Michael LaRosa beat the recession by focusing his pizza chain on service Featured

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2011
Michael LaRosa beat the recession by focusing his pizza chain on service

When Michael LaRosa took over as CEO of his family’s 64-restaurant pizzeria chain in 2008, he couldn’t just rely on the quality of the pizza, hoagies or calzones to get him through.

The economy was bad, and people weren’t eating out as much as they used to, and that included stops at LaRosa’s Pizzerias, which his father founded in 1954.

“It has been an extremely difficult economic period to lead a business and organization in any industry,” LaRosa says. “What I look at in my role as CEO is that I have to do my very best to keep the morale and the culture of the organization from my leadership as positive as possible and try to encourage everyone to keep doing the right things.”

Due to the economic climate of the last few years, LaRosa has had to stress more than ever the importance of making customer service his highest priority. From driving service into the corporate culture and training new employees to modeling expected behavior and learning from mistakes, LaRosa’s has survived the economic downturn with great customer service from more than 2,800 employees who helped the pizza chain earn revenue of $124.5 million in 2010. Here’s how LaRosa kept customer service his No. 1 priority.

Keep positive

The economy the past few years put a dent in how and where people spent their money. When economic climates change, you have to be able to adjust to those changes and make sure you continue to do what you can to provide the best for your customers.

“People are doing a little bit less of some of the things that are life’s luxuries,” LaRosa says. “You wouldn’t think that buying a pizza falls into the luxury category, but people decide to eat at home a little more often and try to save some money, and at the end of the day, everybody feels it. Even though we are all doing our best to manage costs and waste and making sure that we have efficiencies everywhere, at the same time, we can’t let the economic feeling be prevalent inside our business, because we are in the customer service business.”

When times are tough, you can’t let that trickle into your business. It is crucial that you be as positive as possible and continue to focus on providing the best products and services to your customers.

“You must keep your eye on providing your guests great quality products and great service and you can’t allow a dip in attitude throughout the leadership of the company or your store management teams or your front-line people,” LaRosa says. “You just can’t allow for that because there are already fewer people calling and coming in and the ones who are coming deserve the most fantastic experience ever each time they come in. I think anybody who has been in a leadership position certainly has sensed the importance of doing a much better job just keeping your people positive, keeping your eye on the ball and inspiring them each day to do the best they possibly can with the guests that they’re serving.”

It is also important that your people understand the company goals during trying times. Setting goals and making strides toward achieving them can provide a boost in morale when times are tough.

“If you have important goals clearly stated and understood by everyone and you proactively review those metrics on a frequent basis, you celebrate the things that are worth celebrating and you address the other issues, I think that activity can help lift everyone’s spirits and morale,” LaRosa says. “You have to have the right goals established and be communicating them to everyone and then have frequent reviews so that you can respond positive or negative as you need to.”

Make training a priority

Regardless of what the focus of your company is, it is critical that all of your employees understand it and that they know it from the moment they begin work.

“What you try to accomplish within the first 30 or 45 minutes is to create an expectation that is simple to understand, yet extremely important,” LaRosa says. “For us, we focus on our promise. Our promise each day is that we want to bring a smile to every one of our guests every time we serve them. Our promise is clearly stated and easy to understand, but in that first 30 minutes, you want every new addition to your team to understand that.”

When showing new employees what you expect of them, it is important that you are able to view the situation from their perspective and make them feel comfortable.

“You need to understand the team member’s perspective,” LaRosa says. “I’m hiring people and sometimes it’s their first job. They’re very nervous, and they’re fearful of what they are going to encounter. We work hard to understand the nature of our new hires, and we try to create an environment that’s comfortable for them.”

Making sure that new hires are comfortable will help ensure that they will be able to grasp what you expect them to do in their roles. What you tell them in the beginning of their training is crucial.

“You have to be very understanding of the individual you’re training so you can design a program that not only meets their needs but helps them be successful beginning with the first 30 minutes of their training,” LaRosa says. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of using a little too much corporate language and acronyms and they blow right past the new hire and the new hire isn’t comfortable enough to ask what that means. You have to understand your target and create an environment that makes them comfortable especially when asking questions or asking for clarification. If you’re able to do that, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll provide pretty good training.”

Excel at customer service

In just about every industry, customer service is one of the top priorities within a company. If customer service is something you pride yourself on, it is important that you are constantly providing it in every circumstance.

“Regardless of how pleasing the meal may or may not have been, service can mean more to the guest,” LaRosa says. “They will continue to go back to a place where maybe the food is a little bit inconsistent, but service will bring them back because they feel appreciated. Customer service has to be prevalent everywhere. You can never overuse it. It has to become an integral part of your culture.”

To make something an integral part of a company culture, the behavior has to be displayed by the CEO and everyone else will follow.

“The CEO is expected to lead by example, and then that just trickles throughout the organization and everybody else is expected to behave the same way,” LaRosa says. “If you do that 110 percent of the time, chances are your people are going to be doing it pretty well, too. You also have to make it prevalent. Refer to it and point to it constantly.”

Feedback is another great way to improve upon your services. It provides a firsthand opinion of what you can do better to make your customers and your employees happier.

“You have to make it easy for your customers to give you feedback and you have to respond to it,” LaRosa says. “The same thing goes for your team members. All levels of management need to constantly ask their team members for feedback. Is there anything that we need to do or provide you to help you do your job? Are there any obstacles that I can help remove so you can do a better job providing quality products and quality service? You have to always be out there asking for feedback that can help drive your improvement.”

Getting feedback from customers and employees can often lead to new practices, products or services that can provide a boost to your company.

“It’s always fun to use specific suggestions or recommendations that are made by front-line team members and build that into the company,” LaRosa says. “Those things are huge wins. Those kinds of things have to be free flowing. You have to have a culture that allows everyone to come up with ideas that will help make things better, save time or steps, make something more efficient or help make a customer more satisfied, those contributions are invaluable.”

Contributions from employees or customers will only improve your business if you are open to those suggestions. It is imperative that you hear all feedback and respond one way or the other.

“You have to be open to all comments and suggestions,” LaRosa says. “However, you have to have some sense or some sort of an evaluation process where you can put something into a test mode and determine if this is really going to be something that improves this, that or the other. It’s like a funnel, you want to be open to all ideas and all suggestions, but what actually comes through the funnel are things that maybe a subcommittee or a quality team has reviewed.”

Motivate performance

Motivation to perform well and recognition of a job well done is an important part of creating an atmosphere where employees will want to excel.

“Somebody taught me a long time ago that when you catch someone doing a great job you need to make a big deal out of that and let them know that you appreciate that,” LaRosa says. “As much as possible I’ll visit a store and congratulate and thank a team member. That recognition of a job well done is very important and we try to share those stories.”

A job well done must be celebrated from the top down. Otherwise people won’t know that your company cares about good performance.

“Our team members see that as our attitude and that helps draw out the best in people,” LaRosa says. “If it was the opposite of that and no one cares and that’s the attitude, then that will trickle down, as well. As CEO, it’s really important to make sure that your managers are doing the right things and they care and are responsive to their employees.”

Managers must make sure they are providing encouragement in the right manner, because employees will respond positively or negatively based on how they are treated by their supervisors.

“What’s most important is having a culture where the managers care about their team members and their satisfaction so that your team members care about the guests and their satisfaction,” LaRosa says. “It’s a two-way street. Your team members are only going to perform at a level of how they are interacted with by their superiors. You’ve got to have an environment where everybody understands that a happy internal customer is going to provide for that external customer. So the culture and the environment have to be one that you care about your people at all levels.”

To build a culture that cares about people and motivates them at all levels, you must be able to learn from mistakes. If your company can do that, everyone will be better off having learned from those experiences.

“You have to have continuous learning and process improvement that’s driven from that learning,” LaRosa says. “That’s a very important way to motivate people across the organization. Leadership is charged with the responsibility to create that urgency around improvement. Complacency is the enemy. There are always little details that can get better and be improved upon. As a CEO, you have to create that type of environment.”

HOW TO REACH: LaRosa’s Pizzerias, (513) 347-5660 or www.larosas.com

The LaRosa File

Name: Michael LaRosa

Title: CEO

Company: LARosa's Pizzerias

Born: Cincinnati

Food service experience: Has been in the food service business for more than 35 years working in and around the family business. His father started LaRosa’s in 1954.

Do you hope that your children will continue the family business?

My oldest son is involved in the company, and he is very passionate about the family business. But it’s really up to them. I don’t think it’s something you want to force upon them. It has to be a decision that they want to make for the right reasons.

What would you eat if you went into a LaRosa’s for a meal?

I would have a bowl of minestrone soup, a traditional crust pizza with pepperoni and sausage and a Diet Coke.

What are some traits of a good leader?

I think you have to be a person of integrity. You need to have vision. You need to be a servant leader and go out of your way for others and be as concerned about others and their development as you are yourself. You also have to be passionate about what you do.

If you could have a conversation with a person from the past or present, who would you like to speak with?

I would probably speak to Jesus Christ. I think you could have a pretty interesting conversation with him. I have a strong faith, and he is one of the people I most admire.