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From Puffs to pizza Featured

9:38am EDT July 22, 2002
Is there a difference between selling toilet paper and selling pizza?

It's a question that begs to be asked of Ken Howe, a former assistant brand manager in the paper division for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and former senior director of Pizza Hut Inc.

Howe remains straight-faced when he replies, "Basically not." With a just-delivered pizza, "you know that when that box gets opened, that for just a little bit, maybe, life's a little bit better," he says. "It's almost the same with bathroom tissue."

OK, so he's joking. Ripping into a four-roll pack of Charmin can't compare to the mouth-watering anticipation of lifting the lid on a fresh, hot pizza smothered in melted cheese and loaded with pepperoni. But Howe is serious when he says, "The bedrock for me is that you've got to provide something that someone is willing to reach in their pocket, take out their hard-earned money, and pay you for."

That basic business principle -- along with a good sense of humor -- is just one lesson learned from corporate America that the 41-year-old executive brings to Hallrich Inc., the largest franchisee of Pizza Hut restaurants in Ohio. In January, he was named president and chief operating officer of the Stow-based company, which owns and operates 80 restaurants in 14 Northeast Ohio counties.

The area stretches "from Lake Erie down the Pennsylvania line to the Ohio River, then back out to Ashland and back up to Lorain County," says Tony Szambecki, who, in 1968, opened Hallrich's first Pizza Hut in Austintown with financial partner A. Scott Ritchie and the late Bill Hall. (Szambecki says his family name isn't represented in the Hallrich moniker "because they didn't like the name Hallrichski.")

"We've had 15 million-dollar sales weeks this year," Howe says with pride. "We're heading for a sales record. We should do $52 million in sales this year easily."

Szambecki says that by the time Hallrich hired Howe as vice president of operations in 1997, he had long since been lured away from P&G in Cincinnati by the Wichita, Kan.-based Pizza Hut chain, then owned by Pepsico. There, he worked for nine years, first as a marketer, then with a "new concepts group" that determined whether pizza would sell in stadiums, airports, convenience stores, mall food courts, movie theaters, "places that traditional Pizza Huts couldn't go."

"He had a very good reputation as a good people person, a good operator," Szambecki remembers. "I had heard that he was a very positive individual, and I had heard that he was a leader when we were doing the interviews."

He adds that one of the most valuable things Howe brought to Hallrich was a recognition culture that transcended the company's annual awards banquet. He presents crystal apples to anyone who teaches a training program session (preventive maintenance, for example, or dough preparation) and awards "traveling trophies" -- one set each for restaurants, delivery/carryout stores and "restaurants that deliver" -- to general managers at monthly operations meetings.

Managers' names are added to plaques displayed at each location every time the restaurant meets certain standards of excellence during annual inspections.

"We have a lot of pins and letters," Howe says. "We take a lot of pictures. We publish pictures and achievements in our newsletters. It's very much a coaching, praising environment around here."

Howe says Pizza Hut was anxious to recruit P&G employees like him because their employer provided a classic education in basic marketing techniques.

"You understood television advertising, the terminology of that business -- reach and frequency and impressions," he explains. "You understood how print (advertising) worked. You knew the various forms of print, everything from slick ladies' magazines to newspaper advertising."

That knowledge will undoubtedly continue to serve Howe well as he shoulders Hallrich's marketing, personnel and training functions so Szambecki can concentrate on finances and restaurant development. But he learned the importance of recognizing and rewarding others during his time with Pizza Hut.

"There are a lot of companies who don't believe that people are good," he says. "I happen to firmly believe that most people try to do the right thing. I'd rather spend most of my time praising them for what they do right than berating them for what they do wrong."

Howe also credits Pizza Hut with honing his competitive edge, a trait that has been further sharpened since he moved to Northeastern Ohio, which he calls one of the most active pizza markets in the country. Competition is provided by both national chains such as Domino's and Little Caesar's, as well as regional players such as Donatos, Marco's and the East of Chicago Pizza Co.

"Anybody whose last name ends with an 'o' thinks they've got the license to open up a pizza shop," he says. "In America, they've got just as much of a chance to be successful as we do. You've just always got to be making a better product, running a better restaurant.

"It's amazing in the pizza business how quickly a bad pizza can lose you a customer. You really didn't get that in the toilet paper or tissue world."

As for the leadership skills Szambecki mentions, Howe says those were developed during his time in the Army -- four years at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he earned his bachelor's degree in engineering, followed by five years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Dexheim, West Germany.

"The Army is a people leadership business," he says. "Most companies and most businesses boil down to that. ... That's something I liked about the Army. I loved being a platoon leader. I loved being a company commander. "When you run restaurants, you really do have a big team that you can seek to inspire, teach and make better." How to reach: Hallrich Inc., (330) 678-0684Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.