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Fast track Featured

9:51am EDT November 20, 2003
Dream big. Work hard. Get it done. Play fair. Have fun. Make a difference.

Sound like the new slogan for the Peace Corps? Not quite. They are the values by which Russ Umphenour built his chain of 1,065 Arby's, Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken and Mrs. Winner's Chicken and Biscuits restaurants. That's right, fast food.

It's not what you would expect from an industry in which turnover rates annually reach 100 percent and most of its employees are in their teens or work part-time. Umphenour runs his chain of restaurants under the name RTM Restaurant Group Inc., which stands for "Results Through Motivation."

His operating philosophy has helped grow the Atlanta-based company from 11 Arby's restaurants in Georgia and Alabama to 1,065 stores in 22 states with $800 million in sales last year. The company has more than 25,000 full- and part-time employees, with turnover rates well below industry averages. RTM doesn't reveal exact figures.

"More than anything, it's simply how we treat people every day," Umphenour says. "It sounds a little trite to say the Golden Rule, but when you treat people the way they want to be treated, they probably will respond to our attempts to create the right atmosphere."

Umphenour spoke with Smart Business about motivating employees and running his company with a strong value system.

How did you know the restaurant industry was right for you?

I didn't. Luck, I guess. I was fortunate enough to fall into something that I really liked.

When I first started working, even part time, I enjoyed working with kids, I liked working with food, it was a small business -- I just loved it. I tell everybody, if you find something you love to do, eventually you'll be successful at it.

And so many people get trapped in something they're not in love with. That's not good. I really feel fortunate.

How has the industry changed since you started?

Where do I start? When I started, there were no drive-throughs. There were no salad bars; the proliferation of the menus.

People. We're working with a different work ethic today. People are different. The work force is different. When I started, our whole society was still in the fairly authoritarian leadership model, and today people need more participative, more family-friendly kinds of things. That's good. I like that because that's my personal style.

It's funny, when you think about the drive-throughs, Wendy's was the first one of any consequence -- there were a couple small drive-through places -- but Wendy's was the first one who did it, and what they did is made all the rest of us in the industry go to drive-throughs.

Of course, the consumers liked it because a big percentage of our business goes through drive-throughs today, but that's definitely been a significant change in our business.

How did you respond?

We have carefully evaluated things that have come along, and said, "Do we need to do this?" In many cases we did, but in other cases, things are kind of a fad.

Every industry will go through fads, and you have to be careful you don't jump at every one of those. For example, probably 15 years ago, there were these touch-screens going around where customers could order themselves. Now, it's starting to become a reality. Customers are used to putting their credit card into a machine, but back then it was way premature, and there were several people in our business that lost a ton of money because they thought it was the time to jump on the technology.

RTM stands for "Results Through Motivation." What have you found is the most effective way of motivating employees?

I don't know if there is any one answer to that. Except, if you look at the name of our company, Results Through Motivation, we define leadership as creating an atmosphere where people will motivate themselves to achieve mutually beneficial goals.

We, as leaders, all we can do is provide the atmosphere. You hear a football coach talk about motivating a team, or you hear a military leader talk about motivating troops, but in reality, it's not something we do to someone. At the end to the day, we all individually do only what we want to do.

So our job as leaders is to provide the atmosphere where people will want to do things. When we say 'do,' it's toward mutually beneficial goals. In other words, we have to help the company reach its goals and likewise the individual reach their goals. That's a very important part of what we strive to do.

How do you create that atmosphere?

It's a whole range of things. It starts with just treating people right, treating them as adults, all the way to incentives. More than anything, it's simply how we treat people every day.

The company is rooted in a strong value system. Where did this come from?

It's certainly evolved a little bit over the years, but my father was a minister, we grew up with strong values, the Ten Commandments, and all that stuff.

But I'd really never thought about a company having a set of beliefs or values until I read a book written by Thomas Watson of IBM called "A Business and its Beliefs." In there, he stressed every business needed a set of beliefs or values. I happened to read that at the same time we started the company in late 1973.

We sat down our small group of people and said, 'What do we believe in?' We listed 21 or 22 things on the board of things we believed in, and those became our guiding principles to begin with. That list has expanded to 25 now, and it's what we call our 'people philosophy,' and it's in the first page of our management handbook.

Those 21 out of those 25 have not changed one bit. We've added three or four extras. Over time, as we began to flesh those out as people talked about them, we wanted them in little tighter sound bites, and that's where the 'Dream Big, Work Hard, Get It Done, Play Fair, Have Fun, Make a Difference' came from. Those concepts have been there since the beginning.

I feel fortunate in that because without having read Thomas Watson's book, I don't think I would've thought to do that on my own.

Why are these values so important to the company?

It gives people a sense that we are here not just to make money. When you look at the 'Make a Difference' value, we're here to make a difference in people's lives, and those are the people who work for us, as well as the entities we give to, the charities or whatever involvement we might have.

It helps people here have a sense of why we're here, and secondly, they tell how we run the business. The first three, 'Dream Big, Work Hard, Get It Done,' those are the what. The 'Play Fair, Have Fun, Make a Difference' are the how.

That really works. Even the 16-year-old kid who works in the store gets it. How to reach: RTM Restaurant Group, (404) 256-4900 or (www.rtminc.com).