Can a poor employee become a successful boss? Over a 40 year period I built, owned and operated 12 Wendy’s restaurants, 10 Benihana or Benihana style Japanese Steak Houses, and 5 Jiffy Lube franchises. How did it work for me?
The start was inauspicious. Auspicious… heck, I was humiliatingly let go from my previous three employers; one small consulting firm, a large newspaper in Tokyo and The First National Bank of Boston. My academic achievements had been equally modest, perhaps even more modest. And yet, during 40 years of my working life, I employed 300 people almost every year and had annual sales consistently in the $12 to $15 million range. How did that happen?
Step One: It’s best to start your own company as a software genius. Unfortunately, that was not an option for me. What was within my capability was finding a proven, profitable business idea that had already succeeded, and one that I’d some familiarity with. A franchise in the hospitality business checked all my boxes. Because I spoke the language and had a Japanese wife, a connection to Japan would be a big plus. While talent is important, good luck is critical. Fortunately, Benihana of Tokyo was beginning to franchises its successful teppan yaki steakhouse concept at the time I was job hunting, and it was a good fit for me.
Step Two: When you’ve suffered three consecutive business strike-outs, it’s frightening to start out on your own, hock all your assets and borrow more money than you’ve ever seen. But just by remembering the faces of three bosses who fired me, I was not going to let any obstacles stop me. I couldn’t face my brilliant classmates again at reunion listening to them boasting about their climbing the ladder of success and showing off their shiny new Mercedes. And, I wasn’t going to tell my mother-in-law I’d botched it again. Determination and persistence were an absolute prerequsite. Starting a new business was nothing but obstacles. Without the specter of the humiliation of losing a job, I doubt I’d have had the determination and persistence needed. Three major obstacles come to mind:
a.) When you’re a new business applying for a liquor license, THAT is a test of determination. You are guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the Licensing Boards. Since my license had once been owned by an underworld character, I had the added pleasure of appearing before a Grand Jury to prove I was not connected with the seller.
b.) My friendly New England Merchants banker began every annual credit review with the same encouraging words: “We know all you restaurant start ups will eventually fail, and we just need to be covered when you go under. Good times followed us. ( Of course twenty years later, we were still growing while the New England Merchants Bank failed…but who is keeping score?)
c.) Some lessons college and business school do not teach. My naive, first impression of restaurant owners was table hopping and greeting happy dinners. More typical was one day my head chef stormed into the kitchen with a red face and wounded pride and a knife. He was intent on cutting the ear off of a fellow crew member, for a perceived slight that I had no possibility of comprehending. An ear would be the minimum compensation his dignity could live with. One Prima Donna chef with a meat cleaver and a bruised ego can complicate your entire day.
3.) Finally, after choosing the business and nursing it through birthing challenges, a more difficult issue came up. A guy who starts the company can be the best person to own it and get it going, but very likely he’s not the best to run it or even be CEO. In the dark recesses of my mind I knew there were brighter people than me, maybe even people who could do my job better than I. Hiring that person, leaving him to do his thing and then seeing this new hire take my former power base and ego satisfaction was agonizing. In my case, that new hire made all the difference between having a viable, continuing company and having a highly saleable company worth millions on the market.
Can anyone pick up a franchise and make millions with it? I’m certain many have in the past. With determination, perseverance, and luck it certainly worked for me.