Who's Who: Tom Potter

July 14, 2002

At 8:30 a.m., Tom Potter faces the first dilemma of the business day.

A reporter from the U.S. is on the phone and digging for information about his 150-store company, Eagle Boys Pizza. In the lobby outside his Brisbane, Australia, office is a pair of bankers waiting to speak with him.

The choice seems easy: Hang up on the reporter who's asking questions about his company's money, and talk to the bankers who likely want to loan him some.

Potter takes an unconventional tack.

"They're just bankers, mate ... they can wait," said Potter, 38. He punctuates the remark with a hearty laugh, followed by a ribald joke about -- not ironically -- bankers.

"You think you think they'd mind that one?" he asks the reporter sarcastically.

The bankers would, but it seems most who know him wouldn't. Close friends say Potter is a rare sort who can spin an off-color tale without offending.

"Others can do that and it's the end the world," said Jerry Roby, a friend of Potter's since the two met in 1994, when both enrolled in the Owner and Principal Manager (OPM) program at Harvard Business School. Roby, who likes to laugh as much as Potter added, "He has that way about him to be vulgar and it doesn't seem to count."

Bernadine Nash, another OPM alum, agreed.

"I had to get used to it," admitted Nash, president and general manager of Radio One in Boston. "But Tom's such a sincere person. If you spend more than 10 seconds with him, you realize what a blessing it is to have someone who really speaks the truth."

Potter credits his transparency and easy candor to a simple, moral upbringing in the country town of Bendigo, in the south Australian state of Victoria.

At 15, he went to work as an apprentice baker, and at 19, left home with little more than a backpack and a strong desire to work in bakeries around the country.

"I always loved working in the kitchen and still do," said Potter. The bakery business is one in which "you turn up at 3 o'clock in the morning, and by 8 or 10 in the morning the whole shop is full of 150 products you made. A lot of guys turn up every day, work in front of computers, and never get to see what they've produced."

At 20, he was hired by flour manufacturer Defiance Milling worked as a field-level problem solver. In 1985, he became a consultant to Dial-a-Dino's, a small Australian pizza delivery operation. Delivery was new to the country, and the small firm struggled to do it well.

A year later when the company hired him to oversee operations, the business was in too much trouble to merit correcting, and Potter started gathering money to start his own pizza chain.

"I did have to beg borrow and steal to get the money to start, but the store had pretty much the best of the best equipment," said Potter, whose mother was an equal partner in Eagle Boys Pizza when it opened in 1987. "But once the first one was up and running, I had plenty of cash flow positive."

The business grew steadily over the next four years, with Eagle Boys stores roosting throughout Australia. By 1991, wannabe franchisees were lining up to get a piece of the action, and according to Potter, "it really spread like wildfire from '92 to 1995." Near the same time, Eagle Boys stores began opening in New Zealand.

In 1994, at age 30, Potter was voted Australia's Young Business Man of the Year, and the total number of Eagle Boys stores neared the century mark. Already a success, Potter still yearned to learn more, and he signed up for Harvard's OPM program. For three solid weeks in three successive years he and 80 other owners of businesses with at least $5 million in gross revenues devoured, dissected and discussed detailed case studies of failed and successful businesses. Their goal was to share best practices and generate new ideas for their own firms.

"Every one of those people was exactly alike: egos as big as a house, all highly motivated and successful," said Roby, owner of IMC Networks, a computer networking business in Foot Hill Ranch, Calif.

Nash recalled how the group quickly realized their commonalities ran deeper than mere drive and determination.

"We were with successful people who suffered the same types of anxieties of running a business," Nash said. "Once you become friends with people who understand that, you end up clinging to them."

People like Potter, she said, who quickly became a class favorite. "He was always so quick, creative and good at thinking out of the box. He constantly challenged us and his enthusiasm was infectious."

Despite being 14 years younger than the median age for that year's OPM group, the class chose Potter to give its commencement speech when its third term ended in 1997.

As expected, the presentation was filled with Potter's wit and self-effacing humility. Remarking about what his classmates would do with their diplomas, he wrote, "I think I'll keep mine low key so institutions like the biggest revenue raisers in our country, such as the tax department and minority groups ... don't know they are dealing with an idiot, but an educated idiot. That will fool 'em."

Funny, but serious

Despite the Aussie's jovial nature, Roby said Potter "is dead serious about business." In 2000, he showed that determination by taking aim at market leader Pizza Hut.

In its advertisements, Eagle Boys called Pizza Hut an American-owned company which sent its profits and royalties to its U.S. owner, then Tricon Global Restaurants. The nationalistic maneuver worked, and Eagle Boys' sales rose 20 percent chain-wide.

Pizza Hut, whose stores were operated by Australian master franchisee Restaurant Brands, accused Eagle Boys of producing misleading advertising and filed suit. Eagle Boys prevailed, and the press coverage pushed sales even higher.

Despite Pizza Hut having 285 units and Domino's having 200, Potter still wants to push his company to number-one in Australia. (ENTER STORY ABOUT INSTANT PIZZA) But he said he'll not do it at the expense of overall growth for his company. He wants to expand the chain next to the capitals of Southeast Asia, most of which can be reached by jet from Brisbane within four to six hours. Such a beneficial location allows him to strike quickly in what he sees as an underdeveloped market for pizza.

"When you consider putting China, India and the other Asian countries together, they make up for almost four-fifths of the world," said Potter. "It is well worth looking at a 20 year plan to enter that market and grow."

Some time for play time

Potter loves business, but he makes plenty of time for leisure. After playing Australian rules football in "sub-minor leagues" for 30 years, he hung up his cleats to become an Australian Football League commissioner. The numerous injuries -- a thrice-broken nose, a shattered shoulder and a knee that required reconstruction -- got old, he said, but that's not what led him to quit.

"The truth is I didn't have the ability -- I just wasn't good enough," he said, laughing again. "So at the grand-old age of 34, I quit playing -- long after I shouldn't have been playing at all."

Potter also is becoming a regular public speaker, hired by companies to share talk on marketing, change management and Eagle Boys' success. Public speaking wasn't easy in the beginning, he said, but the combination of practice and payments for the effort have made it enjoyable.

"It's taken quite a long time to get used to it because speaking is never-wracking as hell," said Potter. "It's good for the profile of the business, it pays well and I get to visit my stores with someone else paying the air fares. And I like that."

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