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You've got to have friends Featured

7:07am EDT September 30, 2005
When Billy Downs founded bd’s mongolian barbecue in 1992, he wanted to open restaurants where people could have fun. And by that, the Detroit native meant not just the customers, but the employees, as well.

Downs had worked at other restaurants in a negative environment, and he wanted his place to be fun.

“The better way is to be friends, have fun and make money,” says Downs. “It all goes together.”

A few years and several restaurants later, Downs knew the time had come to formalize his business strategies and he created his ‘Friends taking care of friends’ motto. The policy is ingrained in every aspect of the company, and employees are trained on what it means from their first day on the job.

This approach keeps both customers and vendors coming back, Downs says. When the company experienced a financial setback after its bank closed, vendors and contractors continued to work with it because they knew bd’s would honor its financial commitments, he says.

Because it can be challenging to find employees who will live by his approach, Downs contracted to develop a questionnaire to use during the hiring process. Downs is looking for people who are outgoing, caring and adventurous, traits common to his earliest star employees.

The chain has 27 locations in 10 states, and in May, opened its first franchise in Mongolia. That non-for-profit location donates some of its proceeds to support The Mongolian Youth Development Foundation.

Smart Business spoke with Downs about how his service-oriented approach gives the company a competitive edge.

How did you develop the ‘Friends taking care of friends’ motto?

We started the company in 1992, and we didn’t really have time to form a written policy. After a few years, we started writing more down, and we realized that ‘Friends taking care of friends’ was really the way we were doing business.

It’s the way we operate every day; our management team takes care of the frontline team, who takes care of the guests. They are all taking care of each other. And the guests are taking care of the servers by tipping them.

It’s a team approach that works together — hospitality and service. That is also the way we work with our vendors. The policy gives us our marching orders — it’s simply how we do business.

How has the policy benefited the company?

I am a believer that what goes around comes around, and we’ve seen that. Our vendors are much more aggressive in trying to get our business because of how we treat them. For example, if you open a project for bids and you decide to go with Company A’s bid, then Company B decides to get more aggressive and comes back with a lower bid, we still stick with Company A. We hold true to our bidding process and timeframes.

There have been times when we discontinued a process and didn’t require certain inventory anymore. We still bought the remaining inventory that the vendor had left so that vendor wouldn’t get stuck with it.

Shortly after the Sept.11 attacks, our bank went bankrupt. We were doing a big rollout of a number of restaurants. We were short — we couldn’t pay our contractors. But our decision was to pay everybody every penny. It took us a year to do that, but our vendors and contractors worked with us because they knew we would keep our word.

How does your ‘Friends’ policy affect your decision-making and planning?

It reminds us that with every decision, we seek to do the right thing for our team, our managers and our guests. You never want to hurt a friend, and our employees are here because they care about people.

Let’s say that we learn that someone didn’t do the right thing on a basic service level. We work with the employee to help him or her learn from the mistake and help him or her to do better. The same is true with vendors. Misshipments do occur. When that happens, we work with the vendor to get the right product in the door.

We don’t spend time pointing fingers. Instead, we work with the vendor to figure out how to make it right. It’s very positive and it blends into our environment. We don’t dwell on negativity.

How is this policy different from that of your competitors,’ and how is it executed?

I think the one thing about us that is different is that we genuinely do care. We are trying to always hire people who care. You spend a lot of hours working, so you might as well have fun while you’re there.

We look for people who care, who are outgoing and hospitality-oriented. We recruit most of our new employees through existing employees, through word of mouth. We have a reputation of being a cool, fun place to work.

We also live our policy every day. It’s not up on a wall where it is ignored. It’s not just words. We practice the policy every day in everything we do. Our employees and guests can feel that we’re not just about the numbers. We’re about people.

It is really in the fold of the company — it’s part of our everyday makeup. From Day One, employees are oriented to the policy, and it is interwoven into how we do business. I have heard one employee say to another, ‘Now that’s not taking care of your friend.’

Our people not only believe it but address it with those who may not be taking care of those around them. I’ve worked in environments that were negative, where no one was taken care of. I know how important it is to have a positive environment.

What characteristics do you look for in employees?

We have a proprietary model that we use during the recruitment and hiring process that is designed to find out who is introverted and who is extroverted and likes to enjoy live, experienced-based activities like rock climbing and more adventurous hobbies.

We’ve found that that type of person best fits our profile and is also hospitality-oriented, although we can teach that — but we are looking for caring people. There is a difference between service and hospitality.

We went through a process of identifying common characteristics of our best teammates and developed a process to find those same characteristics in our new hires. Now those characteristics do change slightly — we do tweak the model over time.

As we look for managers, we try to recruit internally. Five years ago, we made an effort to move a lot of employees upward, and it helped our retention rates. We have so many college kids, we thought if we could get to a 100 percent turnover rate we would be happy. For our industry, that would be a great goal. Our turnover rate was 150 percent, now it is 120 percent.

We’ve found our best employees are college students, but that means built-in turnover. We also seek sophomores rather than freshmen, because they have had a year of college under their belts and are realistic about the time commitment of work and going to school. But for those who decide they want to stay with the company, we offer Career Quest, a program that, from Day One, plots out the person’s career path.

For some, the goal is to make as much money as they can while in college, but others want to grow as a supervisor or manager, and the key to those positions is communication. What we’ve found is that if we don’t offer people opportunities for growth, they’ll leave. If we give them more responsibilities, they’ll stay.

How do you train employees to keep the service policy in mind?

Every part of our training is written and conducted with the policy in mind. It’s interwoven into everything we do. It’s written in the training manual and then supported the rest of the time the person is employed with us.

It’s more of an internal reminder than external, although some of the managers and franchisors had the policy painted on their front doors. But if you take care of your people, they stay — and they take care of the guests.

What are your biggest challenges in keeping a high-quality service environment?

There are a number of challenges, but I think the biggest is in hiring new teammates. Finding the right people and training them correctly are big challenges, especially with Generation Y. They are used to swiftly moving through Web sites for information and getting instant feedback and responses. These people haven’t always experienced service. And today’s service standards are a lot lower than they were 10 to 15 years ago. People are accustomed to average service.

To make sure our people are trained correctly, we monitor our results on a daily basis. We conduct surveys. In Detroit, there are computerized surveys at the tables, and we find out right then and there if something wasn’t satisfactory.

One of the questions is, ‘Would you come back?’ If the person answers no, the manager is automatically paged to the table. This immediate feedback is important with Generation Y people. They love it.

HOW TO REACH: bd’s mongolian barbecue, (248) 398-2560 or http://www.bdsmongolianbarbecue.com