Handheld Happiness Delivering a "Wetz in a lifetime" experience
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Handheld Happiness Delivering a "Wetz in a lifetime" experience

Handheld Happiness  Delivering a

Name: Jennifer Schuler

Title: CEO

Company: Wetzel’s Pretzels

Units: 350

Age: 45

Years in franchising: 26 

Years in current position: 3

Jennifer Schuler has a unique distinction at Wetzel’s Pretzels: She is only the second CEO the brand has ever had. She replaced co-founder Bill Phelps when he stepped down after 25 years in 2019.

Schuler was first hired as the company’s chief marketing officer in 2014, promoted to brand president in 2017, and in 2019 named CEO. She understands marketing and strategic leadership and is familiar with the brand and its operations from top to bottom.

“There are a million different ways we can grow and improve this business,” she says about leading the 350-unit brand. “But when we find the ways that are at the intersection of where our people want to grow, or where they have passion or expertise, I find we generate better results more easily.”

Schuler casts a dynamic presence tempered by a strategic mindset, and understands that the teams around her are critical to the organization’s success. That’s why she works so hard to inspire them to collaborate and think critically to problem-solve. “Creating opportunities for people, whether my team members or franchisees, to grow and succeed brings me the greatest joy,” she says.

Despite the havoc Covid has wreaked on businesses in the past 2 years, Schuler says Wetzel’s Pretzels has thrived. The company’s EBIDTA increased threefold from 2020 to 2021.

“In times of turbulence, people are seeking things that are predictable and nostalgic,” she says. “Consumers are looking for something that brings comfort and joy, going back to a time when things were simpler. Wetzel’s has been filling that void.” 

LEADERSHIP

What is your role as CEO? A lot of my job, above and beyond the core responsibilities of financial and strategic direction, is focused on reframing people’s mindsets to move toward a learning and growth mode—really homing in on what is possible and what is limiting individuals as a belief, instead of a true limitation. From there, it’s my job to provide the resources needed to achieve big goals and eliminate obstacles. Three days a week, I have a leadership team huddle. Each huddle has a specific focus area: core business, new growth, and people. Problem-solving in the core business could easily consume our focus, but by setting aside dedicated time each week we are equally focused on finding new growth for the company and supporting the growth of our people.

How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? Never before had we burned down the field of commerce like we did in 2020. And as scary as it was, when you burn down a field it creates fertile ground for new growth and new ideas. When the pandemic began, we worked to move our mindset from fear to learning, and from learning to growth. We wanted the work we did at Wetzel’s to a be bright spot in our teams’ lives. As we hunkered down, we developed new and creative ways the business could re-emerge and thrive. This translated into astonishing financial results. Our EBIDTA was three times more in 2021 than it was in 2020.

The pretzel-eating occasion has deep emotional ties. People remember having a pretzel at the ballpark, at the mall shopping with friends, or at an amusement park. Pretzels bring back good memories and joy from childhood. In these times of uncertainty, people seek out small pleasures that bring a sense of comfort and nostalgia. I believe Wetzel’s does that for people. We are happy to deliver “handheld happiness” to families in troubled times.

Describe your leadership style. As a leader, it is important to try to see the whole person and the value they bring to the team. The fact that our employees are electing to spend their time and energy with our organization is not taken for granted. We want to make sure their time and energy are well spent. It is important for people to find work meaningful as it is just a branch on the tree of life, not the trunk. 

Delivering for shareholders is of utmost importance. But we cast the net wider to consider all the stakeholders in our business and how we can use this business to benefit all of them. We recently debuted an award-winning float in the 2022 Rose Parade. Our goal was to involve and engage as many of our stakeholders as possible throughout the process, and to give everyone a chance at a “Wetz in a lifetime experience.” This included flying crew members and franchisees across the country to ride the float, bringing the whole corporate team out to decorate the float, and delivering hot pretzels on a cold New Year’s Eve night to our fans who slept along the parade route. The experience brought a great deal of joy by being inclusive of our stakeholders.

What has inspired your leadership style? In college, I ran track and played soccer and was captain of both teams. My leadership style started as fulfilling that captain’s role and continued to evolve. There’s nothing I love more than winning as a team. I find the U.S. Women’s national soccer so inspirational. They are a great example of a team that knows how to celebrate a win, no matter how many times they have done it before. Winning is fun, but high-fiving your team members and seeing their exhilaration is even better. Additionally, my parents left a mark on my leadership style. My mom was a teacher and principal and really instilled a passion for lifelong learning in me. I tend to get curious, ask a lot of questions, and seek to learn and understand first. My father was an executive in human resources for large global companies, and I saw his tireless effort to do best by the people in his organization. He also taught me about work/life balance. He was always there to coach my soccer team, even if he came late in his business suit! 

What is your biggest leadership challenge? One of my biggest challenges as a leader is balancing having a vision, looking ahead and seeing what is possible, and circling back to bring the team along. As a leader, you need to paint a clear picture of the future that is possible, then constantly loop back and shepherd from behind. Otherwise, you can run too far out ahead of your team and they lose sight of you and the goals of the organization.

How do you transmit your culture from your office to frontline employees? 1) Keep it simple; keep your operations simple and your communications even simpler! And wherever possible, make it visual. 2) Actions must align with values; what they see us do has to align with the values we set in place. 3) Use multiple channels of communication. If you feel you already said it three times in an email, then present it in a meeting and say it again in your 1:1 meetings. Repetition of the message helps it stick.

How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? Start by understanding, as early in the interview process as possible, questions such as: Where is your CMO headed? What experiences are they looking for? Are they working to become a brand president or CEO? Try to craft the role in such a way that it maximizes their skill, while also helping them accomplish personal growth goals. Balance a grounding in company history with an openness to new solutions; ground the CMO in the history of the brand. Share what the brand has done, the results and takeaways. But be open to change. Sometimes CEOs can see their brand as their baby, and no one wants to hear that their baby needs to change. Be open to seeing the brand through fresh eyes, open to allowing it to evolve. Last, help the team understand the confidence you have in the individual in the CMO role. Highlight their early accomplishments so the team has the same confidence in that person as you do.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ? Business school provides a great foundation for basic business functions and frameworks for making data-based decisions. But before you can be a leader, you need to be a content expert respected by your team as a thoughtful, experienced decision-maker. In my opinion, the strongest leaders have a backbone of wisdom both learned in school and through experience.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? When tough decisions arise, I normally work with my leadership team to gain alignment. The more we are able to build alignment within the leadership team, the better the execution of any decision goes. We are all emotional beings trying to make rational decisions, so the foundation of any tough decision is gathering information—sifting opinion from fact, both inside the organization and outside. Through that process, a best course of action often will organically emerge.

Do you want to be liked or respected? To be respected is non-negotiable, but liked is nice.

Advice to CEO wannabes: Ask yourself questions. Is it what you want? Are you ready for a role where you are solely accountable for all aspects of the business and its results? Study your past professional experiences. When were you the happiest and most in the flow when good results came easy? Get a career coach to help craft a path for your future success.

MANAGEMENT

Describe your management style: Acceptance, play, and humor are important for creating a culture where people can be honest, straightforward, and offer new ideas. If I ever hear myself saying, “Why don’t we just...” I try to catch myself and instead ask, “Tell me more about.…” When I start from a place of curiosity, the team can co-create better solutions.

What does your management team look like? The management team is made up of a chief marketing officer, chief financial officer, chief development officer, and chief operating officer. The team’s tenure varies from 17 years to 3 months, but each executive has a strong food and restaurant background. With three of the five leaders women, we are doing well with gender equity in the C-suite.

How does your management team help you lead? Our long-tenured leaders bring a deep history with the brand and strong relationships with franchisees and vendors. Our newer leaders provide a fresh way of thinking, offering new ways of doing things and cross-pollinating ideas from their previous organizations.

Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books? The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek, and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? I love seeing the team win and feeling that I had a positive impact on their lives—and seeing individuals stretch themselves and find success.

OPERATIONS

What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your stores? Malls are back, and they are busy! We are currently seeing more traffic in malls as people are looking for experiences and interactions, and that is supporting the baseline health of the business. Wetzel’s Pretzels provides a nostalgic feeling and moment of joy to people. Millennials and Gen Z are eating more mini-meals on the go and our menu is primed perfectly for that. We are seeing sales increases of products like Dog Bites and Pizza Bitz that are a great grab-and-go mini-meal option. We will tap into this trend by expanding and opening more locations on the street, inside convenience stores, and food trucks.

How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system? Savings rates pre-holiday were quite high. Individuals had healthier bank accounts and wanted to bring Christmas back by splurging and treating families. When people have more money in savings and are comfortable spending, we tend to see a higher check.

What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? Continued healthy growth. 2021 was an incredible performance year for us, and we expect that momentum to continue.

Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units? Our franchisees are definitely bullish. Our business has been resilient and has grown a tremendous amount in a fairly short time. Interest in the brand from new franchisees is at an all-time high.

Are commodity/supply costs any cause for concern in your system? No, at this time we are seeing normal increases.

PERSONAL

What time do you like to be at your desk? I get the kids out the door to school, squeeze in some morning movement, and tend to get to my desk around 9:30 a.m.

Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? Yes, I work out in the morning a few times a week, and I’d take a walk at lunch over wine!

Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office? At this time, our team is still remote. Because we have limited in-person interaction, we use Zoom for a myriad of fun team events. We’ve done everything from “Family Feud” to magic shows to painting and yoga classes. Each month a different team member hosts a “fun Zoom”!

Last two books read: In the Country of Women by Susan Straight, and Heart Earth by Ivan Doig.

What technology do you take on the road? My Bose headphones (rose gold and noise canceling) and some great podcasts.

How do you relax/balance life and work? I started horseback riding again. When you are out on the trail with your horse, you have to be completely focused on your surroundings, watching out for what your horse might spook at next! Being out in nature and having total focus is a meditative practice.

Favorite vacation destinations: Somewhere off the grid, anywhere new that we haven’t been before, and out of the country.

Favorite occasions to send employees notes: I really enjoy passing along compliments about employees they haven’t heard before that may have come from an outside vendor or franchisee.

Favorite company product/service: Currently, my Peloton bike.

BOTTOM LINE

What are your long-term goals for the company? This is the most engaged and passionate team of people I’ve ever worked with. People feel a sense of connection and safety and are willing to take risks. As part of the team, I look forward to really pushing the brand to the next level with growth through multiple franchising platforms and innovation.

Where can capital be found these days? SBA loans are available. It is a capital-rich environment and it’s out there. I’m excited to see how capital gets repurposed. Capitalism can play a powerful role in social justice when it is allocated to women and people of color, helping them create generational wealth.

How do you measure success? I’m competitive and I love winning, but I love winning as a team. When you take something, incubate it, and it blooms into something greater than expected, that is success.

What has been your greatest success? Stewarding the company through a very tremulous time by staying cool-headed and reacting quickly to ensure the company survives and thrives.

Any regrets? I regret thinking about decisions as final. Every decision is a door, and it doesn’t mean you can’t walk back through it, or that it doesn’t link to another. Not thinking about every decision as final would definitely have taken pressure off and helped me move more quickly.

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? We look forward to continuing to leverage the brand love we saw on display at the Rose Parade, and to being more playful and bolder with a super-powered, amped-up team. We also look forward to staying in tune with the current trends around eating habits, and experimenting more with our products.

Published: April 24th, 2022

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