In his role as president of pizzeria chain Stevi B's, Matthew Loney is occasionally required to offer advice to restaurant owners a bit older than he.
Loney, 31, was appointed president of the 30-unit buffet concept in January. While his youth may have raised a few eyebrows with the old-timers at the fledgling chain, he is winning the confidence of the operators he works with.
"Matthew is young enough to be my son," said Carol Lucker, who along with her husband operates two Stevi B's locations in Georgia. Lucker also is the sister of founders Robert Stoll Jr. and Richard Stoll.
"When I first met him I asked myself how he could be good for Stevi B's," she said. "A week or two later I was singing his praises. He has so much experience and enthusiasm and is so well connected with other folks in the industry. I love where Stevi B's is going."
The Stoll brothers founded Stevi B's Pizza Restaurants in 1996, growing it to more than 25 units. Last year, the brothers sold the concept to investment firm Argonne Capital Group, the world's largest IHOP franchisee.
Prior to joining Stevi B's, Loney served as vice president and general counsel for Mellow Mushroom, an Atlanta-based pizza chain with more than 90 units. He also worked as an attorney at the Atlanta-based firm of Alston & Bird, serving clients operating in the franchise industry.
Some of the changes Loney has brought about include a revamping of the company's marketing and operations manuals and an increased focus on signing deals with multiunit operators. The company also is putting an emphasis on the quality of its products rather than price in its marketing efforts.
Pizza Marketplace spoke with Loney about his first few months with Stevi B's.
What changes have you instituted since taking over at Stevi B's?
Stevi B's is a great system, but it was exactly what you would expect to find when you buy a system from the founders who knew how to run a restaurant, but were relatively new to how to run a franchise. When I came here the relationship between franchisor and franchisee was not what it should be. I don't think it was the founders' fault, they just didn't understand how that relationship should really work.
We have gone through a complete rebranding. We have set up a purchasing association which has really helped our franchisees, and saved about a half-million dollars annually for the system. We have set up a formal franchise advisory council and for the first time we ran a systemwide marketing campaign.
How do you develop relationships with the franchisees?
One of the things I was told that I have carried with me a long time is that you treat every single franchisee's investment as if it were your own. When you do that, and you do it honestly, they can respect the decisions you make that may not benefit them, but benefit a number of other stores in the system.
Once a month, everyone in our corporate office randomly picks a store out of a hat, and we go work a Friday night at one of the franchisees' stores. It's not sitting in the back hanging out and shooting the (breeze), it is bussing tables, it is making pizza and it is getting out there and letting them know that, hey, we understand this isn't easy.
The restaurant business is tough. Until I had done that I had forgotten what it felt like to stand for four hours in the middle of a dead-on rush with a line out the door, running pizzas just as fast as you can.
How is the economy affecting the company?
We are selling franchises, which is the good news, but we are probably not selling them at quite the pace we would be if the economy was booming. We're taking the time when franchise sales are slow to get our procedures and systems in place. It is a nice time to be able to catch your breath and get these things done.
You're fairly young. What advantages does that offer?
It's like being the kid who walks around and always asks why. Where people have always done it one way, you can say, "Why do we do it that way?"
Because of my age, I think I go 100 miles an hour knowing I am going to make mistakes. But if I'm going to make them, I'm going to make them going 100 miles an hour, and I will go back and we will figure it out.
There is some impatience that comes with youth and it can be a good thing sometimes because you tend to move so quickly. It can be a thorn in your side at other times. Certainly, I would have liked to have seen things take hold faster than they have in the last five months. I think everyone should jump on board and we should be part of a big bandwagon.
Do you ever encounter resistance when working with an older operator?
I do. One thing I do, though, is surround myself with people who know a whole hell of a lot more about restaurant operations and marketing than I do. Typically, they are older than me, and I think that helps.
A lot of it goes toward how you handle that relationship between the franchisor and the franchisee. The guys who got us to this point are mom-and-pops who didn't feel like working for anybody and put everything they had on the line to make this system work.
I have to carefully select who I want to work with. I could care less about their age, but they need to care less about mine. Unfortunately, it is something I have to be mindful of because it is certainly there.
Have you ever ignored someone's advice and it worked out well?
Sure, when I took this job. I had a lot of people telling me that I would have the opportunity to go to a big system and run it someday, but that I needed to put in my time as a vice president.
The benefits that running a small system have given me for the past five months, you couldn't ever get going to work for a big system, because they have figured all of this stuff out. You never have to ask why because they have had three generations of people before you ask why.
Have you ever ignored someone's advice and it worked out badly?
Yes, I have struggled in the HR realm sometimes. Someone told me once that if a person is not going to work out it is best to get rid of them and move on. There have been some times where people have told me someone wasn't going to work out and I've held on, thinking they just needed to get comfortable in the position. Generally speaking, if your gut tells you it isn't working, that doesn't change.
Right now it's tough, though. I've come in and we've had to replace a lot of the staff. The one thing I wasn't prepared for is that today people just can't go find another job.
Ever desire to get back to the law office?
No, I have spent enough days counting my life in six minute increments. As an attorney, most of the time the clients come to you. They've wrapped up the business terms, and it is your job to put them on paper and make sure that it correctly summarizes their business deal. Putting together that business deal, that is the fun part.