BRISBANE, Australia — "This is what's changed most about the pizza industry," John Kozik says. He pauses for a bite of his lunchtime sandwich before resuming. "Pizza was a treat 20 years ago. Now, it's an expectation, a meal replacement."
Few would know better than Kozik. As an executive with Pizza Hut Australia in 1969, he served on the franchise team that introduced Pizza Hut to the country. Hundreds of restaurants and several concepts later, Kozik sold the franchise to Collins Food in the mid-1980s, and became managing director of Sizzler South Pacific. Just a handful of years later, while in his late 30s, he retired a wealthy man..
Now 60, he is chairman of the board for 150-unit Eagle Boys Pizza. In short, he's seen it all in the fast-food business, and yet it still fascinates him.
I ask if pizza itself has changed, become commoditized, with the growth of chains.
"It has, to some extent. But on the other hand, some who've been innovative and creative with pizza have gone
John Kozik, Chairman, Eagle Boys Pizza
Kozik barely smiles at his own jokes, which makes him all the more funny. But in an instant, the jokes stop, and he's back to the history of pizza franchising.
"I was attracted to Pizza Hut immediately because I saw it as a business with all these little factories everywhere. Everything was created right in the store, and the challenge of making that work interested me."
So did the leaders behind those pioneering products, he adds. "Frank Carney and the Colonel had extreme product pride, and those blokes instilled that same value in us. Their loyalty was to the customer. Their success wasn't based on the customer's loyalty to them."
Those values began to fade when KFC was sold to Heublein and Pizza Hut to PepsiCo, he says. The Carneys and the Colonel were "real operators," and their gut feel for customer preferences eventually took a backseat to the classroom notions of "better educated" men.
"You know the type: blokes who've got more degrees than a thermometer telling you how much they know about a business somebody else built," he says. "They can write the best operations manuals God ever saw, but they hardly know what to do when the phone starts ringing."
By all accounts, Kozik was just the opposite: a gifted operator with an intuitive understanding of the numbers game. As director of operations, he received daily operations reports by phone and recorded them by hand. In the '70s, systems that polled pizza shop computers remotely and spit out perfect reports didn't exist. And yet, he knew everything known now by a modern operator overseeing a growing chain of restaurants.
"I could look at the numbers and know what was going on in Perth four hours (flight time) away," he says. "I could look at the labor and know if the night shift was prepping for the day shift. I could tell why waste was high without ever being there. ... But I never even looked at those numbers unless we'd missed our overall target."
Tom Potter, founder and managing director of Eagle Boys Pizza, calls Kozik "a machine when it comes to understanding this business. He's the kind of guy who can walk into a restaurant, and the numbers start running in his head. He'll step in and start thinking, 'Hmm, 150 seats, should be doing about this many covers a day for this much per head,' and then say, 'This guy can't be making any money!' "
At a point in his life when some of his peers are pushing up daisies, Kozik is as fresh as one. His bright eyes and quick mind belie his age, and Potter says he has more energy than men 30 years his junior. His work on the boards of four companies (including Eagle Boys) makes his retirement dubious and yields this remark: "You've got to do something with your time, don't you mate?"
Potter says Kozik spends much of that effort helping him move Eagle Boys forward, and credits him with the idea of adding drive-thrus to the chain's stores. He says Kozik also keeps him grounded in his thinking.
"He'll listen to what I think is a great idea, and then he'll tell me to take some time to think about it more, and to write down why I think it will work or why it won't," Potter says. "It forces me to look at things more carefully, not to be so impulsive."
Like the time Potter had the chance to buy nine wood-fired pizza restaurants for a song.
Australia's first Pizza Hut, circa 1970. John Kozik helped run the store.
Unimpressed with himself
As Kozik gallops through the history of Aussie fast food, he stops abruptly and asks, "I hope I'm not boring you with all this." Not fascinated with his own success story, he turns the conversation to his lunchtime interrogator — who turns it back to him. The conversation shifts to his work with the Bonanza Steakhouse chain, and his pioneering efforts on its salad bar.
"I watched how much food people wasted, and that bothered me. So I tried using smaller plates," he says. "We saved several percent right there, and the customer never knew a thing."
Kozik is similarly frugal in his own life. The son of a farmer who survived the concentration camps of World War II, he came from little. Potter jokes that his mentor "is so tight," but he admits "we are similar in ways."
Still, he can't resist telling a story about Kozik's legendary grip on his wallet.
"Each year (Eagle Boys has) a national conference, and we have a black tie dinner. He, as chairman, is always there, but he does not like the limelight or getting involved in the affairs of the night.
"So I get to the cocktail function beforehand, and there he is in a beautiful black tux — with grungy old loafers which looked like they had seen plenty of hard days sailing and nights on the rum.
"I looked down and said, 'Where ... are your shoes?'
"And he says, 'Mate I drove down here to the Gold Coast and I forgot my black shoes.'
"I said, 'Why didn't you just go out and buy another pair?'
"And he said, 'Bull %$#&. ... No one will notice!"