Focus on the Future: 74 McAlister's + 8 Moe's = $120 million
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Focus on the Future: 74 McAlister's + 8 Moe's = $120 million

Focus on the Future: 74 McAlister's + 8 Moe's = $120 million

Name: Dale Mulvey

Title: Multi-unit franchisee, Focus Brands

Units: 74 McAlister’s Deli, 8 Moe’s Southwest Grill

Age: 62

Family: Two sons, Daniel 30, Jacob 34 

Years in franchising: 40

Years in current position: 14

Dale Mulvey was nearing 50 when he signed on for his first McAlister’s Deli franchise location. The decades of business experience he brought to his new endeavor may explain why he was named the brand’s Franchisee of the Year just a year after opening that inaugural unit. Fourteen years later, Mulvey operates 74 McAlister’s and 8 Moe’s Southwest Grills.

That portfolio was nowhere in his dreams when he headed off to college in Indiana. But Mulvey quickly realized that his natural abilities and the mentorship of his first employers at the mom-and-pop bar/restaurant where he found part-time work were a much better career fit than the future as a lawyer he had planned. Working in a different sort of service industry just “clicked for me,” he says. “I instinctively knew some things about costs, prices, and marketing.” 

His next business education came as a management trainee for a large local chain of pizza operators whose owners were innovators—the first to offer personal-size pizzas at lunch and to offer those appetite-enhancing breadsticks ready on every table for patrons to enjoy as soon as they sat down. Mulvey progressed quickly, learning the basics and developing skills as a troubleshooter and then as a field marketer. He returned to the chain’s main office for a time to gain from the franchisor point of view. All of that experience, he said, “gave me a strong base to think about things.”

Covid tested Mulvey, as it did everyone. But he credits his father, grandfathers, and his very first job shoveling snow from neighbors’ driveways and sidewalks for building the unflagging work ethic, professionalism, and entrepreneurial spirit still evident in all he does.

PERSONAL

First job: My first job was actually working for myself as a young boy. I’d do a variety of handyman jobs from shoveling snow, raking leaves, gardening, etc., for family friends. That entrepreneurial spirit and drive was instilled in me at a young age.

Formative influences/events: I was fortunate enough to have role models in the form of my father and grandfathers. Each excelled in their career—from businessman to sheriff to professor. They would take me into work with them and I got to experience and understand the power and value of having a strong work ethic and how they balanced work and home life. 

Key accomplishments: Being named franchisee of the year by McAlister’s Deli in my first year of business was a major accomplishment, but what stands out to me even more was how my team managed through the Covid-19 pandemic. Their work was nothing short of remarkable. They stepped up, supported each other, the community, and the future of the business. This has been, by far, my proudest moment.

Biggest current challenge: We’re in the midst of experiencing a changing work environment. The biggest challenge is understanding how to meet the expectations of a new workforce while supporting the existing, seasoned team members who are the core of the business. It’s a delicate balance that certainly comes with trial and error.

Next big goal: We have a variety of growth goals with McAlister’s Deli and Moe’s Southwest Grill, but my next big goal is focused on our people. We know our team is our greatest asset, so amid today’s labor challenges we want to make sure they are supported as we build our future.

First turning point in your career: My experience in working my way up to an ownership opportunity and all the lessons learned from that journey. I worked at a bar/restaurant at Indiana University checking IDs and was recruited to another business. From there, I worked my way up to a management position and eventually bought the business. I learned a lot from this experience, gained a lot of mentors, and solidified for me that entrepreneurship was where I wanted to take my career.

Best business decision: Entering into McAlister’s Deli in 2008. I was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity where I could grow my business portfolio. McAlister’s presented a great opportunity with the potential to scale quickly.

Work week: This is the beauty of entrepreneurship—the work week is anything but typical. I do try to travel to the markets every other week to meet with our team, boots on the ground. In the off-travel weeks, I’m focused on back-office work. Above all, I try to be flexible and allow for family time.

Best advice you ever got: Be as honest and straightforward as you can. Hard work matters and persistence means more than anything else. 

How do you balance life and work? As an established entrepreneur, I truly get to spend a lot of time with my family, especially my young grandchildren. I aim to be opportunistic with the time I do have with my family and manage my work around them. 

Guilty pleasure: While it might not sound adventurous, my guilty pleasure is spending quality time with my family, whether at home, dinners, traveling, hiking, etc. As long as my family is around, I’m enjoying myself. 

Favorite books: The Little Prince, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

What did you want to be when you grew up? A lawyer, but I quickly realized that college didn’t interest me as much as working right away and establishing a business career.

MANAGEMENT

Management method or style: I aim to work closely with people until they become better at things than I am. I then try to give them the autonomy to make decisions. Sure, I’m still there to monitor, challenge, and support them, but I’m empowering them and trusting them to act.

How do others describe you? Hard worker, fair-minded, good listener, and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions when it’s decision-making time. 

One thing I’m looking to do better: Be more mindful. It is so easy to get “too busy” and let things pass you by. I’m trying to be more intentional about being in the moment and taking more time to take care of myself. 

What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Maintaining a strong brand identity and growing brand awareness. 

What I need from vendors: Consistency, reliability, and transparency.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? No. If anything we’ve marketed more aggressively. We operated under the assumption that at some point, there will be some return to normalcy—and we wanted to remain top of mind. If anything, it is harder to determine where to spend dollars as there are more options and clutter than ever before.

How do you hire and fire? How do you train and retain? We’ve been very lucky to have an executive team that’s been with us for more than 20 years. Once you understand that your team is your greatest asset, invest in them, grow them into leadership positions. Having these people on your team helps breed other employees who are just as driven and loyal. Culture breeds culture.

COVID-19

How did Covid-19 affect your business? The beginning of 2020 was challenging, one of the most difficult times in my career. In March 2020, we had to furlough 1,700 people. We had 300-plus people salaried and full-time hourly, and we kept them and did not cut salaries. That core group stepped up, and I can’t say enough about how much they did and how they adapted to support the company. We still have most of those 300 people today. Since March 2020, we have seen great growth in our business and have since experienced some of the best AUVs we have ever had.

How have you responded? Initially, our response was just to communicate effectively. We had weekly calls with all our team members, where every question and comment was on the table. We had to be able to do more with less and rely on each other more than ever before. We also committed to meet our customers wherever and however they chose, whether dine-in, carryout, app-based, catering, or third-party delivery.

What changes do you think will be permanent? Doing more with less and meeting the customer how and where they choose as their choices expand. This will require us to be nimble and always have an eye on the future.

BOTTOM LINE

Annual revenue: $120 million.

2023 goal: $135 million.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Average unit volume.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? We will steadily grow our McAlister’s Deli business while also expanding Moe’s Southwest Grill. We will become more real estate-oriented and look for additional opportunities as the market presents them.

Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not? Yes. We have great diversity of talents on our team, and diversity of brands allows us to maximize those talents.

How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers? Sales continue to be strong. However, team-building and maintenance continue to be challenging.

Are you experiencing economic growth in your market? Yes.

How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business? Changes in the economy primarily affect the way we do business as it relates to acquisitions and new store growth.

How do you forecast for your business? We forecast annually, based on the previous year and current trends.

What are the best sources for capital expansion? Having trusted partners.

Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not? Yes. We have had good luck with private equity and regional banks.

What are you doing to take care of your employees? We try to listen closely, pay fairly, communicate fully, and add some fun where we can.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? We reward outstanding employees in different ways including bonuses, awards, and trips.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? I have two sons in this business and a strong, young executive team. We are still very future-based.

Published: March 4th, 2023

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