Asa part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Francesco Marra.
Francesco Marra is the Co-Founder and CEO of Marra Forni, The Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center, and Oro Catering. America’s fastest-growing brick-oven manufacturer, Marra Forni, is currently present in 5 continents and in 23 countries worldwide and produces more than 400 ovens per year. Francesco was born and raised in Naples, Italy and now resides in Maryland where his businesses are based.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
After emigrating to the U.S. in 1995, my brothers and I immediately began working in the food industry. I was a professional chef who ran the kitchens of some of DC’s most prominent Italian restaurants. When we first began developing an equipment line, we asked many Italian companies to create ovens to spec for them, but the overseas suppliers were unwilling to make any changes in their products. It was out of this need to create a product that would help our clients that Marra Forni was born. Fortunately, Neapolitan-style pizza was also becoming increasingly popular — and the entire plan came together perfectly.
With both my culinary knowledge and back-of-the-house experience, I was able to identify operational challenges and provide critical input, and to witness first-hand the type of ovens that would work best not only in various types of spaces but also for different types of business as well. My brother, Enzo Marra, COO and Co-Founder, came from a technical and electronic background, and he took it upon himself to learn how to design, manufacture and produce the ovens more efficiently by working with experienced engineers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As an entrepreneur, I have led several different companies in the last 25 years. I have the entrepreneurial spirit, and I take it from one company to another. There are many stories that I could share, but I think that the most evident theme in my career is that you don’t need to know everything in advance in order to succeed. When we started Marra Forni, for example, we saw the opportunity, but we didn’t know what to expect. As immigrants who came here with nothing, we figured out how to make our company successful. We had no other choice but to succeed, so we sacrificed a great deal. We learned everything bit by bit, and built ourselves from the ground up, just the way we build our ovens.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we were learning the brick oven business, we didn’t realize the importance of the aesthetics of the ovens. The customers noticed that one of our domes wasn’t uniform, and pointed it out to us. In the beginning, we were only concerned with the performance and the durability of the ovens. Now, I laugh because we realize that whatever we create has to look perfect not only to the customers but also to us. Our last name is imprinted on every oven, it is the legacy of our family. Once it was pointed out to us, we realized that it could never happen again, and everything we put out had to meet the highest standards, not only in terms of quality, performance, and technology but in looks as well. Today, one of the most distinguishing features of our ovens is their sleek and stylish design.
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 about that?
I am very grateful to my mother and my maternal grandfather who gave us the tools that we needed to be successful. I think it’s incorrect to use the term “self-taught” — we need to show gratitude to everyone in our life — whether it is positive or negative. My mother raised us to do the best we can and to be the best we can be. She is the best role model anyone could ask for. So while we didn’t learn the nuts and bolts of our specific business from anyone, in particular, we did learn resilience, ingenuity, diligence, pride, and the best work ethic possible from my mother and grandfather whom I am forever indebted.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
In our cases, we have experienced discrimination as immigrants, because we came to the United States without knowing the language or the culture. Not too long after arriving, we learned about the nation’s struggles with racial inequality. I choose my employees based on their qualifications alone, and we embrace all cultures and ethnic backgrounds here. Fortunately, we live in an area that is very diverse ethnically, and being able to collaborate with people from various cultures strengthens our team. It is inconceivable to me that there are still divisions among color and race in the world. At one point will we see us all as part of the human race? We have a workplace culture of respect and inclusion, and
what matters the most to me, is that we all fulfill our roles to the best of our abilities, just as a successful family does.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. Make sure that everyone is valued, treated with importance, respected, and heard. I grew up in a culture in which successful businesses did well because they fostered a familial typesetting in the workplace. In a functioning family, everyone has their role and is treated well and equally, and that is how I believe we should treat each other in the workplace.
2. Whether you are cleaning the floors or leading a department, everyone deserves a place to grow regardless of their ethnicity. These principles should be not only communicated and enforced by the leaders but also mentored and embraced by everyone else in our company.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I don’t think most people understand how much responsibility we have. I feel responsible not only for the well-being of the company but also for the well-being of my employees. I always act on behalf of my employees as well as the interests of our company. You have to think about how your actions affect finances, your operation, the mission, the long-term plan and the short-term plan, and the employees.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t know what to expect, because I was doing something that I never did before, but I had no idea of how difficult and all-encompassing it would be. After being a business owner for 25 years, I have the confidence, and I am conscious of the fact that I am able to do that, and I believe that I do the best I can and to the best of my ability. I don’t think that even the employees themselves understand how difficult it is to understand, and they judge you, and can even gossip. You have to be able to stay on course and be firm. It involves a lot of trust on both parts.
My job is different because you learn with experience. I call myself the Chief Everything Officer. We actually own three businesses. I try to surround myself with other executives in other roles because I believe that helps me to do my job better. I learned that I must view each department as a business. Accounting, Finance, HR, Marketing, Sales, Manufacturing, Purchasing, are each like different businesses. In order to succeed, you need to identify, examine, and understand where the deficiencies are, and you need to make a plan. It is only then that you can be successful. Today, we are an 8-figure company in terms of earnings, and I hope to make us a 9-figure company soon. As we continue to grow, I am sure that there are many more things that I will need to learn, but that is part of the challenge of being an effective CEO.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t think everyone should be a CEO. Not everyone can be an executive. The amount of sacrifice that you need to be willing to make to be a successful executive is immeasurable. You need discipline, commitment, perseverance, and dedication. I believe that purpose is the key. As far as business is concerned you need to have the 5 P’s.
Without these traits, it will be very difficult to achieve your goals.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
To other business leaders, I would say that in order to have a great culture, you have to have emotional intelligence, you have to show gratitude, and you can’t take anything for granted. You have to reward your own people. We treat our employees as family. I believe that if you take care of your family you will have a successful organization.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have used my success to make the world a better place by creating Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center in order to help people who would like to aspire to be restaurateurs but don’t have the training to do so. When we created Pizza University, it was out of a desire to make sure that other restaurateurs didn’t have the difficulty that we had when we were running our previous businesses. It also gives back to the society by helping other businesses. We provide knowledge, education, and experience for success.
The company often donates its ovens to various community events that need them. The most memorable of these events is the NY Food & Wine Festival which benefited No Kid Hungry. We also served pizzas for our US Veterans at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center. Known as the “Ferraris of the pizza oven world,” Marra Forni ovens can be spotted everywhere from Whole Foods to Food Network shows, hospitals, military bases, and the world’s foremost food and pizza festivals. We participate in as many benefit events as possible each year.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. A business without a plan is a plan without a business. –Plan the work and work the plan- you really need a business plan when you want to start a business.
2. To have a strong organization you need 5 p’s — process, people, passion, procedures, and purpose.
3. Don’t make any assumptions or speculations — fact-check everything, because there are always two stories in every conversation with 2 different points of view. Speculation is the lowest grade of education.
4. Believe in yourself and don’t let obstacles define you, because there will be many.
5. Don’t be afraid to change. We have learned so many things for example, through Covid, that you have to pivot and change and so we need to adapt ourselves in order to be successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are so many poor people in the world. Food security, if contributed to by everyone with means to help, could help to ensure nourishment for all. I would like the initiative to be truly global and to help kids and people who have no ability to change their status.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is one thing that you can’t buy in life, and it’s time, so don’t waste it. I also always tell myself to get out of my comfort zone, and push myself to the limit.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The person I would like to have breakfast with is Elon Musk. I love his story and how he came here from South Africa with nothing and became one of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs. What inspires me is not the fact that he became one of the wealthiest people in the world, but rather the various companies he created in the last 20 years. I love his enthusiasm, determination, and commitment to create a solution to a major global issue even when it meant risking everything he worked so hard to create. He stayed on course and never let any obstacles define his mission.