Crawford Ker twisted the game plan he learned in the NFL and used it to turn Ker’s WingHouse into a thriving business

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Former Dallas Cowboys right guard Crawford Ker played under some top coaches in his day — including Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson — and he’s quick to comment he’s learned that for the best coaches, a team owes its wins to the process.

“It’s all about the process; the best coaches don’t get too far ahead of themselves,” he says. “You have to celebrate your wins, but you have to say, ‘OK, that was last week. Let’s move on to this week.’ You just have to be really centered.”

While that formula holds its weight on the gridiron as long as you follow it, Ker found that once he became an entrepreneur after his NFL career, he likewise would be keeping his team members centered — in the business world, that is.

“It’s like, too many highs, too many lows,” he says. “It’s either ‘I’m the best there ever was,’ or, ‘I am the worst there ever was.’ So I try to balance it out and say, ‘Just keep improving. Keep working on the little things and try to do a little bit better.’”

Ker spent six seasons in the NFL, was voted to the team of the decade by Dallas Cowboy Weekly and then dabbled a little in business ventures before establishing Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill in Largo, Fla., in 1994. The main attractions were the signature chicken wings, a family-friendly atmosphere at a total of 22 locations and growing and the WingHouse Girls — a version of “The Girl Next Door.”

Ker says like some football games, businesses are a hard thing to win.

“You never really win in business,” he says. “You might win for a little while, but you always have to keep improving and always get a very good team around you.

“John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Surround yourself with great people,’ but it is not as easy as it sounds. Here, we will find people, and if they’re good, we will develop them. It’s just a process. If you get the right team, it will be a lot easier for you.”

Here’s how Ker, president, CEO and founder, tries to get the best players on his team and stay focused on the process as WingHouse’s 1,400 employees help generate more than $60 million a year in revenue.

 

Mixing it up can be a plus

Whether your leaders arise from your rank and file or come in from the outside is one of the top questions involving a business operation. In some cases, a mixture offers a good solution. Ker believes in drawing from both sources.

“I always tell my managers, you have 40-50 employees in the restaurant, and they are doing their work in front of you the whole time, so you train them and give them additional skills,” he says.

“You develop inside and you evaluate what you have inside, and if you don’t have what you need, you go outside to try to get the talent.”

You have to keep your culture intact, however. When you hire from the outside, those employees may be accustomed to their own ways, which could be at odds with your culture.

“I played for the Dallas Cowboys, and then I went to the Denver Broncos,” Ker says. “I might have said, ‘In Dallas, we used to do it like this and like that.’ Well, Denver really didn’t want to hear that. It’s the same in business. You’ve got to respect someone else’s culture. You can’t go into someone’s house and rearrange their furniture and say, ‘I really like it like this.’ People will take offense at that.”

During the on-boarding process with any employee, stress that the culture you have built will remain, and you are not about to re-invent it.

“The business doesn’t run itself, and you have to have great people,” Ker says. “If you look at any great organization, you have great people in those organizations. If you are not first in the market, you’ve got to keep improving and be better than your competition.”

 

Get your team aligned

Alignment is a familiar term in football and in business, but the repercussions for poor alignment in the corporate world far outweigh the 5-yard penalty of a neutral zone infraction.

“It really comes down to people,” Ker says. “The biggest thing is getting them aligned. I think a lot of good, high-energy people really want to make a big impact. They want to prove their worth. And that’s a good thing. Passion is a great thing to people, but also you have to be somewhat slow in business to know your way around the block, so to speak.”

Employees really can’t be expected to lead themselves, and they can’t always just assume they are doing their jobs well.

“It takes a lot of coaching and leadership,” he says. “You have to spend an enormous amount of time with people. And some won’t get it. In your business or any other business, some people will pick up the work really fast and do real well; some people you could tell them how a thousand times and they’ll never get it done.”

While you can’t always give an employee the friendly football slap on the back for a job well done, you can offer encouragement in other ways.

“Give continual feedback to people and continual training,” Ker says. “Continue to say, ‘OK, this is good. This isn’t so good.’ Give them advice. ‘OK, why don’t we do this … how about that?’

“You reward the good, and you kind of frown upon poor performance, and you’ve got to have good metrics to decide,” he says, noting the importance of performance plans that are aligned with and support the goals of the organization.

 

Be better, not just different

Conventional wisdom may say you have to be different from your competition to succeed, but in today’s marketplace, just being different may not be enough.

“I don’t know if I agree with the philosophy of just being different,” Ker says. “I think you have to be better. You don’t really have to be different — just be better.

“So whatever anyone does, if you look at Kmart, if you look at Wal-Mart, the names Kmart and Wal-Mart are pretty similar. OK, what was different? Sam Walton did it better than Kmart. But his model was a Kmart.”

Ker has a couple of trick plays, so to speak, to stay a step ahead of the competition.

“We believe in a philosophy of ‘Brilliant on the Basics,’” he says. “In the restaurant business, we all know it is great service, a great product and a very clean atmosphere. If you look at the top one in the restaurant segment over the years, it’s been McDonald’s. McDonald’s is very good in marketing; very clean. You look at that and you say, ‘OK, they did it.’ You could do it too if you work hard enough at it.”

Enter the confidence factor: There’s not a sports coach around who doesn’t impart the value to his players of believing you can win.

“People believe in mentors,” Ker says. “My dad was probably my biggest mentor. He taught me that you can do whatever you want to do. But it is not easy.

“I remember going to my first football tryout in junior college. He said, ‘It’s going to be tough.’ And he was right; it was tough. He was just always there, and he instilled that confidence in me that you can do what you want to do.”

But mentors don’t have to be a parent or a boss. Sometimes they can be co-workers.

“I have been around some great athletes in my day, and I saw what they did and how they did it,” Ker says. “It kind of rubbed off on me, and I said, ‘OK, either I’m doing it right, or I’m doing it wrong. I need to straighten up and do it the way I would want the results to be.’”

Ker’s “Brilliant on the Basics” mission statement provides the foundation for the WingHouse culture.

“In our business, it is food, it is service, it is our staff, and if we are brilliant on the basics, we will be successful,” he says. “When you get away from the basics, you start to stumble a little bit. And that’s where the problems start.

“Your goal is exceptional product, exceptional customer service, a clean atmosphere and that your policies and procedures are followed — kind of like quality assurance standards.”

One other means to ensure that quality levels are maintained is to grow carefully.

“I used to think that more is better; now I think better is better,” Ker says. “It’s a private company. We don’t have to hit projections of ‘X’ amount per year. What we try to do is do the best deal we can. Maybe we turn down a lot of deals but the ones we get we feel comfortable with.”

 

Takeaways

  • Mixing it up can be a plus.
  • Get your team aligned.
  • Be better, not just different.

 

The Ker File

Name: Crawford Ker
Title: President, CEO and founder
Company: Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill 

Born: Philadelphia. My mom and dad emigrated from Scotland. They settled in Philadelphia. I grew up there and moved to Florida when I was about 12 or 13.

Education: I went to a two-year school, Arizona Western College in Yuma, Ariz., and then I went to the University of Florida.

What was your first job and what did that experience teach you? My first job was working with my father. He had a lawn care business. I was in fifth or sixth grade, and much of my job was just hand-trimming work. We didn’t have string trimmers back then, so my dad gave me a little pair of hand trimmers, and I would go to it. The funny thing about it is, years later, I made my living grabbing people with my hands. So my hands were very strong, maybe because I started using those little hand trimmers when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and it paid dividends later when I was trying to wrestle big defensive lineman.

Who do you admire in business? It’s kind of a different business than I am in, but I admire Vince McMahon from the WWE for his business savvy. He works very hard at what he does. He is on top of his business. I don’t watch the product a lot but I know that he is very involved in it. So he could be in the wings, he could be beside it; he is very dedicated to his business. That is what I respect — any owner who really gets his hands dirty and works his business.

What is the best business advice you ever received? It would probably be keep going. Don’t be deterred. Keep going forward. Everybody has setbacks, nothing is as good as it seems, nothing is as bad as it seems. Just keep going and don’t count your wins too much and don’t count your losses too much. Just keep moving forward and do your best.

What is your definition of business success? Business success to me is having a lot of people contributing to a common goal or common cause of the business. The ultimate success is if a lot of people have benefited from your results. Success is a team sport. So if everybody is successful, you are successful. I think the biggest thing about it is if the company is successful, a lot of people are making a living off your company. For me that is successful. You are employing a lot of people, and a lot of people are counting on your decisions.