Bob Johnston

 It may have been a misstep, but it was one that worked out for Bob Johnston, president and COO of The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc. The original Melting Pot opened in 1975 and two years later his brother — Mark Johnston, who is now CEO of the company — tried to open a franchise of the fondue restaurant but failed. In 1979, the brothers tried again — successfully this time — with the help of a third brother, Michael, who is now a partner. In 1985, the three bought all rights to the chain and renamed it The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc. The $162 million company continues to grow, and today has 4,500 employees and more than 100 restaurants. Smart Business spoke to Bob Johnston about how to grow a company, the advantages of getting feedback from others and creating a corporate culture.

Share your vision with the organization.
That is your primary role as the CEO. Your secondary role is to be there to remove roadblocks that get in the way of your team members from being able to strive toward that vision.

You communicate and you involve team members at all levels with what’s going on in your business. We’re very open about what goes on.

Sometimes businesses keep their team members in the dark. They closely guard information. When team members are in the dark, it’s very hard to want to strive for excellence. They don’t even know what they are striving for.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Have fun at what you’re doing. If you can’t find fun in your work, there is nothing to fuel the passion which you need in order to effectively communicate your vision for your product, your company and your service.

Look for outside input when creating a corporate culture.
Our first 10 years, we did not do a great job of it. You don’t do it alone. Then it’s not a corporate culture, it’s your culture.

You involve your team members in the process of creating a set of beliefs, and that’s what corporate culture is. It’s just a set of things that people hold dear and they live by it.

You’ve got to involve your team members in creating that. Granted, you very much have a hand in how to direct that.

We involve professionals that have worked with other companies in creating a statement of vision, mission and principle to help us through this process. They interviewed team members, and there were brainstorming sessions and think tanks where a lot of information was shared.

From that we were able to compile a set of beliefs that everybody had a hand in. Our vice president of brand development has a great expression. She says people tend to support that which they helped create.

Know the difference between errors and mistakes.
I talk to our team members here a lot of times about making mistakes. Nobody likes to make mistakes, but the way I put it to them is, I expect you to make mistakes.

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not trying hard enough. You aren’t taking risks or thinking outside the box. Errors are another thing. Errors are the same mistake made a second time because you didn’t learn anything from it.

We push people to be innovative and creative and to think of doing things differently. We have a consultant in our industry, Jim Sullivan, and I love the way he puts it. He says, ‘If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.’ We don’t want that.

Listen to others, but be ready to act.
We don’t have all the answers. We are largely a franchise system. What helps us maintain the level of success are our franchisees.

They risk everything to become a Melting Pot franchisee. They are fully invested into this brand and they have great ideas. If we put ourselves on a pedestal and said, ‘We know all,’ we’d never tap into their great ideas. They would become frustrated and we would not thrive.

Ultimately, as a leader, you are responsible for every action, good or bad, within your organization. I draw on the advice of mentors and other business people I respect. But … as a leader, you have to act and make a decision and accept accountability for the result of that decision.

It may be a good decision, and, most often, it is because we have surrounded ourselves with a great team to help us make powerful decisions. But sometimes it’s a bad decision, and you own up and you move on.

Balance life and work.
You work on it every day. It changes in the life stages you go through. I now have teenage children. My balance today that I’m striving for — and I haven’t achieved it — is different than it was when my children were toddlers.

It’s a moving target. You want to feel like you’ve almost gotten there all the time, but you don’t want to feel like it’s unattainable or too far from your grasp. You can’t feel that way. You won’t have any passion for your work if you feel that way.

What are you doing it for? The reason anyone wants to grow a biz is to help them meet personal financial goals and meet personal objectives for flexibility in their life.

Grow slowly and carefully.
Be conservative to your approach. Don’t over-leverage or borrow, borrow, borrow and hope the plan keeps the game going.

We didn’t grow explosively at first. This is our 21st year. In the first 10 years, we grew from five restaurants to about 16. The next 10, we grew from 16 to 107. The first decade was, quite frankly, a little bit scary. We still had a lot of struggles and, basically, we had to do everything ourselves.

We had no reputation. No one would loan us money, so we had to self-fund everything we were doing. If we would have tried to grow as rapidly as we did in our second 10 years, in our first 10 years, we would have been buried by it.

It’s rare there’s a business story about a company that started from Day One and was met immediately with success. There will be struggle. Be prepared for it, and don’t be discouraged when it happens.

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