John Scardapane Featured

12:22pm EDT March 29, 2006
John Scardapane’s salad days as an entrepreneur were literally that. He was working as a foodservice manager in the early 1980s when he noticed that the fastest-growing segment of the business was salads. When a friend and mall manager asked him to turn around the sluggish performance of a floundering food court unit, he convinced the operator to put in a salad counter to replace the stalled pasta vendor. The store quickly outpaced every other storefront in the food court, ringing up $2 million in sales its first year, and Saladworks was born. The Conshohocken-based company now boasts 76 stores and 1,000 employees and is expected to pass $50 million in sales this year.

Scardapane spoke with Smart Business about the need for planning and strategy, the value of mentors and the importance of keeping your word.

On leading by example:

Be a role model. I was always taught to do the right thing, no matter what. And as a leader, you need to be the role model for the organization, which is why I’m careful of all the decisions in things that I do, whether it’s in the office or outside the office. I’m always honest about it, and I would never ask someone to do anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do, which is how I lead by example and make sure that my integrity is always intact.

On getting involved:

Leverage your relationships. You have to monitor the outside world. You have to know what’s going on out there, and I think you need to get involved in some other organizations where other CEOs are participating. It gives you a good understanding of what other companies are doing, what’s working for them, what’s helping them get to the next level. Seek more advice from people who have more experience.

I belong to a couple of local organizations, and they’re from all different fields. What I’ve come to understand is pretty much everyone’s facing the same issues. We’re just in the salad business and that’s our widget, but all these strategies and planning moves, they work in any company. I have strong banking relations, and I’m frequently meeting with my bankers. That relationship has not only helped us with our financial needs, but they’ve introduced me to top-performing CEOs that they know.

On seeking advice:

 Identify mentors. I looked at companies in the United States that I admired and found people in those organizations that were willing to share their experiences or mentor us. And we were lucky to find a couple of individuals who were willing to mentor us that have taken companies from 50 units up to 500 units,. They helped us with all our strategic planning, all our key strategies, our key values and all the things that help build our culture in our company. We took a model that worked for somebody else and adapted it to our business.

On coaching employees:

Be the coach-in-chief. I would have to say that I’m the chief supporter and cheerleader. Obviously, you have some (basic) functions as a CEO, but basically it boils down to, you’re the head coach. You need to track, you need to teach, you need to be a visionary, come up with the strategies. Obviously, you have to track results, you have to grow future leaders.

You have to be really hands-on. You have to remember that we’re a customer-oriented business, and you have to remember the customers and never to become too big or too important for a customer.

On vision:

Reinforce strategy and vision at every opportunity. That’s part of the endless job. Every chance we have to communicate, whether it be verbally, in meetings, in print, advertising or marketing or on our Web site, we incorporate our strategy and our vision. The way that we get staff and associates to understand it is we make them part of the process. We had our yearly kickoff two weeks ago, where we get our staff involved in the key strategic planning. They go through this whole planning loop process where we identify our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then we come up with our strategic plan and key initiatives that we’re going to implement to attack these issues. At that meeting, we go over how we did the prior year. Everybody who was involved in the year before starts believing in themselves and building confidence in themselves and understanding the importance of this process, so they get to be part of developing it and they get to see the solutions and see the actual workings of what they’ve been doing.

On building trust:

Earn the trust of your people. You have to be believable and people have to trust you. And once you gain their trust, they’ll try to achieve anything it is that you’re shooting for. It’s not something you can create overnight. I often tell people when they’re expanding their companies to slow down because you’re only going to build that trust over time with established people.

You can go out and hire all the superstars you want and put them into one organization, but time and time again, you see these organizations fail with such big firepower because they never have time to build the trust and the culture of the company. They don’t realize that they don’t have a great base to build on.

On keeping your word:

Make your word your bond. I truly believe — and it goes back to integrity and honesty — when you make a contract with somebody, whether verbally or in writing, you have to deliver on everything that you commit to that you’re going to deliver. Whatever part you say you’re going to produce, that’s what you do. We expect that from everybody we do business with. So we let everybody know up front that this is what we expect, we have a contract and we’re going to tell them exactly what we expect and what we’re going to do. When one party or another gets out of line, it needs to be addressed verbally, so there’s open communications constantly. You try to fix the problem, and if it’s not fixed, you agree to part ways.

On doing the right thing:

Avoid any temptation to compromise quality. It’s very tempting when you get advice from a vendor or supplier or whoever, and they say they’ve got this product that’s going to lower your food costs two points. You really have to resist the temptation to do that. You can’t cut your quality and service to do that. It just goes back to your values. It’s about doing the right thing for your customer and your company.

How to reach: Saladworks Inc.,