Unleashed Success: Growing 6 brands by leaps and bounds
Name: Michael O. Browning, Jr.
Title: Founder & CEO
Company: Unleashed Brands
Units: 1,300 across 6 brands
Years in franchising: 11
Years in current position: 11
When we profiled Michael Browning in 2019, he was "flying high" as the CEO of Urban Air Adventure Park, a company he founded in 2011. A lot has happened since then.
In the summer of 2021, Browning launched Unleashed Brands with the idea of consolidating and growing the best youth enrichment brands while helping families find quality programs for their kids. He went looking for other brands that would fit within three areas: learn, play, and grow. Within 2 years, Unleashed Brands has grown to six brands: Urban Air Adventure Park, Snapology, Premier Martial Arts, The Little Gym, Class 101, and XP League. Today the company has 1,300 locations open and in development, serving more than 25 million kids.
"I inspect what I expect, and I hold people accountable," he says. "I am passionate and want passionate people around me. I love my job. I love to work. And I love to have fun with my team."
Unleashed Brands has made some big moves, and there are more to come, he says. The company plans to hire additional support staff and increase investments in its sales and e-commerce systems, CRM system, data analytics, and training tools and processes.
Those investments will be important. Browning says, "As an acquisition platform, we will always be on the lookout for world-class youth enrichment concepts we can add so that we can provide an even more complete experience for parents and for kids from birth until they become adults."
What is your role as CEO? I focus on casting vision, raising capital, and on hiring, retaining, and leading people. On the vision side, I need to know where the company is today and where it has the potential to go. To take the company on the vision's journey, I need to ensure it has the resources (capital) to make investments in systems, technology, marketing, and, most importantly, people. On the people side, I get the pleasure of leading the best franchising youth enrichment, hospitality, and entertainment team in the world!
How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? The Covid-19 pandemic increased my conviction about our mission and vision. I knew how important experiences were to the families we were serving before Covid-19, but going through the lockdowns, I realized the experiences and enrichment activities we offer at Unleashed Brands could change the world. The human race was locked in their homes binge-watching Netflix, ordering stuff off Amazon, and having their groceries and meals delivered. Everything was digital and at our fingertips, yet we were not happy and not fulfilled. The reason is that we as a human race were designed to be in relationships and experience things together. It was at this moment it became clear that coming out of the Covid-19 lockdown Unleashed Brands had the opportunity to change the world by offering experiences that help the next generation of leaders learn, play, and grow.
Describe your leadership style. My hope is that when my team looks back, they will say that I was one of the hardest leaders they've ever worked for because I pushed them to strive to be great. I pushed them to try new things, to fail, and to disrupt the status quo. I like to set measurable goals and hit them in the time frame we set out. I never want to be the smartest guy in the room. My philosophy on my entrepreneurial journey has been to hire subject matter experts smarter than I am in every area of the business and then focus on casting the vision, ensuring that we have the capital and resources to empower them to win. My team and I are in constant pursuit of perfection we will never achieve. This means the journey will never end, and we get to wake up every day with something to work on.
What has inspired your leadership style? My father was an entrepreneur who worked hard, loved hard, and played hard. I credit a lot of my style to him.
What is your biggest leadership challenge? Not trying to solve everything and not sweating the small things. I care so much about my team, our organization, our franchisees, and our customers that sometimes I am quick to jump into action when I should have let things play out a little longer. Some situations need to marinate. Sometimes you need to allow for time to give you a large enough sample set of data so you can make a statistically significant decision.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to frontline employees? This is always a challenge with more than 20,000 frontline employees through our franchise locations, but we have found success in using our learning management system to hear directly from me on our why and our vision. I personally attend every Launch Day, our version of discovery day, as well as every new franchisee training and every general manager and management training that we host at our home office.
How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? I've seen two variations of a CMO. The first is a very brand-oriented CMO who can put together a great brand house, look, feel, and voice. The second is a very data-oriented CMO who knows their metrics like the back of their hand. Both can be successful on their own, but if you can help each learn how to implement traits of the other, they can become exponentially successful. Luckily, I have that combination with Jessica Correa, our CMO.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ? I am a firm believer in continual learning and education, but I do not have an MBA. When I am hiring for most roles, I am looking for experience. However, there are roles where having an MBA is helpful, including data science, financial planning, analysis, and accounting.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? It depends on what tough decision it is. For most decisions, I seek the counsel of my board of directors, executive team, or mentors. For tough decisions around vision or how to reorganize the company and team to achieve the vision, I take those alone. Then I will get feedback from my board of directors, executive team, or mentors.
Do you want to be liked or respected? I want to be respected because of how I carry myself, treat my team, and operate my business with integrity. Respect is earned. Respect does not come from the title you have, but from how you treat people and the impact you make on them. Sometimes, I know people will not like the tough decisions I have to make, but I want them to respect those decisions because they respect me and know that I did what I believed was the best thing for the company.
Advice to CEO wannabes. The role of a CEO is really a service role. Your job is to empower those around you to grow, excel, and win. If you can find a way to do this in whatever role you are currently in today, your chances of being awarded the steering wheel are much higher. If you find yourself in the driver's seat, always remember that being a CEO is a privilege you should not take for granted. Your team members are dedicating a good portion of their life to carrying out your company's vision and mission, and that is an honor. Serve your team well. Help them grow and ensure they always feel valued and know the difference their work makes in the world.
Describe your management style: On a day-to-day basis, I can be a tiebreaker, a coach, or a cheerleader. When you have an amazing and diverse team around the table empowered to share their opinions and take risks, sometimes there is not a consensus around an issue. In this moment, I break the tie. On other days, I get to be a coach and cheerleader where I break down wins and losses. We celebrate our wins, and we learn from our losses so that we are always getting better.
What does your management team look like? My management team is a diverse group of eight world-class executives with extensive experience in their areas of expertise. Each is a great leader and very passionate about building systems, processes, and teams that simplify operations for franchisees so they can focus on improving the lives of kids through their fun, engaging, and inspiring experiences.
How does your management team help you lead? The team is comfortable sharing opinions and wisdom about decisions the company needs to make. They are open and honest with me when they think I am wrong or could have done something differently to achieve a better outcome. They respect that we are not all always going to agree on how to handle a particular topic, but once I set the path we all commit to it.
Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books? The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz; Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh; and Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.
What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"? When I receive videos or letters from families whose lives have been affected by our franchisees and the businesses we support.
What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your locations? Our customer is the Millennial mom and dad. Before the Covid pandemic, our customer was already 72% more likely to spend their money on experiences over things. When Covid hit and our customers were forced to stay in their homes anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, they tried to fill the experiential void by purchasing things on Amazon, streaming movies on Netflix, and ordering DoorDash. What our customers realized was that even though these things were at their fingertips and could be delivered to them in their homes, what they longed for were experiences and relationships. When these customers were allowed to return to their everyday lives outside of the home post-Covid, they were more likely than ever before to spend their money on experiences and not things.
Unleashed Brands provides these customers and their most important asset--their kids--experiences that are more than just experiences. These experiences affect the life of their kid by helping them learn the basics of science, technology, engineering, and math. Kids identify and grow in their God-given skills and hobbies. They escape the screen and the hardships of the everyday world, and they connect with other kids offline through play. This is tremendously valuable to our customers. This is being proven statistically with Urban Air's same-store sales up 19.96% year to date over 2022. The Little Gym is the same with store sales up 20.91% year to date over 2022.
What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? We are very excited for what's ahead. We have plans to award more than 200 new franchise licenses and open more than 100 new franchise businesses in the next 12 months. Outside of franchise development, our primary focus will be growing the systems, processes, and teams that simplify operations for franchisees so they can focus on delivering the best customer experience possible.
Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding additional units? Bullish! Both franchisees and customers like our model because it works. More than 57% of our franchisees own multiple locations, and 6% of them own multiple brands in the platform. Furthermore, we have proven that customers who visit one brand within our platform are now interested in 2.36 of our other brands after we make the introduction.
What time do you like to be at your desk? I'm an odd duck. So don't judge. My day starts the night before when I review my calendar for the next day and ensure I'm prepared for all my meetings. I typically go to bed before 9 and wake up around 5:30. I grab a coffee and begin by reading the business news to see what's happening, specifically around the public market, inflation, the consumer confidence index, global news around supply chain, and franchising. I then check emails and do last-minute prep for my day. I try to complete this by 6:30 so that when my kids get up I can cook them breakfast and help them get ready for school. I take my kids to school at 7:30 and head straight to the gym. I jump on the bike, Stairmaster, or treadmill and begin my first one-on-one, which starts at 7:45 and happens every 15 minutes until 8:45. I sit in the dry sauna, get dressed, and from 9:15 to 9:30 drive to the office while taking another call.
The minute I walk through the door of the office, the whirlwind begins. My day is typically filled with meetings, phone calls, and Zooms, but I schedule in time for checking emails. I have strategic times blocked on my calendar when I walk around the office and interact with the team. I believe some of the most fruitful conversations come around the water cooler or over a game of Ping-Pong. I end my day based on the sports I'm coaching for my kids and their practices.
I try to achieve synergy in my work life and home life and promote it in my teams. I do not believe in work life/home life "balance" because if you try to balance things for too long you are bound to drop the ball on one because none of us is perfect.
Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? I exercise every day in the morning. Not wine... but maybe a margarita on a patio somewhere on a Friday with the team!
Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office? Absolutely. We work hard and play hard together. We are a team both on and off the field. We support each other's families and do life together, although we also know we all need some space sometimes.
Last two books read: Accelerate by John P. Kotter, and What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter.
What technology do you take on the road? Phone, laptop, AirPods.
Favorite vacation destinations: Costa Rica and Santa Barbara, California.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes: After they have achieved something hard that they thought they couldn't do. After I know they have fought hard and had a rough week.
Favorite company product/service: I am a huge fan of disruptors like Apple and Tesla.
What are your long-term goals for the company? I'd like to take the company public someday. I think it would be a business bucket list item to ring the bell.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company? It has not changed the goals.
Where can capital be found these days? For businesses that are growing, have a great service and/or product offering, and are led by a great team, there is a lot of capital available. Private equity firms are well-capitalized and ready to deploy it. Banks still need to lend although covenants are tighter and interest rates are higher. If you are a franchisor generating high free-cash flow, you are asset light, are royalty sufficient, and have a lot of white space to grow, you should have a lot of capital optionality.
How do you measure success? For me it's not about the financial success although I am committed to delivering great value to my shareholders and franchisees, it's about our why. The money and stats are all great, but these are really just the scoreboard that tells us how well we are doing at accomplishing our mission. I want my legacy to be about the skills and life lessons we have taught the next generation. It's about the special memories we have made, the social engagement we have fostered, and the relationships we have built for the next generation.
What has been your greatest success? The book The Hard Things About Hard Things talks about being a peacetime CEO and wartime CEO. Peacetime is fairly easy because everything is going right. But in wartime, you are fighting to survive. Protecting our team and franchisees during Covid is thus far my greatest success. We had zero Urban Air Adventure Parks close because of Covid-19. We also launched Unleashed Brands and bought five world-class companies.
Any regrets? No regrets. I believe everything happens for a reason, so I have a lot of lessons learned. I've learned to listen more, trust my team more, and not sweat the small stuff.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? Industry-leading performance by a group of passionate people who are going to have a ton of fun doing it!
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