Matt Friedman and Adam Scott have made the transition. When they started cooking chicken wings and mixing sauce flavors out of their fraternity house kitchen at the University of Florida in 1991, they were meeting a demand for a late-night alternative to pizza. They sold out their first two nights in business and were so successful that they opened two storefront locations in Gainesville, Fla., and then grew from a regional wing chain to a franchising monster. Today, more than 100 Wing Zones have popped up in 25 states, and the company is set to top $40 million in revenue this year.
Smart Business spoke with Friedman, co-founder and CEO of Wing Zone, about why you can’t be afraid to make mistakes and why sometimes even a CEO has to mop the floor.
Q: How would you describe your management style?
I’m a direct person. I do it in a professional way, but I’m not one to hold back feelings or comments. I’m pretty confident in my ability but not to the point of being cocky. I am definitely a fan of leading by example. Back even when I was running restaurants, running Wing Zones a true owner-operator behind the counter which wasn’t that long ago, seven years ago, we were in our stores every day.
We really led by example. If we had to mop a floor or wipe a counter or cook or drive, I said, ‘Whatever, I’ll do anything.’
That was really effective at the restaurant level and can be effective at a corporate level, other than you can’t do everybody’s job for them. But any CEO that is trying to grow a business, they have to have leadership. If they don’t have leadership, they’re missing the one quality that will allow them to be successful and grow.
Q: What has been your greatest challenge?
Definitely transitioning from small to big. That’s been our challenge. We’ve made improvements, but when you start from humble beginnings, it’s difficult to view yourself as a large company or use a hands-off type of approach.
I don’t want to change who we are. It’s part of our culture. We’re roll-up-your-sleeves type of people. Also, if you want to be successful, you’ve got to work hard. There is some luck involved, but hard work is something you have to put in, as well.
It was a challenging transition, from running a chain of restaurants to becoming an executive, a CEO of a company.
Q: What advice would you give to someone making that transition?
It depends on how aggressively they want to grow. We’ve taken a fairly conservative approach to growth about 15 to 30 percent each year. That was manageable, even with us having our hands around it. It was the right move for us; we didn’t overexpand. We’ve grown smartly.
But, at some point, you’ve got to let go and delegate and manage your company.
Some of the advice I’d give people is, No. 1, don’t rush into that plan or decision. Take the necessary time to grow your company, but when you’re ready to grow, you’ve got to not only be a leader but be ready to delegate and be the CEO of your company.
Q: How involved should a leader be in the day-to-day operations?
You need to know what’s going on in your company. It can be a flaw if you’re too involved, but too many CEOs just are not as involved as they should be. They say they’re busy, but it only takes 10 minutes to stop in the marketing person’s office or someone in construction or real estate and get a 10- or 15-minute update.
As the leader of the company, you have to make sure you’re directing it in the right way. You need to know what’s going on in all these different facets. I’m not an expert in every category, but I have a good amount of knowledge in each category. So you need to know what’s going on because if you have a conversation, you need to know what you’re talking about.
Q: What are some pitfalls CEOs should avoid?
You should never forget where you started. It’s a humbling exercise. If you think, ‘I’m the CEO of a company, and we did $50 million,’ you can start to breathe your own ether. If you think back five years ago, 10 years ago, what were you doing? I was cleaning fryers and cooking chicken wings. It kind of puts you in your place. That is a really good lesson.
We’ve had plenty of challenges and failures. I do read about other CEOs and books that they’ve read. The one commonality I see with so many CEOs and successful ones is that they’ve all had failure, they’ve all struggled, and they’ve all made bad decisions. And it’s part of business. It’s part of growing and learning. I think a lot of people, when they’re in a leadership role or a powerful position, feel that they can’t make a mistake. We have no problem saying, ‘I made a bad decision.’ You just can’t be afraid to make that decision.
HOW TO REACH: Wing Zone, www.wingzone.com or (404) 875-5045.