In his younger days, when Zach McLeroy was a drummer in a band, he used to dream of the big encore performance.
The stage lights would go down, and the tingle of energy and excitement would build in the crowd as it started chanting for the band to return. But that dream didn’t quite work out the way he had hoped.
McLeroy ended up selling his drums and used the money to start Zaxby’s Franchising Inc. with his friend, Tony Townley.
Now, McLeroy, who tended chicken houses as a teenager, leads the chicken restaurant chain as president and CEO and wants to create for his customers that same sense of excitement that comes from performing an encore at a concert.
But first, he needs to get his band of employees excited about Zaxby’s, so it can deliver the kind of performance that keeps customers coming back, which is no easy feat given the restaurant industry’s high turnover rates and the 60 to 90 days it takes for one of his employees to be fully capable of doing his or her job.
“If you’re having turnover in 120 days, you’re always starting the process over,” McLeroy says. “When you’re always starting over, you can never get to the real task at hand, and that’s to grow your business because you’re always trying to maintain your business.”
He’s broken out of that cycle by focusing on getting the right people on board, keeping them happy and making them a part of his vision.
Hire good people
Everyone’s had that experience where he or she gets a cashier or waiter who doesn’t give two cents whether you’re happy as a customer. It leaves you feeling sour about that establishment and less likely to return, so for that reason, McLeroy says growing his business starts with hiring people who care.
“With great people, you can do anything you want to do, and with great people, you create an excitement and energy that actually draws customers to your store,” McLeroy says. “When you can do that, everything else kind of falls into place. You don’t have to worry about your sales and transactions.”
Finding them isn’t easy, and it requires taking your time and not just hiring out of desperation.
“(Companies) make the mistake of the first person who comes in and puts an application in, they hire because they want a warm body there ...” McLeroy says. “Don’t just rush out and hire the first person. Continue to take applications until you find the right people, and then hire the right people, and that will cut back on our turnover.”
Characteristics that make up potentially good employees are things such as honesty, integrity and passion, but beyond that, McLeroy wants people with drive from his top corporate team members all the way down to the dishwashers in the restaurants.
“Look at people who really have a desire to go somewhere with their life like I want to go to college or I want to buy a house ... someone who wants to do more than clock in and out on a daily basis and just have a job,” McLeroy says. “If you have someone who aspires to be better or go to the next level or go to the next step, that says a lot for the person that you want to hire because you’re a steppingstone for where they are and where they want to be. Along the way, they’re going to work hard to get to that next level.”
The key to getting those ambitious people comes down to asking the right questions, such as, “What do you want to do with your life, where do you see yourself in five years, is your family important to you, and how much money do you really want to make?”
“You have got to ask the kinds of questions that get to the heart of what the person is all about, not just, ‘Do you need a job?’” McLeroy says. “It’s taking the time to ask those types of questions to find out what makes them really tick and to find out if they’re right for your organization.”
Treat them right
Once you have the best people, the goal is to keep them around. In the restaurant industry, many employees fall victim to polyester, preprinted, oversized uniforms, which make them dread heading to work. If they don’t want to be there before they even get there, they won’t work hard or stay long, so McLeroy made a conscientious effort to make sure something as simple as employee uniforms were cool. His employees wear jeans and a company T-shirt comparable to something from Banana Republic or Abercrombie & Fitch.
“You have to offer, in today’s environment, more than just a paycheck,” McLeroy says. “There’s got to be a much greater incentive than that.”
And it all starts with sincerity. “You really have to care about people, and I know it sounds cliché,” McLeroy says. “It has to be about more than the almighty dollar, about growing a business and selling it at some point and trying to see exactly what the bottom line is and how much you can make. You have to care about the people who work for you. You care about them not just by saying you care about them, but you care about them by actually doing things, by reinvesting in people.”
Zaxby’s offers incentives like a scholarship program and training opportunities, and it continuously looks at what competitors offer their employees and tries to one-up them. For example, if they offer dental insurance, McLeroy tries to offer free dental insurance.
“We try to always be ahead so we can make this a place people want to come to work because we have great benefits,” he says.
You also have to offer a fun work environment that excites and motivates employees. McLeroy offers sales incentives with prizes like movie tickets, bowling passes or in-store pizza parties. At the corporate level, once a month, he hosts social events for employees during work hours ranging from Halloween parties to ice cream socials. He also has a tailgating barbecue every year before the Georgia versus South Carolina football game. These fun events break down title barriers and build morale among the team.
“It just shows people you care and take the time to do those things that are fun around this office,” McLeroy says. “Building morale is real important to keep that family environment that we’re all working on one common goal, and the goal is to build a brand and take care of our licensees and take care of our customers.”
The other key is offering these events during work hours, so it’s showing you care by giving them a thank-you on the clock instead of mandating overtime to celebrate.
“When people feel that you care about them, they care about you,” McLeroy says. In turn, they try to do what’s good for you and your organization and the people they work around. ... If you make them feel good about what they do, they’re going to do a much better job, and they’ll be more loyal in the long run.”
While some say loyalty isn’t a big deal, McLeroy says that loyalty is crucial to growth.
“People aren’t as loyal to brands as they once were,” he says. “They’re loyal to the people they work with because, by nature, we all want to be accepted, and we all want to be appreciated. When you do that with the people around you, you build a lot of loyalty. It cuts down on turnover, and it cuts down on a lot of your training, and it really builds relationships, not only with the people you work with but with the customers you’re trying to serve.”
Share your vision
As you create a great work environment, things take care of themselves and you can focus on growing, but it’s important to make employees feel as though they’re part of the goals.
“It’s important for people at the top to share their vision with passion and to share it often,” McLeroy says. “Make it known. Don’t keep it within. Don’t keep it to yourself because if people don’t know what your goals are, they can’t help you get there. When you do share those visions and goals, you have to do it with honesty and integrity.”
Additionally, you should help employees understand how they can help achieve those goals.
“We try to be realistic and have a methodical approach by doing bits and pieces of the goal at a time,” McLeroy says. “They always say, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ Well, one bite at a time. Well, you have to train people the same way. You have to give goals the same way. It’s just a little bit at a time, and then you go to the next goal and the next goal. It’s a building process.”
As people meet goals, take time to celebrate those successes, which Zaxby’s does through two town-hall meetings each year with corporate employees and licensees.
“When you achieve those, you have to share those,” McLeroy says. “They’re not yours alone. Those achievements belong to everybody. Everyone’s sharing in your success and all of your accomplishments. You share that by showing how much you appreciate by rewarding and doing things just like we do.”
If you’re skeptical on the benefits of rewarding people, McLeroy says to just try it and see how it comes back to help you.
“Until you do it, it’s almost the hardest thing to do, and it’s just human nature with anybody to get people to let go of their money,” he says. “If you’re a Christian and you begin to tithe at church, it opens you up to be a more giving person. You don’t realize the benefit of it until you actually do it.
“You really don’t realize the benefit of the impact you have on the people who work for you until you start giving back and letting them have fun on the clock and giving them a day off here and there, giving them comp time and giving them more benefits than your competitors give.”
McLeroy started these initiatives when the company and the cost was smaller, but after seeing the benefits, he decided to ignore the cost as the company grew. This proved a successful tactic, as the company’s systemwide sales of $118 million back in 2001 grew to $469 million in 2006.
“It costs us, but in the long run, the benefits are going to be greater than the cost, and that’s what we’ve seen,” McLeroy says. “It keeps your people happy. You don’t want to go to work every day in a place you dread going to. You don’t want people calling in sick all the time because they dread being there or they don’t like the guy they work with or don’t like their responsibility. ...
“... I used to look at it as a cost, but now, I look at it as an investment. It’s an investment in the growth of the brand and the future of the brand and the success of the brand. It’s like investing in a stock you hope it increases in value and builds equity. When we do this, we’re building equity in the brand because we’re reinvesting in people here. They’ll do a better job, and we’ll continue to grow.”
HOW TO REACH: Zaxby’s Franchising Inc., (866) 892-9297 or www.zaxbys.com