From Burgers to Waffles: With a Dash of Energy-Efficient Technologies on the Side
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From Burgers to Waffles: With a Dash of Energy-Efficient Technologies on the Side

From Burgers to Waffles: With a Dash of Energy-Efficient Technologies on the Side

Franchising was not the first career choice for Neal Starling, but he says it's been the best one. Starling, who operates five Five Guys Burger & Fries and a single Bruxie (with an agreement for seven more) in Southeastern Alabama says, "Starting a franchise business and providing jobs and security for so many employees and their families has been so rewarding."

He's proud to say that he and his wife Julie are co-owners and partners in their business operations, as well as in life. The latter has been at the forefront lately, with Julie currently going through treatments for breast cancer that returned after more than 17 years. Both the prognosis and their attitudes are positive.

Starling's early career was in the Fortune 500 arena working for major corporations such as Emerson, Tyco Electronics, Entergy, and Southern California Edison. Eventually, the entrepreneurial itch became too great to ignore. "I realized that I wanted to build a business on my own," he says. That's when he discovered Five Guys and the opportunity to open a franchise while still working his corporate job.

"Julie and I had to bet on ourselves as we set out on the new challenge of a franchise business," he says of their decision 11 years ago. "We were betting our life savings on this." It turned out to be a good bet that was bolstered by their determination and willingness to make it work.

Starling also is a partner in NCA Lighting Solutions, a company that designs and implements energy-efficient interior and exterior LED lighting retrofits and provides lighting maintenance programs. And, in the quest for more sustainable and efficient energy systems, NCA also sells and installs Software Motor Company's energy-efficient Smart Motor System.

Last year, the Starlings began investigating opportunities to diversify their portfolio and found Bruxie, an emerging fast-casual waffle sandwich chain. They like what they saw and signed on for 8 locations. They were set to open their first in March and are in the planning stages for the next ones. "We are truly excited to be bringing Bruxie locations to our markets," he says.

Now 56, Starling says he and Julie are still working on an exit strategy and are leaving options open. One of the first things Julie has on their retirement agenda is to hit the high seas for an around-the-world cruise--and he's on board with that.

Name: Neal & Julie Starling
Title: Co-owners
Company: Gold Valley Development & Larkin Foods
Units: 5 Five Guys, 8 Bruxie (1 open, 7 in development)
Age: Neal, 56
Family: Married
Years in franchising: 11
Years in current position: 11


First job:
I was a bag boy at IGA and Julie was a cashier at a hoagie restaurant.

Formative influences/events:
I have been fortunate to have some very positive role models in my life, starting with my mother. After her divorce from my dad, she moved us three kids into a government-subsidized apartment and every day made sure we kept a positive attitude. Through her multiple jobs, she also demonstrated that hard work will pay off. I firmly believe that it is from my mom where I get my determination and focus, and I owe much of my success to her. Another major influence in my life would be the group of Sigma Chi fraternity brothers I met at Troy University in 1982. This group of boys/men showed me that goal-setting, focused efforts, and never shirking from hard work, combined with a major dose of accountability, would make us all successful. Even to this day, at least 20 of these brothers talk or text each other every day in a group text. This group also taught me that while we have to work hard, we can play hard too! You have to find the fun in everything you do! Julie was influenced by her father. After retiring from the US Air Force as a full colonel and running a successful real estate brokerage, he directed her away from her marine biology goal toward a business degree.

Key accomplishments:
Being the first child in my family to attend and graduate college, as well as marrying Julie and helping raise three great kids. On the business side, I have had many accomplishments working for major corporations such as Emerson, Tyco Electronics, Entergy, and Southern California Edison. But starting and developing a franchise business and providing jobs and security for so many employees and their families is truly the biggest accomplishment. Julie has achieved her MBA degree in business and considers our 30-year-plus marriage and three successful adult children key accomplishments in her life.

Biggest current challenge:
On a personal side, it has to be currently going through the treatments for Julie's second round of breast cancer after being cancer-free for more than 17 years. On the business side, our greatest challenge is finding good people who want to work and helping them achieve their goals in life while working at our restaurants.

Next big goal:
Introducing Bruxie restaurants to the South and helping build a great brand.

First turning point in your career:
While working for Fortune 500 companies, I realized that I wanted to diversify my experiences and build a business on my own. I was lucky enough to have been introduced to the Five Guys brand and family who gave us the opportunity to do so while still working my day job.

Best business decision:
Betting on myself and Julie to develop a business not knowing all of the challenges that lay ahead of us. This simple belief in ourselves gave us the determination and willingness to bet all of our life savings on a franchise business.

Hardest lesson learned:
Early on, I brought a friend into the business who did not have the same focus, determination, or financial investment into the business, and it did not end well. Working with friends can be very challenging and detrimental to the business.

Work week:
I'm not sure the work week ever ends! With two franchise businesses and an electrical and lighting services company, I find myself working very odd hours, and so does Julie. I do believe you have to schedule quality time off to appreciate why you work so hard. I am fortunate that my wife loves to travel and plans incredible vacations.

I enjoy golf, hiking, and the gym--and I need to do all three more often! Julie enjoys tennis, yoga, and hiking the best.

Best advice you ever got:
"You're not born a dog and die a cat." This means you are who you are and don't try to be something you are not. People will respect, trust, and support you more if you show your honest self.

What's your passion in business?
Being able to continue to build a business that employs people and be a place to be proud to work for. I am extremely proud that our personal investment in time and money has provided jobs and careers for so many! We actually have three general managers running stores today who started on the grill or cash register 10 years ago and have grown with our business.

How do you balance life and work?
My wife helps hold me accountable to balance life and work. I have to be reminded that I work to have a life, not live to do work. When we take time off, I set boundaries around the times I will be available for work-related things.

Guilty pleasure:
Bourbon for me, chocolate for Julie.

Favorite book:
The Reagan Diaries by Ronald Reagan for me, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand for Julie.

Favorite movie:
I like "Wolf of Wall Street." Julie likes "Pitch Perfect."

What do most people not know about you?
During my senior year in high school, I lived in the garage apartment of a family friend. Julie looks for "pennies from heaven" on the ground and so far has found nine.

Pet peeve:
For both of us, it is people who are time wasters and lazy.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a politician and Julie wanted to be a marine biologist.

Last vacation:
We both enjoyed the Dauphin Island, Alabama, Mardi Gras celebration. The very first Mardi Gras was celebrated there many years before it was celebrated in New Orleans. As a result, Mobile (just north of the island) is the birthplace of Mardi Gras.

Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Both of us would love to have lunch with our mothers who have passed away.


Business philosophy:
"Trust but verify" is definitely our business philosophy. Provide a positive framework, set realistic expectations, hire the right people, and stay out of their way.

Management method or style:
Visionary. Giving managers the autonomy to self-direct and make sure they feel it is their personal store and responsibility.

Greatest challenge:
Motivating crew members to be customer-oriented all the time during their work hours and finding quality people.

How do others describe you?
I am determined, dependable, and fun. Julie is adventurous, fun, and kind.

One thing I'm looking to do better:
We both are keeping a strong focus on our personal health and are working to set barriers with our time so that work does truly end at the end of the day.

How I give my teams room to innovate and experiment:
We have set up a management structure that allows the managers to make decisions at the store level to ensure each customer's satisfaction--no statements of, "You will have to contact our corporate office." Instead, take care of every customer immediately, since they are the sole reason for the business to even exist! Also, every manager and crew member knows that the door is always open to reach us directly, and we can have clear and honest discussions. Reward success. And when a mistake is made, understand how it happened, then fix it and train others so it does not happen again.

How close are you to operations?
We are involved as needed in the daily operations of the stores. We have hired great people and have given them the responsibility and accountability to make things happen.

What are the most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Protection of our corporate brand, communication, and brand marketing.

What I need from vendors:
On-time deliveries and easy communication channels to resolve problems when they arise. I believe the best vendors step up to help when there is a problem.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
We continue to support our local communities to drive awareness of our brand. Word of mouth from one customer to the next drives our success. Delivery companies such as Uber Eats and DoorDash have really changed the fast-casual business and we are continually adjusting to improve our operations to support this growing customer base.

How is social media affecting your business?
Social media seems to be the only way to promote in today's world. We use all of the tools provided by our franchisor and also maintain local social media to support our business. We do our best to connect with our customers and follow up on both positive and negative comments.

How do you hire and fire?
When it comes to hiring we prefer referrals, but we also use university job service offices and job fairs, Facebook notices, CareerBuilder, talentReef, LinkedIn, and ZipRecruiter. When we have to fire an employee it is very personal and one-on-one.

How do you train and retain?
Training videos and tests, on-the-job training, reinforcement and repetition, bonus programs and contests, quarterly meetings, holiday parties, and breakfasts. I believe that if we invest in the development of our employees they will know we care about them.

How do you deal with problem employees?
We first need to determine what the underlying problem is and work with them to improve. But in real life if they don't improve or don't try, you have to cut them from the team.

Fastest way into my doghouse:
Laziness and not being customer-oriented.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:

2020 goals:
We are focused on completing refresh programs and opening new restaurant locations.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Year-over-year sales and net profit from a financial standpoint. From a development standpoint, what was our employee turnover at a staff level and management level.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
I want to be retired, but still supporting a growing business where individuals can grow and develop into better entrepreneurs. I really want to teach others how to take a measured risk and be a successful entrepreneur.

Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not?
From a franchisee restaurant standpoint, we are only in the fast-casual segment, but we do have other businesses that are focused on energy efficiencies such as LED lighting and smart motors.

How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers?
It has helped and hurt. On the positive side, we believe more customers are driven to the fast-casual category looking for a higher-quality product, and with both brands we can provide a great dining experience.

Are you experiencing economic growth in your markets?
Yes, we see a same-store sales increase at every location. The latest trend of delivery services such as Uber Eats and DoorDash is helping new customers experience our high-quality product and making it easier for our loyal customers to enjoy their favorite meals.

How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
The economy continues to increase in our markets, driving increases in the sales at the restaurants and through the delivery companies. The key is to deliver the highest-quality product and a customer experience that will be remembered and talked about.

How do you forecast for your business?
We keep daily sales calendars that track year-over-year. We also track special events that are happening or that happened last year. Using these tools and the software provided by the franchisor helps us in our forecasting.

What are the best sources for capital expansion?
We have built a strong relationship with a regional bank. They have continued to understand our business and support our efforts in expansion.

Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
As a restaurant franchise business, we have experience only with our regional bank that has supported us. I have worked with private equity partners in my other businesses, and they do provide a tremendous opportunity for growth if the right business relationship can be built.

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We always make sure to check in on their personal life, their kids, their health, and keep tabs on what's going on. We also encourage them to get additional schooling if desired, motivate them with compliments, involve them with key aspects of the business, and allow them to develop.

How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
We have to take those costs out of other areas of the business. Employees who better understand the real cost of running the restaurant help find ways, and we reward those ideas. We were thrilled when one employee found a source of revenue through a private academy that outsourced their lunch program. We are their "Five Guys Fridays!"

What laws and regulations are affecting your business and how are you dealing with them?
We are continually monitoring all regulations affecting our business. We work with other franchisees to develop best practices that help us respond to these changing laws and regulations.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Quarterly bonus programs, a personal vacation for the yearly top-producing store manager, specialty contests throughout the year for all crew members, providing treats (like cookies) to the store for everyone, positive messages through cards, phone calls, and emails, and money in the crew tip jar.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
We are still working on that. We are trying to leave as many options open, as the business environment we live in today is continually changing. Julie wants to take an around-the-world cruise upon exiting, so we have a great goal in place.

Published: March 31st, 2020

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