Situational Leadership: COO Finds the Fun in Operating 3 Brands
Name: Roger Wagner
Title: Chief Operating Officer
Companies: BRG, M2R, W2B
No. of units: 20 Burger King, 12 Moe’s Southwest Grill, 5 Tropical Smoothie Cafe
Family: Six kids
Years in franchising: 31
Years in current position: 13
Roger Wagner’s story follows the well-trodden path of many other franchisees. He was firmly set on a career that no longer seem like a good fit. When he looked for a business opportunity that would provide him with the independence he sought, he discovered franchising.
On the verge of 60, Wagner oversees a portfolio of 37 franchised units, with more on the way. He’s diversified his portfolio with Burger King, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and Tropical Smoothie Cafe. He likes the fact that more than 75% of the smoothie brand’s franchisees are multi-unit owners.
Wagner isn’t thinking of slowing down. “It’s when you don’t stay in tune and you disconnect that it becomes difficult to be an effective leader,” he says. And he is fully engaged, even testing the limits of Tropical Smoothie’s drawing power by opening new locations in the northern climate of metropolitan Detroit. Those units now have some of the biggest sales volumes in Wagner’s TSC portfolio.
His goals for the future are basic. “The simple execution of all the core pillars of the brands we work with: hospitality, quality, service, and cleanliness, ” Wagner says. Enduring Covid and its ongoing impacts have added challenges to what he calls the new normal, but he’s always up for the challenge because, he says, “The business is exciting.”
First job: Little Caesars in metro Detroit.
Formative influences/events: A big influence in my career happened on the corporate side. I’d taken an FBL (franchise business leader) position where I was working alone and supporting franchisees. After a couple of years, I decided I wanted my team to be able to develop further into their own careers, so I slowly transitioned into what I do now.
Key accomplishments: A huge accomplishment for me was simply making it out of the pandemic and not putting any of my businesses at risk. It certainly changed the restaurant industry’s landscape, with the boom of third-party delivery, smaller buildout options, and more. On a more general scale, I’d say it was a massive accomplishment to move from one brand to adding a second and a third. It meant so much to our organization to be able to scale as quickly and safely as we did, especially given how high our standard for excellence is.
Biggest current challenge: Commodity and labor costs continue to be a challenge for restaurant owners. The big obstacle is navigating how to get higher sales without increasing the controllable cost of business.
Next big goal: To develop more Tropical Smoothie Cafe locations because we love the brand and believe that it truly has the legs to stand in any market we’d want to open in. Each location we’ve opened thus far has proven to be successful in a very short time, so that’s been exciting to see. We have several in development, and I’m very eager to see them open as soon as we can.
First turning point in your career: When I worked in the banking industry, there was a merger, and the higher-ups gave the promoted position to someone who was more tenured. But they weren’t performing as well as I was. From that point on, I realized that I needed to be able to determine my own destiny based on my own performance.
Best business decision: When I got an offer to relocate to North Carolina. After speaking with my family, we decided to stay in Syracuse. That led me to every opportunity I’ve received today, and I’m thankful that this is the route my life went.
Hardest lesson learned: Trying to be everything to everybody. I took decision-making away from my team and was incredibly involved. I realized that I needed to give people the autonomy to fail. Otherwise, they’d never be able to make important decisions on their own. This played a huge role in developing my current leadership style and philosophy.
Work week: There is no such thing as a work week. I work every single day.
Exercise/workout: I play pickleball multiple times a week. I also coach indoor field hockey and referee field hockey.
Best advice you ever got: Inspect what you expect.
What’s your passion in business? Developing people while being financially viable. It’s important to me that we see career path progression with everyone who works on my team. I believe deeply in taking people to the next level and getting them to excel.
How do you balance life and work? For me, they intertwine. I may be off doing something with my kids, but I’m still able to be available and help guide people through synergistic conversations and making good decisions. With today’s technology it’s easy to balance both at the same time.
Guilty pleasure: Pizza, classic pepperoni.
Favorite book: Fundamentals: 9 Ways to Be Brilliant at the New Basics of Business by Jim Sullivan. The book talks you through how to re-implement accountability without losing structure in your business.
Favorite movie: I don’t have a favorite, but I’m a huge fan of any action movie.
What do most people not know about you? I coached ice hockey for 12 years and went to seven state championships. I spent every single night on the ice for 6 consecutive years.
Pet peeve: Cleanliness and organization (or lack thereof) in our stores.
What did you want to be when you grew up? In college, I wanted to be a doctor, but obviously, that has changed quite a bit.
Last vacation: Boston. All of my vacations are centered around my kids’ sporting events, and we typically stay in the city for an extra few days to explore and sightsee.
Person I’d most like to have lunch with: My father. We enjoy sharing stories together.
Business philosophy: There are a few basic tenets to my business philosophy: integrity, hard work, and execution in the pursuit of excellence and financial delivery. We aim to treat our people well while also maintaining high standards and consistency.
Management method or style: Situational leadership. Every person is going to respond to your approach differently, so it’s important to know them on a deeper level. It helps me know what buttons to push to get them to excel and deliver their best work.
Greatest challenge: Without a doubt, the greatest challenge was staying afloat in the early stages of the pandemic lockdowns.
How do others describe you? Driven, tough but fair, high integrity, and knowledgeable.
One thing I’m looking to do better: I’m constantly learning how to manage and build relationships with my now adult children.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment: Creating synergistic relationships. The more people involved in the decision-making process, the better the outcome tends to be. I also try to allow my team members to become as entrenched and knowledgeable in their fields as possible. It really allows me to release the reins. It doesn’t always have to go my way as long as our team ends up getting the right result in the end.
How close are you to operations? Daily. I’m very close to operations.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Structure and marketing are the most important things your franchisor can provide. My end goal is to continue increasing transactions in each individual location we own.
What I need from vendors: Responsiveness and communication.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? I’ve found that it’s extremely important to use marketing to connect to small towns and become ingrained locally in what’s going on. Being able to show up and support the local community through fundraisers and charities makes them not only trust you, but see you as part of their hometown. Nothing can beat that type of loyalty.
How is social media affecting your business? I’ve invested a lot of time into learning about social media and its effects. You simply cannot reach the same number of people without using social media. It’s an incredibly effective tool to build excitement around openings and promotions. Marketing your business has become so much easier the more common social media has become in the past decade or so.
How do you hire and fire? We hire when we have opportunities and develop within. We find that promoting within drives the best results. I believe employees typically fire themselves. If they’re not performing up to standard, we let them know what to do and how to improve. It’s up to them whether or not they want to act on that.
How do you train and retain? We develop within, so people who already understand our processes and systems tend to be very loyal to our organization. We also make a huge effort to treat our people well and create environments that benefit each individual. I have a giant whiteboard in my office that has the name of every single contact for each of our 37 restaurants. Once or twice a month, I’ll call each contact and check in with them to see what they need from us, how they’re developing, and how we can make their career paths move forward.
How do you deal with problem employees? We try to find a root cause or catalyst for problem employees and move forward from there.
Fastest way into my doghouse: Lying or being dishonest in any way.
Annual revenue: $50 million (approx.).
2023 goals: My goals for the remainder of 2023 focus on the simple execution of all the brands we work with. Hospitality, quality, service, and cleanliness are the core pillars of that mindset.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? Ten years is a target retirement timeline, but I don’t think of these time markers too often. I like to stay in the here and now.
Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not? Yes, and that was intentional. We didn’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket. Each one of our brands allows us to serve a wide range of demographics. Any given person can find something they’ll love from our three brands.
How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers? The economy in New York has affected us greatly, largely because of the minimum wage increases. I’m obviously in support of our crew members being compensated fairly, but it would be dishonest of me to say that hasn’t influenced the way we’re operating. We’re constantly working to adjust our pricing to make it fair not only for employees, but for guests, too. We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to take this on and still come out the other end very profitable.
How do you forecast for your business? Forecasting for our business is crucial to our success. You must be paying attention to the way things are shifting on a daily basis, as it can be easy to lose sight and fall behind the curve. Annually, we start compiling all information from the past 2 years. From there, we’ll build out projections for the upcoming year. We look at business trends, competitors in the area, operating hours, and so much more. We forecast not only for each brand, but for all 37 individual locations.
What are the best sources for capital expansion? Having long-term relationships with local and regional banks.
What are you doing to take care of your employees? The environment we offer sets our people up for success. I’ve worked very hard to have a relationship with each person who enters our system. This allows us to understand them and their performance on the job. Aside from that, we offer top-tier benefits to our employees.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)? It’s a balance between controlling costs and watching everything on a microscale.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? Aside from bonuses or monetary compensation, I make sure the employee being rewarded feels seen. For example, when we get a positive comment or review from a guest, I personally thank the employee responsible for treating our guests to excellent service.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? I really don’t have one. I’m working to ensure that, when I do eventually leave, we have the right people in place to continue this legacy of excellence.
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