 4 times a week.
Favorite tech toys:
My home theater. I enjoy movies and listening to music. I'm an avid audiophile.
What are you reading?
If I'm reading something, I'll pick up Scientific American. I'm fascinated by quantum theory and astrophysics.
Do you have a favorite quote/advice?
"Successful people will do what unsuccessful people are unwilling to do." There's nothing I won't do or try to be successful in my business. I stay coachable. Back when we started in Orlando, folks didn't know what smoothies were, much less Planet Smoothie. One of the things I learned early was to get out on the road in a banana suit. I'd go outside with a banana suit while my wife worked inside. Whatever it takes!
Best advice you ever got:
My Dad was, and still is, a tremendous influence on me. He helped me in terms of really being successful and sticking to the business. Just the fact that you knew you were working with your father, you had to see it through. We were going to be successful with this business.
The first time I did not get paid on a commission in one of my sales jobs. That was a strong influence. It made me want to be my own owner and control my own destiny.
How do you balance life and work?
I balance it through passion for the work I do. I love the smoothie business. I take a lot of joy in my work. Sometimes you have to shut the phone down and do the things you love to do. I spend at least a day a week with my wife and daughter.
Two things. One, I'm willing to do the things needed to be done to be successful. The second is that you have to take tremendous pride in your business and operations to be successful. I lead by example and never ask a franchisee to do anything I have not done myself.
Are you in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business? Why?
On the operations side I'm in the customer experience business. On the area development side, we're in the business of helping people enhance their lives through the freedom of entrepreneurship and owning their own business.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The key motivator is passion for growing my business.
What's your passion in business?
Working with young employees, enhancing the lives of franchisees, and trying to figure out new ways to expand the brand.
Management method or style:
I believe my style is more on the macro side. I train hard on the micro level and place systems to manage on a macro level. I try to manage through enthusiasm, having fun, and being passionate about what we do. If an employee doesn't have a great attitude or passion, we'll be looking for other superstars.
To have the discipline to get up every day and just focus on selling smoothies. We've been successful by executing the customer experience. But it's hard for folks to be disciplined. You have to execute day in and day out.
How close are you to operations?
I'm in stores virtually every day.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
Absolutely. We've gone back to the basics, to the things that helped us be successful. Like others, we have seen customer attrition. The smoothie business is reliant on people's habits and patterns. Some have lost their jobs or moved. We went back into the mode of building the customer base. We're focused heavily on getting new folks into the store and working more with the customers one-on-one. We've stripped sugar from a lot of products, drastically changed our product with lower calories and sugar content. And we're getting employees out of the robot mode: once a customer gets into the store, employees have to be very good at executing the customer experience and educating the customers on our new offerings.
How is social media affecting your business operations?
The corporate team is working hard to provide enhanced tools for the franchisees to take advantage of Facebook and Twitter. The tough puzzle is how to translate a social atmosphere into increased sales. We have found store-level text and loyalty programs to be very effective in building frequency.
Enthusiastic. I'm an optimist.
How do others describe you?
A lot of people will describe me as laid-back, yet passionate about my interests.
How do you hire and fire?
Not all stores with superstar staffs are successful, but all successful stores have a superstar staff. When it comes to hiring, we're looking for superstars. The best method for hiring is finding the friends and acquaintances of our best employees. I'm not afraid to over-hire and build competition in the store. If an employee is not pulling their weight, other employees will help weed them out.
How do you train and retain?
For this new generation you have to communicate with your employees on a consistent basis. I take my employees through a thorough training program. Retaining requires effective communications through ongoing evaluations and creating a fun atmosphere.
How do you deal with problem employees?
We try the best we can to counsel troubled employees on a one-on-one basis. My wife and I will do that consistently until we determine they're having a negative impact on other employees and then they'll get a final warning.
Annual revenue: Annual unit volume is above $500,000
2011 goals: Maintain our same-store sales.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Same-store sales. We'll also look at the average tickets, customer counts, and so on. Controlling expenses to increase profitability is important to us as well.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
We want to be the dominant smoothie concept in Florida.
How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers?
We've seen customer attrition. When people are losing their jobs, they don't follow the same patterns. We've seen customer attrition because of that. It challenges employees to execute. We can't be in robot mode.
Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market?
I think we're still in a softening period. That's just a fact.
What did you change or do differently in this economy that you plan to continue doing?
Despite increased competition in the category and a down economy, we believe that consumers will continue to migrate to more nutritionally dense, great-tasting products. We have taken steps to refine our ingredients and develop products to lower sugar content and calories in our smoothies. We used to use yogurt with high sugar content. Our yogurt is now pre- and probiotic, no sugar added, and our sweetener is now a proprietary organic agave-infused stevia product. We use real cocoa instead of chocolate syrup, drastically decreasing the sugar content of our smoothies. We were the first national smoothie chain to use pure no-sugar-added acai pulp. Planet Smoothie is on a mission to change the way people eat!
How do you forecast for your business in this economy?
I spend a lot of time looking at the economic forecast of what we are up against. I spend a lot of time looking at influencers and same-store sales. We don't have control over the economy. The best you can do is rely on experience and effective training and marketing efforts for increasing sales. I'm concerned with getting back to basics, executing to the best of our ability. And if we do that, it takes away the fear and concern about the economy.
Where do you find capital for expansion?
That's why I'm at the restaurant finance show, with banks and lenders. I'm trying to find out who's out there lending.
Is capital getting easier to access? Why/why not?
It is. You have to search, knock down a lot of doors. But it's important for you to find a lender that's a good fit for you as well.
Have you used private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
I am seeing micro loans and equipment leasing providing financing for new growth. Banks are very specifically focused on the best operators. New guys coming in are going to have a tough time with banks right now.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
Great question. I know there will be a day when I want to hang up the blender. I guess when I reach my goals. I'm not there yet.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We try to provide a great working environment for our employees, a good place to earn some extra money while they're supporting themselves through school.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)?
On the labor side we stay competitive on wages and retain good employees. One of the benefits of a simple operation, with one, two, or three employees per shift, is it helps us control costs.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
I have bonuses available for managers, based on increases in sales. It's frankly tough to get that right now. Some managers take the kids out for parties. They'll also do trades with another restaurant for rewards. We also try to pay them well, reward them with increases in wages even in a down time.
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