James Flynn Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007
Earlier in his career, James Flynn joined Popeyes Chicken to lead the company in a turnaround. After successfully doing so, the entrepreneur who hired him decided to acquire Church’s Chicken as well, but instead of letting Flynn run the combined companies, he wanted to be hands on. The two disagreed on a lot of points, and Flynn quickly grew frustrated and resigned. Today, he’s doing things his way as CEO of Wingstop Restaurants Inc., a chain of restaurants specializing in buffalo-style chicken wings that he has grown to $200 million in revenue. Smart Business spoke with Flynn about why it’s important to love your job more on Mondays than on Fridays.

Hire honest people. I hope they’re pretty smart. I hope they have a strong experience level in what they’re doing, and they’ve been successful in other places. I want someone who will be open and honest.

There is no test. You just get a feel over time, and when we interview people, we generally get input from more than one person. We have two, three, four, five people, and if questions come up, then you begin to dig a little deeper.

If you have three, four, five people talk to someone, and they all feel pretty consistently about that person — either positively or negatively — you feel pretty comfortable that you’ve got somebody or you don’t have somebody.

Value your people. I got a plaque awhile ago, and my name was on it. My name may be on this, but if the company wasn’t doing well, my name wouldn’t be on it.

The reason the company is doing well is not because of me. Believe me, there are always enough setbacks that something happens that makes you think, ‘Well, I screwed up on this one.’ Generally, they’re not big ones, though.

I’ve got 40-some people, and I can’t do all the jobs in this place. The success is because of the team that accomplishes things. That’s the important thing — building a strong team of people who enjoy what they do, are competent in what they do, and you give them enough learning and backing to allow them to accomplish their job.

You’re pretty selective when you hire, and you build from there. I’ve never met anybody smart enough. I’ve got friends who are CEOs and presidents who get a little egotistical about what they’ve done. Well, darn, they couldn’t do it without a great group around them.

Make employees feel comfortable. If somebody came in and my response is, ‘What the hell are you doing in here?’ they probably wouldn’t come back. On the other hand, if they come in and say something, and I mention, ‘What a good idea’ or, ‘I’ll look into it’ or, ‘Thanks for responding’ or, ‘If you come up with anything else, let me know,’ it opens the door. It’s how the interaction develops over time to make people feel comfortable or not feel comfortable.

Get out of the office. Getting out into the field is really important. Lots of senior people tend to just migrate toward the corporate headquarters and don’t go anywhere.

Obviously, you don’t make any money at the corporate headquarters. You spend all the money. All the money is made out somewhere else.

Getting out to those people and understanding what they’re doing, and their trials and tribulations and the things they need makes you a more effective person than sitting in the corporate headquarters. You only get a slanted viewpoint if you don’t see it for yourself.

Balance short- and long-term goals. Most of our goals and bonuses come out of how close we are to meeting or beating the EBIDTA that the investors have agreed with us is reasonable for next year.

On the other hand, we try to not make all decisions strictly on that EBIDTA number. For example, one of the things we’ve talked about is selling a franchise system to a master franchisee in another country, where they pay a huge lump sum upfront. It will make your EBIDTA look great this year, but then somebody else controls your system and has your name over the door, but you don’t have much to do with it.

We aren’t going to do something like that because we don’t want short-term gains for the long-term viability of the company. It’s a combination of trying to ensure you get earnings increases every year but that you don’t do dumb things along the way that will harm you in the future. Realize what it’s going to have on the longer term.

I have a friend who became CEO of Levi Strauss, and he took the company public. I remember him telling me, ‘Jim, I’m making good decisions for the short-term because of all the pressures we get for short-term earnings growth with the stock price, and yet I know we’re making bad decisions for the longer term.’ He ultimately took the company private again.

Sometimes the pressures you have on you from a board of directors or an investor group, since they own the company, overwhelm you and your ability to do what’s best for the company. When you set goals for the company, it ought to be something that’s mutually agreed on both by senior management as well as the board of directors or an investor group. By running the company the way it ought to be run, we ought to be able to meet the goals that they set for us.

Love Mondays. I remember someone telling me when I was fairly young that I ought to look for a job where I was a heck of a lot more excited about Monday mornings than I was about Friday afternoons.

I really think that’s important to find someplace where you enjoy what you’re doing, and you think about what you’re doing not because, ‘God, I’ve got to get up and go to it again,’ but, ‘Boy, we really accomplished something and I can’t wait to get back to it.’

That’s going to be different for different people — different by industry, by function, by personality and characteristics — but try to find something where you think you can make a contribution and you enjoy what you’re doing, and it isn’t a burden. If it is a burden, boy, it becomes tougher and tougher to get up.

HOW TO REACH: Wingstop Restaurants Inc., (972) 686-6500 or www.wingstop.com