The Top Man: Adam Oldenburg takes charge at Toppers Pizza
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The Top Man: Adam Oldenburg takes charge at Toppers Pizza

The Top Man: Adam Oldenburg takes charge at Toppers Pizza

Last May, Toppers Pizza Founder & CEO Scott Gittrich announced he was stepping down after more than three decades leading the Wisconsin-based brand. But waiting in the wings, groomed to take over, was Adam Oldenburg.

Oldenburg has been a part of the Toppers Pizza brand for more than 18 years, rising from delivery driver up through the ranks to his most recent position as vice president of operations. “I told people when I was a delivery driver that I was going to run the company someday,” recalls the 39-year-old. They might not have believed him then, but he’s on top now. 

Outside the corporate office, he’s also part of an ownership group that operates five Toppers locations, and he has even been recognized as Franchisee of the Year. All of this experience on both sides of the franchise operation have given Oldenburg a deep understanding of Toppers and the pizza industry.

Still new to the job, he says he’s focused on continuing to expand the franchisee network, delivering menu innovation, and leveraging cutting-edge technology and marketing. That’s why the brand is refranchising a number of company stores, he says, “to have the bulk of our efforts focused on our franchisees.”

As Toppers grows, Oldenburg says he recognizes that maintaining quality control will be an important but necessary challenge. He believes he and his team can handle the challenge.

Oldenburg says Toppers has long-term goals of reaching 100 stores by 2026 and 500 stores in the next 10 years while building and maintaining a brand that customers and team members are proud of.

Name: Adam Oldenburg

Title: CEO

Company: Toppers Pizza LLC

Units: 71

Age: 39

Years in franchising: 18 

Years in current position: 1

LEADERSHIP

What is your role as CEO? Leading a high-powered team that delivers on a thoughtful and executable strategic vision. I play a huge role in financial oversight, franchisee support and relations, maintaining and building on the culture we have established, and creating value for our franchise partners and shareholders. 

How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? In many respects, Covid-19 has amplified the number of deliveries that are made in the environment today. I’m not just talking about pizza but groceries, food, and retail as well. We are now making strategic decisions based around how we show up in the delivery segment. It’s different and changing daily.

Describe your leadership style. “Care with candor” is my mantra. I truly believe that you can’t care about someone if you aren’t able to have the tough conversations with them that need to happen. If you see someone failing, you have to be able to tell them so and work with them to deliver on what is expected. If you don’t tell them, are you just going to let them fail? How is that great leadership? On the other side, if someone is successful, I will hold them up for the world to see. I tend to listen extensively and use the information that I have gathered to make a sound decision. I like to involve the team(s) as much as reasonably possible not only for ideas, but to create a better and fluid working unit.  

What has inspired your leadership style? First and foremost, my parents. Their open communication was a guiding light for me through my career. They also were hardworking and served friends and family without question. After that, there has been no bigger influence on my leadership journey than our founder, Scott Gittrich. Working in restaurants is fun and tough work. He showed me how to have fun, lean in, be disciplined, and to think differently. 

What is your biggest leadership challenge? I’m anticipating that the balance of growth with quality control is going to play out to be a big challenge. It usually is when it comes to franchise growth. We plan to have great franchisees that execute the Toppers system and to have extremely high standards when it comes to delivering on QSC (quality, service, cleanliness).

How do you transmit your culture from your office to frontline employees? We are out in stores and listening. It’s a requirement that executive team members, including me, are out in stores and working for a minimum of five hours each month. Whether that’s making pizzas (for those of us who can) or handing out food to customers, we get the chance to engage with team members on what is going right and where we are screwing up. 

How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? The easy answer is that the CMO develops the strategy and targets, and the CEO holds the person accountable for delivering on that strategy and the results. The environment is consistently changing, and one of the main areas that I focus on with my head of marketing is getting him involved with other experts in the industry. That could be creative, loyalty, search, mailings, out of home, etc. 

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ? I’ll start out by saying, I don’t have an MBA. For some people, that’s an immediate turnoff, and they see an MBA as a prerequisite for any job. I’d tell you that you’re missing out on some opportunities with people if that’s what you believe. You can educate yourself on leadership, and there is a lot out there to learn about the subject. Learning is one thing. Applying that learning is another, and you can’t get that type of experience unless you are on the job. Leadership is a journey, and I’m happy to say that I’m still on the never-ending path to better myself in this area daily. 

Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? That’s a tough question in itself because it varies. There are certain burdens that a CEO must carry. There are decisions I must make myself and others that are team decisions. If there is a tough decision that someone on my team needs to make, I always offer support. Whether that’s personnel issues or something else, I will offer advice, role-play the situation, and even be side by side with them when the tough decision needs to happen. Tough decisions are made because you are thinking about the company as a whole. I’ve had to lay people off, close locations, switch vendors, etc., and you have to continually tell yourself that it’s better for everyone, not just a finite group of people.

Do you want to be liked or respected? Both, but I also don’t think that those are my driving motivators. I want others to be successful and to build something special in their lives. If I become liked or respected through acting in that way, that’s great. 

Advice to CEO wannabes: Leading a company is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. There are not many moments in the day when I’m not thinking about work. Of course, I have a balance with family and friends, but when you are in this role, it’s important to stay in touch even through weekends, etc. Get ready to give all the credit to your team and own all the failures because everyone works for you.

MANAGEMENT

Describe your management style: I would say that I have a pretty balanced management style but would lean toward people oriented and delegative. I want people to succeed, and to do that, you need to give them the freedom to shoot for the moon or even fail miserably. 

What does your management team look like? I have an executive team that has a mix of people who have come from outside of Toppers and those who have grown up in Toppers. They are all unique, valuable, and driven individuals. They complement and support each other, knowing that each department is equally important to the success of Toppers as a whole.  

How does your management team help you lead? First and foremost, I couldn’t do what I do without them. Each of them helps mold me in a different way and, frankly, will call me out when I don’t rise to the occasion or they feel something is off. They are all lifelong learners, so it’s not surprising to get a book or an article from them on a certain area of the business where we might be challenged. I expect them to manage up—period. I’m not perfect. With their help, I will fail less.

Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books? John Maxwell’s The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential—I give this book out regularly. Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and David Novak’s Taking People with You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen. I’m a fan of all things Brené Brown, and I listen to Lewis Howes’ daily motivation podcasts every morning. 

What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? Watching people succeed and hit their goals. There is nothing more rewarding than that. Of course, I love seeing people eat great pizza too.

OPERATIONS

What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your stores? People are looking for value, whether that be in price or convenience. If you can’t deliver them the product that they paid a premium for, you are going to lose that customer. 

How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system? Covid is definitely over and so is the abundance of stimulus checks and other programs that were happening during that time. As inflation has had its toll on people, we are seeing our customers’ wallets tighten, whether that be with their willingness to try a new pizza or order as often. 

What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? Expecting or hoping? Lol. I expect the pizza segment to be competitive mostly on price. We and other smaller chains have to fight with the big guys, and some of them have established themselves as aggressive low-cost providers. Usually, when wallets tighten, you need to offer a value around price to retain and/or attract new customers. 

Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding additional units? Overall, bullish. Most of our franchisees understand that the more stores we have, the stronger the brand and, frankly, the more we can achieve from economies of scale. 

Are commodity/supply costs any cause for concern in your system? Always, but I’d have to say that it’s far easier today than it was during Covid. We have a great team in purchasing that is consistently looking for ways to renegotiate contracts and provide world-class service on behalf of our franchisees. We know that every dollar that we can save on a commodity is a dollar more that our franchisees can take to the bottom line. 

In what ways are political/global issues impacting the market and your brand? As far as I’m concerned, government regulation will always be something that we have to look out for. But frankly, we will always figure out how to work with what we are required to adhere to, and we will change our business model accordingly.

PERSONAL 

What time do you like to be at your desk? I like to be at my desk by 9 a.m. on a daily basis.

Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? I’m an avid weight lifter. I’ve been doing it regularly since high school. I tend to lift at 6 a.m. on most mornings unless there is a conflict. Then it’s earlier. Wine with lunch? Heck, no. A beer, maybe, if I’m vacationing. 

Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office? Oh, yeah. Specifically, the team that I work with daily, the executive team. We’ve been to sporting events and restaurants and have even done happy hours together. I don’t have a second me. I am what you see, so there is little risk in socializing with my team outside of work. 

Last two books read: Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect by Will Guidara and 10x Is Easier Than 2x: How World-Class Entrepreneurs Achieve More by Doing Less by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy.

What technology do you take on the road? My phone is my go-to, but I also use my laptop. I use Evernote on my laptop, home computer, and phone to stay organized. 

How do you relax/balance life and work? Spending time with family and friends has to be at the front of why life is great in the first place, so I make time for that. I love all things sports from playing to watching. I coach my oldest son’s basketball team. I also grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so video games are a staple of entertainment for me.  

Favorite vacation destination(s): I grew up going to Gulf Shores, Alabama. In my eyes, it’s home away from home. The kids have now been there three times and consider it their favorite destination. I know that this is going to sound cliché, but it’s hard to argue with Disney and Universal. I’ve been spoiled by attending some Disney Institute courses through Toppers, and it’s just a different and one-of-a-kind experience. 

Favorite occasions to send employees notes: I love seeing people do great acts of service, especially in the restaurant. I’ve sent hundreds of notes prior to becoming CEO when I’ve seen servant leadership. I still do that, but I also repost anniversaries for all team members who are employed at the corporate office on LinkedIn and add a little something.

Favorite company product/service: I’m an avid Jordan shoe wearer. I wear them during speaking events, to the office, and during my personal time. They’ve got me hooked. Dollar Shave Club—genius. Taco Bell—sorry, you can’t beat a chalupa. How do I not say Amazon? It’s disrupted the industry but is so dang convenient … and dangerous.

BOTTOM LINE

What are your long-term goals for the company? 100 stores by 2026 and 500 stores in the next 10 years. Build a brand that customers and team members are proud of. 

How has the economy changed your goals for your company? Our brand will hit its goals if we do the right things regardless of the economy. Goals will stay the same, but the decisions will change daily. 

Where can capital be found these days? Of course, there are traditional lenders, like SBA loans, and those are the easiest to get, specifically, if you have the down payment. We are actively creating relationships with nontraditional lenders to drive down our franchisees’ interest rates by leveraging the equity in the business. Money is easy to find. It’s what you pay for it that might make you unhappy. 

How do you measure success? Results over efforts. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love hard workers, but if they can get it done by working less, I’m going to ask how, so we can replicate it.

What has been your greatest success? Personal: Raising two fantastic boys with my wife. I love talking to their teachers and hearing them tell me how much of a pleasure it is to have them in their classes and how polite they are. Work: I told people when I was a delivery driver that I was going to run the company someday. Of course, most of them laughed, but I was serious. So, it’s hard not to say becoming the CEO because I’ve had my eye set on it for a very long time, and more importantly, I believed.

Any regrets? Regrets, no. Things I would have done differently in the business? Of course, but every failure has been a learning lesson. I love my family, my friends, and my co-workers, and I jump out of bed to come to work, so I think life is good. If I wasn’t having fun, I’d do something else—period. 

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? We have officially announced that we are working our way toward a world-class franchise company in how we support our franchisees and how we structure the company to do so as well. We are refranchising a majority of our company stores to get to a 10% ratio and to have the bulk of our efforts focused on our franchisees. I expect to grow and to sign deals with new and existing franchisees because of the work and support that we bring to enhancing their bottom-line profitability. Life is too short to not have a Toppers Pizza near you. Trust me.

Published: May 12th, 2024

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