Distance and direction Featured

8:00pm EDT August 29, 2006
 When naming 316 Investments LLC, Greg Willman and his partner, Phil Salsbery, combined the numbers they wore when they played baseball at Hanover College. Today, just seven years after they launched the company, they’re scoring in the restaurant business and approaching $20 million in annual revenue.

With a statewide franchise in Indiana for Qdoba Mexican Grill — operating 15 units, with four more slated to open by the end of 2006 — and a development agreement for Steak n Shake restaurants in South Carolina, the company is poised for continued fast growth.

Willman is confident that the foundation the company has established for attracting talent and its use of technology will serve it well as it continues to grow with the development of the two restaurant concepts.

Willman spoke with Smart Business about how he attracts top-flight management, retains general managers and uses technology to keep tabs on operating units.

What’s the greatest challenge when it comes to rapid growth?
I used to be able to give one answer to that very clearly, but now there’s a second component to it. But the one original component still exists, and that’s people, human capital.

We’re literally in a business that, on a day-to-day basis, we’re serving thousands of people, so we have thousands of opportunities to do it right, which fuels the growth engine, and thousands of opportunities to not get it right. That has been and will continue to be the biggest challenge.

On top of that, we’ve added geography. We’re going to begin to operate in locations in Indiana and outside Indiana that we just physically can’t see on a daily or weekly basis, so we’re putting that challenge in the mix as well.

How do you attract and retain key personnel?
What we try to do is paint a picture that will fit for some people but won’t fit for others. For those that it fits, we’re a very appealing place to be. We are a small, privately held, very entrepreneurial organization.

For some people, when you say that sentence to them, a light bulb goes on, and for others, when you say that to them, they see all the downsides associated with being in that kind of environment as opposed to being in a very large corporate kind of environment.

We try to find people who have an entrepreneurial bent. From there, what we try to do is really provide an opportunity for them to act like an owner. We give those folks a piece of the business, we compensate them as though they owned that portion of the business and we train them and indoctrinate them in terms of our culture and how we like to do business, to be able to go out and make decisions as though they were owners.

What challenges does geography pose as you grow?
The toughest thing about geography is you can’t be there. What we have done is trained extensively, brought people in early and put infrastructure in very early on, way before we needed it in some cases, and I think substantially before companies of our size would bring it in.

We don’t view it as an expense, we view it as an investment in growth. Our goal is to have people on the ground, in a position to make good decisions as owners.

How have you been able to retain store level personnel?
We have general managers who have been with us since the first day we opened our first restaurant. Part of it is we allow them to have a balanced life, we allow them to work a reasonable work week.

It’s not atypical to have people in this industry work 60-plus hours a week. We do a five to five-and-a-half day workweek, 50 hours. We don’t want them in the store much more than that because we don’t think that’s good for our customers.

We want them in there with energy, we want them in there with focus, we want 100 percent of them when they’re in the store, but we think the only way to do that is to not have them in the store 70 hours a week.

How do you sustain growth?
We as a management team have to listen more than we talk. If we’re going to grow quickly, it can’t be because of ideas that we’ve come up with or pieces of real estate that we’ve seen or operational changes that we make.

If we’re going to be able to do this and sustain it in the way that we’d like to, we’re going to have to learn to rely on folks who are there on the ground, who are having the interactions, to make the judgments and to provide us with all the information we need in an insightful way so that we can effectively put the model together to allow them to operate within the model.

How to reach: 316 Investments LLC, (317) 634-2794, gwillman@aztecllc.com