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… And be as smart as a Fox

One of the more engaging keynote addresses at COEX was delivered by Don Fox, the military historian and one-time Burger King general manager who now serves as CEO of the Firehouse Subs fast-casual chain. Here are some pearls of Fox-osophy that had the audience frantically scratching notes.

  • Firehouse has a team of employees who scour tweets, Facebook posts, citizen-reviews, direct e-mails and whatever other media a guest might use to air a comment. Their prey isn’t a complaint but a compliment, a word or two of appreciation volunteered by a customer about a recent visit to a unit. “When we find it, we go out to that restaurant, without letting anyone know we’re coming,” said Fox. “We give every crew member $50 in cash.”
  • Firehouse knows the favorable impression might have been the handiwork of a particular staff member, “the superstar we all have,” said Fox. But Firehouse purposely rewards the team, not the team member. “We don’t single out the superstar because we don’t want them to be singled out by the rest of the crew as a brown nose, a kiss-ass,” Fox explained. All it does is stoke the cynicism of laggard performers—Of course that goodie-goodie is going to get a pat on the head. On the other hand, an average performer might be inspired by the show of appreciation to be a better team player.
  • Charitable work is absolutely, positively a key to Firehouse’s success. “The main difference between our highest performing restaurants and our lowest performing restaurants is how involved they are in their communities,” said Fox. The chain even has a fund-raising arm, the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, to help firemen and other first-responders. “If I look at the top 5 percent of the system for engagement in the Public Safety Foundation, versus the bottom 5 percent, there is a 28 percent difference in their sales performance,” said Fox.
  • Fox decided a few years ago to form a franchisee association, traditionally a thorn many franchisors would prefer to outlaw. “Most franchisee associations are formed out of adversity, and we didn’t want that to happen,” he said. Firehouse hasn't been sued by a franchisee in the 20 years the chain has sold franchises, he added.
  • The biggest curb on Firehouse’s growth isn’t limited capital or difficulty in finding capable operators, Fox revealed. It’s finding the real estate. “There are probably not a thousand ‘A’ sites across the whole country,” he said. “I have more operators than I have sites.”
  • A business leader should resort to what’s known in the military as mission-style orders, Fox advised. He cited a general who made that style of command his signature: Sketch out a mission for the management team, clearly identifying the objective, but leave the tactics to the people on the battle field.
  • Don’t pay an outsider to wash your restaurant’s windows. Or at least that’s what Fox encourages Firehouse’s franchisees to do. The charge might be only $25 or so per week, but think of how much business is needed to raise that money. In the case of Firehouse, where checks average about $11 and the operator usually keeps 33 cents of every dollar that flows into the till, it’s a matter of serving seven customers, over a timeframe of about a half-hour, to generate the $25. Instead, buy your staff a good squeegee, instruct them to clean it with a piece of newspaper after every swipe and pocket an extra $100 per month.

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