Being "a slow learner" did little to make school Mark Gold's favorite activity, and as a teen, he knew a college degree simply wasn't in the cards. But while many viewed a sheepskin as a necessary ticket to a prosperous life, Gold saw time as the only obstacle to owning his own successful business.
"A lot of people are not self-critical about what they really can do, and the result is they never really get anywhere," said Gold, 42, co-owner of Pizza Shuttle in Milwaukee. "I was a realist; I knew what I couldn't do, so I stuck with what I could."
The product of a lower-middle-class Detroit family, Gold didn't grow up getting handouts from his parents. If he wanted money, he shoveled the city's amply snowy sidewalks. By the age of 13, Gold got his first job in a pizzeria folding boxes and cleaning up.
"There were child labor laws back (in 1976), too, but we didn't know about them," he said, laughing. "It was simple to get a job: You showed up, asked if you could have one, and if the guy liked you, he hired you. It doesn't work that way today, but it doesn't really matter because kids don't want to work anyway."
Gold recognized that restaurant work fit his personality and his work ethic; he liked the pace, the energy, the hours and his coworkers. Over the next eight years, he worked for Little Caesars and Domino's Pizza, studying how the chains ran their businesses, and dreaming all the while of the day he'd open a pizzeria with best friend Lou Sicinski.
In 1985, as the pair prepared to launch Pizza Shuttle, Gold turned to family for start-up capital. His grandparents took out a second mortgage on their home to free up some cash, and his father loaned him money as well.
Mark Gold, co-owner, Pizza Shuttle
"That's what families do for each other, stick their necks out," he said. "The local hood guy was like that, too. We couldn't afford one, really, but he said we could just make payments. I think they deliberately didn't bill us the first two months. People like that make America great."
As the business got started, Sicinski and Gold came to Trae Artabasy for bookkeeping help. Artabasy said neither was dressed for success, but something about them told her they were destined to succeed.
"They were two very young guys in cutoff shorts," said Artabasy, owner of Master Resume Service in Milwaukee, where Gold and Sicinski started Pizza Shuttle. "But they were very serious about starting a business."
Pizza Shuttle, which Gold called "basically a duplicate of Domino's in the beginning," ran well enough to grow to three units in 17 months. But not long after, Gold and Sicinski realized they'd stretched too far. Their quest to expand quickly brought them a mountain of debt and three mediocre units in need of more focused attention. The decision was made to sell two units and keep one in an eclectic section of downtown Milwaukee. The call was the right one, Artabasy said.
"The culture of that area was perfect for what they were trying to do," she said. "I've seen Mark survive a lot of bumps in this business ... because he really knows what's important: the customer, the food quality and the cleanliness and safety of the facility."
New format fires up the Shuttle
Gold credits Sicinski (who wasn't available for comment) with the decision to broaden Pizza Shuttle's menu beyond pizza in 1992. Drawing on his experience in full-service Italian restaurants, Sicinski brought appetizers, sandwiches, pastas and salads to the table, and business responded favorably.
By 1995, the increased traffic warranted a new location, and when a site directly across the street opened up, Gold and Sicinski bought it and moved their operation. By 2000, Pizza Shuttle's annual sales were on a rocket ride, passing the $3 million mark for the first time. Gold expects 2005 will close out just shy of $5 million.
Though it's a full-service restaurant, 70 percent of Pizza Shuttle's business comes from delivery.
"There are days when the pace is insane," said Gold, whose staff numbers 111 — 100 more than in 1995. "We could easily move to a bigger place, but the location is so good, I wonder what would happen to the business."
After years of working six- and seven-day weeks, Gold has achieved another business goal: a 40-hour work week. He and Sicinski essentially split owner's duties by working every other day. The arrangement means the two cross paths only infrequently, "which might be why we still get along so good."
Getting those normal working hours comes at a price, however, as Pizza Shuttle's three managers are paid well above the industry average, Gold said. To him, time to do what he wants — activities with wife Jackie and daughters Hannah and Jessica — is more important than money.
"I love spending time with my family and traveling, but 10 years ago, I couldn't do either," Gold said. "When we were trying to grow so fast, we had to ask ourselves, 'What are we doing? Is this worth it?' It wasn't."
Gold said he and Sicinski now are problem solvers rather than hands-on operators. If they manage their staff well,
So what's the secret to building a business with nearly $5 million in sales? Mostly patience and determination, Gold said. He knows that if he could start all over again, he wouldn't take 10 years to get to the $1 million mark, but he suspects he'd not have the business he has now or enjoy it as much.
"If you get there without getting your lumps, you're not going to hold it. And Louie and I really value it," he said. "This business exists to serve Louie and I, but we have to serve the customer first. You can't forget that."
* Gold will serve on the President's Panel at the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, slated for Feb. 19-20, 2006, in Columbus, Ohio.