If Charley Shin had to use one word to advise others about how to be a better leader — in business or in life — it would be courage.
“I think inherently most of us need more courage because we think of the worst possible scenario, and a lot of us get fearful of what may happen or may not happen,” says Shin, founder and CEO of Charleys Philly Steaks and Bibibop. “I just try to instill and lead with: Let’s do the right thing, and if we do the right thing everything is going to turn out well.
“I try to coach them to live with less fear and believe in what we do.”
Just like in life, Shin takes a holistic approach at his restaurant chains.
“I approach business like I approach life, and I think we are a whole person. Whatever I do in business is likely to carry over to my personal life and into my faith life as well,” he says.
Caring for others, always seeking to learn and having the courage to stick to your convictions are the ingredients of the culture at Charleys, which has stood the test of time and had its strongest sales increase in history for 2014 and 2015.
Shin also has taken elements of that culture and used it to found the fast-casual Korean-inspired eatery, Bibibop, which is spreading out from Columbus to other Ohio cities to become more of a regional player.
Here’s how Shin and his leadership team have stayed true to their beliefs for its nearly 560 Charleys and nine Bibibop restaurants.
Don’t chase dollars
Shin is no longer as involved in the day-to-day operations of Charleys, but he acts as a coach for his direct reports in order to guide them and enable them to make important decisions. He says his executive team has more experience, which allowed him to take a step back to a more strategic role.
That coaching is also prevalent for the company’s 220 franchisees, many of which are opening their third, fourth and fifth restaurants. Charleys are located in 45 states and 20 countries worldwide, and Shin says the company is stronger than ever because their existing franchisees want to open more restaurants.
The company makes its franchisees and customers a priority, which is why Shin believes Charleys is still growing 25 years later.
“I have an old saying, and I say this to our new franchisees in training class all the time: Don’t chase money, because the money will run away. Make the customers happy and money comes to you,” he says.
Most people are in business in order to make money, but money is a byproduct of doing things right — taking care of your employees and customers, he says.
Shin says finding a balance between the vision/mission and profitability is a continual challenge, and something he’s always watching with himself and his company.
It’s not easy to be in business, he says, and being a for-profit entity and doing right by your employees sometimes come in conflict.
“We just try to stick to our culture as much as possible,” he says. “We believe that the business will do well as we help people to grow in their role.
“We are focused on the learning or development of people, and also helping them to live courageously and become much more entrepreneurial. We just want to keep that spirit within, as we grow.”
Financials are an important part of business, but Shin says you don’t want to make knee-jerk reactions. Instead, determine where you want to go in five years and see if you are trending that way. You should monitor the business’s financials monthly and quarterly, while remembering that financials are a short-term goal compared to your vision and mission.
“If we feel we are lopsided on one or weighted too much on one area, we try to find the right corrected course for that,” he says.
As much as the culture might need to stay the same, a business still needs to make smart changes to stay relevant to its customers.
Charleys has grown approximately 10 to 20 percent for the past decade, and the chain is slated to open 50 more stores this year. The growth also has been organic; over the past two years, Charleys had same-store sales growth of 18 percent.
Shin believes the jump can be traced back to a 2012 company review that led them to make changes that appealed to millennials. The company is always retooling so that it can continue to grow.
Charleys not only reimaged its restaurants with new graphics and a new name — going from Charley’s Grilled Subs to Charleys Philly Steaks — for more than 400 restaurants at the time, but it also added a smaller sandwich at a lower price.
“It was such a hard change to make, after 20-some years,” Shin says. “But we decided to make the smaller sandwich, which now accounts for 40-some percent of our sandwich sales.”
The company also continues to focus on the quality of the food, which is something that millennials pay attention to. Shin says Charleys is one of the few quick service restaurants that serves U.S. Department of Agriculture choice steak.
Shin pays attention to eating trends to make sure the company is making the right moves.
For example, he read that millennials don’t typically eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times. They spend more money on premium drinks and snacking. Therefore, his team is developing products to reflect that.
In order to always be ready to develop new ideas, Shin tries to read one book a week, whether it’s business or something else.
“Every day I read the Bible and I read The Wall Street Journal. Those are the source of my education, and I try to be an avid student of successful concepts,” he says. “I once heard a quote: ‘A wise man learns from his mistakes. A wiser man learns from the mistake of others. But the wisest man of all learns from the success of others.’
“That really stuck with me, and I try to learn from the success of other people, whether it’s a menu, store design or best behaviors of other leaders.”
New direction for new growth
Charleys has grown every year, but more than 90 percent of the restaurants are in shopping malls, airports and military installations. Shin says the company aspires to reach 3,000 stores and in order to do that it needs to go out to shopping centers or freestanding locations. Charleys has had limited success in these locations.
Shin, who has a strong Christian faith background, was praying about this problem when he sensed that the company was supposed to sell rice.
“I knew rice would not go over at the Philly cheesesteak restaurant, and that’s when I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, God wants me to open another restaurant chain,’” he says. “And that’s how we started.”
Unlike Charleys, Bibibop is corporate owned with 361 active employees, but it still has the same vision — honor God, strengthen your neighbors, and build a successful business by taking care of your employees and making your customers happy.
The Korean-inspired restaurant, which first opened three years ago, is focused on well-being with fresh food that once again, appeals to young, educated millennials. Everything is very health driven — the restaurants don’t even have a fryer — but still reasonably priced.
“We knew we could carry our vision and mission a lot better with corporate models,” Shin says.
In order to make sure the employees have the same loyalty and satisfaction as their franchisees, Bibibop has worked to retain its employees and promote from within as the company spends a lot of time on the leadership development of its store managers.
“We have a lot of employees who started with us on day one in the first store,” he says.
“When they see their peers becoming assistant managers and general managers of new stores, they really do believe there is a hope and they just need to work hard and they will get the opportunities,” Shin says. “We have really good camaraderie and culture, and that’s what I’m really, really proud of.”
- Don’t chase the money. Profit is a byproduct of doing things right.
- Take care of your employees and customers first.
- Be ready to learn, while still sticking to your convictions.
The Shin File:
Name: Charley Shin
Title: Founder and CEO
Company: Charleys Philly Steaks and Bibibop
Born: Seoul, South Korea
Education: Business degree, The Ohio State University
What’s a business book you’ve recently read that you’d recommend to others? I’ve read John Maxwell’s leadership books. They really help business people because it’s not just about business; they help you lead better with what you need to do and how you need to think.
Another one was ‘It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks’ by Howard Behar. It discusses how a leader’s role is to remove obstacles and provide tools while giving respect.
If you could provide advice to your younger self, what would it be? I would focus less on financials and focus more on people. I made some mistakes by chasing money and brought some grief to myself. I vowed not to make the same mistakes again.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? When the kids were young, I loved spending time with them, but they are both grown now and in college. I still try to do that, but they have busy lives or are preoccupied with other things.
I spend a lot of time with my wife, and I do a lot of work with the nonprofit that we have. I like to help people as much as I can.
What’s the one food you could eat every day? I’m in the right industry because I love food. Typically I like Korean food the most, because that’s what I grew up on, and that’s what my wife and mother make most of the time.
But I love Charleys. If I had any kind of sandwich, I’d rather it be a Charleys sandwich. I like sandwiches and I like Korean food.