Adding Value: Leading Best Life Brands into a growing future
Name: J.J. Sorrenti
Company: Best Life Brands
Years in franchising: 35
Years in current position: 3
For the past several decades, J.J. Sorrenti has served in leadership roles helping to grow franchise brands. He's also led seminars around the country where he's counseled thousands of entrepreneurs about franchising and retail opportunities.
In March 2020, Sorrenti became CEO of Best Life Brands, whose offerings include Blue Moon Estate Sales, CarePatrol, ComForCare, At Your Side Home Care, and Boost Home Healthcare.
Before joining Best Life, he served as a member of GNC's executive leadership team where he was responsible for the franchising division, playing a key role in developing ongoing support systems and helping scale the system. Under his tenure, the company grew from 25 U.S. franchise locations to more than 3,000 in 42 countries with systemwide revenue of more than $700 million.
Sorrenti describes his leadership style as collaborative, with both the corporate team and the franchisees. He says no topic is off limits and "adult conversations" are a routine part of life at Best Life Brands.
The future is bright for the Michigan-based company. "We are super-urgent about finding ways to help more people open our brands in their local markets, so we can help more and more families as soon as we can," says this franchise veteran.
What is your role as CEO? I am responsible for the overall success of the business, including our employees and franchisees. That includes the vision, mission, direction, and overall strategy of the business. From establishing a positive working environment to budgeting and forecasting to communicating with our board of directors, it is the ultimate responsibility of helping the company succeed.
How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? Covid-19 has had sweeping effects on the way we work, manage, and live our lives. Daily commutes have been reduced and global supply chains have been logjammed. We've proven that our brands not only are resilient to a pandemic but have actually found ways to thrive. Our franchisees were a big part of how we found our way through this black swan event. A renewed emphasis on collaborating with them helped ensure our best ideas were widely discussed.
Describe your leadership style. I like to function in an open, transparent way. We have plenty of adult conversations with the entire team about where we've been, what we've done, and where we are going. We emphasize collaboration and encourage operations team members to talk about marketing, finance team members to discuss product development, etc.
What has inspired your leadership style? My experiences at GNC were a big influence in who I am as a business leader. I worked for a handful of very successful leaders at that company and was fortunate to watch, listen, and learn from them.
What is your biggest leadership challenge? Helping people be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The famous Mario Andretti quote, "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough," is a truism in a fast-growing franchise business.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to frontline employees? This is always evolving because every person consumes information in different ways. One key way is that we work hard to simplify the message so it doesn't get confusing as it gets passed around. And we work hard to find ways to get those messages to the entire organization as often as possible.
How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? A successful CMO usually has a vision for growth, a love for data, innovative thinking, great communication skills, and the ability to adapt. Some of those skills are innate but can be kept sharp through working the muscle. From my view, two good places to start are to give them room to operate and keep them exposed to the development and execution of the highest levels of strategy.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership, an MBA school or OTJ? Once I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I had zero interest in going back into a classroom. I found my best learning happened OTJ. But over 35 years, I've met brilliant leaders who have used either tool to get where they are. I say choose the path you desire. It will happen for you in a better way because it's the one you want to pursue.
Do you want to be liked or respected? In balance, respect is usually linked more closely to competence or productivity. For me, the most important thing I strive for is trust. I think it is uber-important to be trusted. Once you are trusted, positive relationships can be maintained, which opens the chance for the greatest potential.
Advice to CEO wannabes: As I was growing up in management, I thought so many times I was ready to be a CEO. In retrospect, I really wasn't. But I didn't get too discouraged by my earlier misplaced beliefs. I worked hard to keep listening and observing and finding ways to learn and be exposed to new ideas. The cliché is true: The sky is the limit.
Describe your management style: Management style is something that can be hard for a person to explain about themselves. In reality, it's more about how it's received than how it's meant. I aim to give a clear vision and stay pretty hands-off. But I'm ready and available to jump in and offer guidance, expertise, and help when needed. I go out of my way to make sure I know when my team needs help. I don't hang around and wait to be called upon. I go to them. That means being accessible and available. We have informal check-ins that include general work life satisfaction and mental well-being because helping franchisees be successful is not an easy vocation.
What does your management team look like? At every company, our teams have been diverse, smart, confident, self-aware, motivated, and full of integrity. I read a Dee Hock article awhile ago in Fast Company. He encouraged a team built on many of these attributes. He specifically said: "Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind."
How does your management team help you lead? I've been fortunate to have some amazing leaders on my teams over the years. They all have their strengths and expertise. I make sure they know that we rely on them to make the best decisions for the company. The senior leaders are there to encourage, support, and course correct when necessary.
Favorite management gurus: I've always admired Seth Godin's work. He forces you to shift your view of the end user (consumer/client/franchisee) as those we seek to serve instead of those that need to buy/use our "stuff." It's a very different way to deliver your message, and it can help create a competitive advantage when you do it right.
What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"? I love seeing the success of our franchise network and the impact they make in their local communities. We have a positive impact on hundreds of thousands of people by extension of our solutions. Our seniors are the most vulnerable population and deserve to be treated with care and respect. We have so many wonderful caregivers and franchisees who are going above and beyond to care for clients. I'm very proud that ComForCare/At Your Side has been named a great place to work for the third year in a row, which confirms the positive workplace culture we have cultivated across the system.
What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? The demand for our services will continue to grow. That's impressive since it's already at a level that's very hard to fulfill. A big trend to watch for in the near term will be who embraces new technology to operationalize data, help businesses run more efficiently, provide a better experience for caregivers, and, most importantly, deliver the best quality care to more clients.
Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units? Our franchisees are bullish. They see the demand for our solutions in their local markets and are all working very hard to meet that demand. The challenge is not creating demand. It's creating capacity to meet that demand. We work with and support our franchisees to help them do that.
Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? I'm an evening exerciser. I think it goes back to being a basketball player growing up. Practices were always in the afternoon, so I have found I prefer that timing more than any other.
Last two books read: Sparring Partners by John Grisham and a reread of sections of Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
What technology do you take on the road? All of it! iPad and laptop and iPhone. If I'm awake, I'm connected.
Favorite vacation destinations: My wife and I enjoy three things on vacation: golf, beach, and casino. There are only a few places that have great experiences for all three. If we are pressed, we emphasize golf.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes: I like to send a note after each monthly review of our business, and I also like to send notes to our team after our quarterly all-hands meetings. I want to hear what they thought of the meeting. How can we make it better? What did they hear that they liked? What did they hear that discouraged them? It's a great time of high engagement, so I use that timing to connect and converse.
What are your long-term goals for the company? We want to keep growing each of the brands in our portfolio because we know the need for our solutions is great, and we know our solutions will help. We are super-urgent about finding ways to help more people open our brands in their local markets so we can help more and more families as soon as we can.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company? The cost for all of our solutions has been increasing because of inflation. Therefore, other generations may see an impact there. The main issue facing franchisees, especially in recruitment and retention, is to continue to effectively engage employees and help them differentiate themselves from competitors. Most job seekers right now are looking for organizations that provide a healthy work/life balance and a job that has a purposeful meaning, which puts us in a very strong position.
How do you measure success? I was taught a long time ago to measure significance over success. Success is fleeting, leaves nothing behind, and is usually in the eye of the beholder. If you are significant, you are leaving something behind, adding value to others. In the franchising work that we do, there is no greater measurement than adding value to others.
What has been your greatest success? I joined Best Life Brands because of the problems the company solves for families today. It reminds me of similar problems we solved while I was a part of Huntington Learning Centers. When a child is struggling in school or when a family doesn't know what to do with their senior parent who needs immediate help, it causes stress and anxiety that is overwhelming and crippling to that family. Solving those problems is such an amazing mission. Again, it's not about success, but more about our franchise support teams and our franchisees and their teams creating a significant change for those families by solving their problems. That happens every day, and it's very gratifying for all of us.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? Regardless of the economy, franchising in general and especially in the senior care space is very well-positioned for growth. Our passion is to make sure our existing franchisees are successful while adding more locations to help make our solutions even more convenient to more seniors and their families.
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