WINNER Phillip Chang Founder and Chairman Yogurtland www.yogurt-land.com
Phillip Chang possesses one characteristic every business owner covets — he knows a good thing when he sees it.
Chang came to the U.S. in his twenties from Korea, taught himself English and supported his family working numerous jobs until he was able to open a traditional Asian bubble tea shop called Boba Loca — then a network of 33 stores.
But he discovered long-term sustainable growth was unlikely because his target demographic was too narrow. That’s when self-serve frozen yogurt caught his attention.
He delved deep into market research, examining what the competition was up to, what unique flavors could be developed and the notion that people would enjoy making their own concoctions in a self-service format.
Chang debuted the product line in his tea shops, featuring California milk and a variety of toppings customers could add themselves. Initial reception was so positive, he was inspired to sell his first chain and open one, then two newly branded Yogurtland stores. Sales grew exponentially and fast, so Chang sought to franchise the concept. Today, the company owns, operates and franchises 280 retail stores in 20 states across four countries.
He credits the Boba Loca experience, and its pitfalls, with developing his knack for understanding what customers want. To this end, Chang insists on real ingredients, never imitation flavor enhancers.
Operating its own production facilities allows Yogurtland to manage a highly successful supply chain while maintaining the flexibility to bring innovations to market. A robust R&D department has likewise been key to production success, consistently introducing new flavors and toppings.
In early 2014, Chang stepped down as CEO to concentrate on mission work in underdeveloped nations. As Yogurtland’s chairman, Chang remains acutely involved in driving strategy and corporate culture. The majority of his personal income is donated to charity.
Reza Jahangiri CEO American Advisors Group www.aag.com Great leaders have the courage to take great risks, particularly in the little-known reverse mortgage industry, which is often regarded with skepticism. Despite the obstacles, Reza Jahangiri recognized the financial benefits of reverse mortgages for cash-strapped seniors and founded American Advisors Group (AAG) in 2005.
The CEO achieved success by being nimble, lifting the veil on the misunderstood product and hiring former Sen. Fred Thompson as AAG’s spokesperson. In fact, AAG withstood the crash in the financial markets along with a wave of new regulations under the Dodd-Frank Act to become the largest originator of reverse mortgages in the industry.
Although competitors struggled following a series of Federal Housing Administration product changes in 2013, AAG survived the new regulations and has subsequently exceeded its previous unit volume. AAG’s resilience is rooted in its centralized retail model that focuses on a single acquisition channel, strong brand recognition and endorsements from thousands of satisfied seniors.
Resisting the urge to diversify into multiple revenue channels while maintaining a centralized management structure has afforded AAG the opportunity to reinvest in its brand, extend its reach and quickly adapt sales and operational processes towards changes in market conditions and regulations.
AAG’s culture is also a prime contributor to its success. Jahangiri promotes from within and achieves results by pulling rather than pushing his staff. As a result, AAG was named one of the best places to work by the Orange County Register in 2013, with Jahangiri taking the leadership award in the large company category. He’s also retained 100 percent of his management team.
But prospective employees aren’t the only ones noticing AAG’s rise. Although Jahangiri started AAG with his own funds, he garnered two rounds of equity funding in 2009 and 2012. The interest from outsiders validates Jahangiri’s bold gamble and belief in the future of reverse mortgages.
Steve Schulze Co-founder and CEO Alexis Schulze Co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer Nekter Juice Bar, Inc. www.nekterjuicebar.com Four years ago, neither Steve nor Alexis Schulze had any experience in the food industry. He created infomercials while she taught school and instructed yoga, taking an interest in exercise, healthy foods and natural ingredients. At home, she started making juice with no added sugar or processed ingredients.
The Schulze family loved the taste and Alexis loved the nutrition juicing provided. But it took her longer to clean the juicer every day than it did to make the juice. She looked for an easier solution, but couldn’t find any local, affordable juice bars that didn’t use sugar or processed ingredients. So, in 2010, the Schulzes opened their own.
Steve and Alexis withdrew significant funds from their savings and investments for the first location of Nekter Juice Bar, Inc., and took out loans to open subsequent stores. Steve took on the role of CEO and Alexis became chief visionary officer. They had to learn the hard way how to manage people and products to maintain smooth operations as sales increased. Through trial and error, they developed a just-in-time delivery schedule for produce, as well as a training program so employees could make juice consistently across locations.
By urging customers to “Live the Nekter Life” and make healthier choices, Steve and Alexis set out to reinvent juice the way Starbucks reinvented coffee. They kept the menu simple, the ingredients fresh and natural, and the prices half as low as the competition to drive the juice bar’s popularity. In doing so, they created a culture and experience that transcend the beverage.
In their quest to promote healthy lifestyles throughout more communities, Steve and Alexis continue to expand Nekter Juice and open new stores. By the end of next year, communities in Arizona, Texas and Colorado will welcome Nekter Juice Bars. Additionally, Nekter 2.0 will hit stores soon to give shoppers a more enhanced experience.