As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Stewart.
Brandon Stewart is a Birmingham-based Jimmy John’s franchisee and founder, president, and CEO of Starboard Investments. Via Starboard Investments, Brandon owns 13 Jimmy John’s locations across the state of Alabama, and through his position as president and COO at Kensington Hill Partners, he is also a partner, owner, and operator to an additional 45 locations in Georgia, and Ohio.
Brandon spent most of his childhood just outside of Atlanta and graduated from the University of Georgia in 2006 with a degree in finance. Upon graduation, Brandon relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, to accept a position as an Investment Banking Analyst for Edgeview Partners and later moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to join the team at Weston Presidio, a private equity investor with over $3 billion under management, as an Associate. Weston Presidio was an investor in the Jimmy John’s brand which ultimately sparked Brandon’s interest in becoming a franchisee. Following this interest, Brandon and his family moved to Birmingham, AL, where he opened his first Jimmy John’s location in 2011. Since the first opening, Brandon has worked to grow the brand’s presence in the community and was elected as one of three franchisees to join Jimmy John’s Franchisee Advisory Council for the 2018–2020 term. Through his role at Jimmy John’s, Brandon values having the opportunity to make a positive impact on his community and his employees.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, Brandon founded Pay It Forward Alabama, an organization that serves as a conduit for raising funds to give to local charitable organizations in need. Initially, the organization launched as an initiative in partnership with local social and philanthropic organizations to raise money to provide meals for healthcare workers in Alabama communities, raising more than $10,000. Since then, the organization was also able to raise more than $4,000 for the Birmingham Zoo, which struggled to meet its financial needs because of COVID-19 closures. Stewart also hosted a fundraiser by partnering with the Phoenix Club of Birmingham to raise funds for Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Alabama, raising over $5,000 which directly assisted the organization in providing constructive programming and resources to disadvantaged youth of central Alabama.
Thank you so much for joining us! What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I was working at a private equity firm at the time and had the opportunity to work directly with some of the CEOs and CFOs of our portfolio companies. I got a first-hand look at the operating processes, and what it meant to have a hand in the outcome of a company, which led me to decide to operate a business as opposed to just investing in one. It’s been really fun to learn about the business from a totally different perspective.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I opened my first Jimmy John’s franchise location, I did so without raising capital and I needed to take on the role of General Manager in order to learn the ins-and-outs of the business and ensure it would be sustainable. Aside from it being extremely time consuming, it also made it impossible to grow the business. I would get into the store at 6am every morning to begin cutting ingredients and baking bread and stay well after closing, which prevented me from having time to attend business meetings, look at new restaurant locations and generally have the flexibility to wear different hats that would allow us to grow. It’s tough for me to see any mistake as funny, but in this case, I was literally brought to tears every morning. Slicing onions is just the worst.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I wanted to create a business that enabled me to build cash flow in order to get to a point where I could use that money to invest in other things. In doing so, you present yourself with so many opportunities for growth. Not only have I been able to launch my own franchise, but I’ve also had the opportunity to create a non-profit, Pay it Forward Alabama, to serve my local community, which has been extremely rewarding.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
First and foremost, I lead by example. My team won’t listen to me unless I set a precedent of following through. I also like to give permission to my employees to “be good,” even if it is at the expense of the Company. Whether that’s to customers, team members or within the community, I find it important to spread “the good”.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’ve learned that you can’t grow a business if your sole focus is on the problems that arise. While problems and challenges will inevitably occur, I’ve tried to approach it from a different mindset, where I focus on our growth and the future and take our obstacles in stride.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
2015 was an extremely challenging year. As I expanded my business, my cashflow dried up and I inevitably cannibalized some of my sales. No matter how hard I worked, it was extremely challenging to keep the business afloat, but my family was what kept me going. The risk of letting them down helped me push forward.
How are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things are going well! I now understand my strengths and weaknesses and how to fulfill those within my organization. COVID-19 presented unprecedented challenges but our team, and communication efforts, were incredibly strong as we continued to focus on the future and our overall goals.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- It can be very challenging to coach employees to be customer focused.
- The people are truly the most important part of our business.
- It can be hard to grow and easy to lose business but make sure you’re well capitalized.
- Understand that failure happens, no matter how good you think you are and how hard you prepare to prevent it.
- If you’re not interested in building up others, especially your employees, you have no business in working with minimum wage employees.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I owe my growth and success to my wife. She’s business-minded, extremely smart and when I was just starting my franchise with limited resources and capital, she was such a great sounding board for all of my ideas and challenges. Of course, the reason I am grateful is because she didn’t really have a choice but was always helpful. She’s been very positive and patient which was so helpful when I was just beginning my business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’ve recently come across a concept called Effective Altruism, which asks the simple question “how can we use our resources to help others the most?”. I’ve learned a lot and have started to use this philosophy to try to assess where my time and money serve the greatest impact in my community and is the ultimate goal and focus when working on Pay it Forward Alabama and it’s future.