Jason Westhoff of Cousins Subs

    We Spoke to Jason Westhoff of Cousins Subs on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Westhoff.

    Jason Westhoff joined Cousins Subs in 2012 as Chief Financial Officer, responsible for accounting and finance with a heavy involvement in defining and developing technology strategies into executable and measurable results. His focus was on Cousins Subs’ growth strategy through organic and inorganic channels and developing systems to achieve greater profitability. He also oversaw the implementation of a new point-of-sale system in all restaurants. As a result of Westhoff’s proven leadership and expertise, he assumed the role of President in 2019. In addition to executing the CEO’s vision for the brand and making the day-to-day business decisions, his core responsibilities are to develop systems, build efficiencies, and lead teams to execute core objectives.

    As a former CFO for a large multi-unit franchise partner of Applebee’s and Pizza Hut, Westhoff brings more than 10 years of prior franchising experience to Cousins Subs. He also has more than 25 years of financial and business experience from his time working in financial services, home improvement services, manufacturing, recruiting, and software development. He holds a bachelor’s degree in management from Luther College, an MBA from Northern Illinois University, and he’s completed an executive M&A program through the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is a recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s CFO of the Year award.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    I am currently the President of Cousins Subs. In this role I am responsible for executing our company CEO’s vision for the brand and making the day-to-day business decisions, which includes developing systems, building efficiencies and leading teams to execute our business objectives. After joining Cousins in 2013 as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) I was promoted to President in 2019. Prior to my career at Cousins Subs, I served as the CFO for one of Wisconsin’s largest restaurant franchises. I have more than 20 years of finance and business experience in all facets from recruiting to textiles and computer manufacturing.

    I’d have to say my most interesting career stop was during the ‘.com’ era when I set up and closed down the same business after funding ran out. I basically learned the entire business lifecycle in one year.

    I received my bachelor’s degree in management from Luther College, an MBA from Northern Illinois University and completed an executive M&A program through the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

    Right out of college I had my sites set on being a financial planner or stock broker. After earning my series 7 license, I tried to build a practice. I quickly found out people don’t invest with people who have little experience. I needed to pay the rent, so I took a temporary job as an accountant. Almost 15 years later, here I am. I am so appreciative for my career journey and boy has it taught me the value of hard work and determination.

    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?

    My first professional job was at a university in its Animal Science Department. Since I was a temp, I didn’t interview with my manager or see the facilities in advance. I also didn’t know what Animal Science was, so I showed up on my first day wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase. I should add this was in the middle of July. To my surprise, the building had no air conditioning and I was situated in the middle of the university’s farm. All of my colleagues were wearing shorts and t-shirts. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I am still connected with one of my coworkers from that job and he still pokes fun at me for ‘looking successful’ even though I wasn’t. Needless to say, I learned rather quickly to inquire about the dress code prior to my first day at a new job.

    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?

    You know, I’m really lucky and worked with a couple of people who shaped who I am as a business professional today. I previously worked for a company that was bringing on a new CFO to take the company public. I was relatively new to my role at that company, but saw there was an immediate culture fit between the CFO and myself. I was right. He quickly promoted me and spent a countless amount of time grooming me in account, business and life. After the IPO, the company was sold.

    As a result, he quickly promoted me and spent a countless amount of time grooming me in accounting, business and life. After the IPO, the company was sold and he left for a new company. Luckily for me, I was his first hire at the new job. The best thing he ever told me was that based on my work ethic, personality and performance, I’ll never have to worry about being fired. I never thought about it until later in my career, but that certainly fueled my self-confidence for a successful future.

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    Our story began in 1972 when two Cousins — Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard — set out to bring their favorite style of sub sandwich from the East Coast to their new hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Staying true to our founders’ legacy of ‘Better Bread. Better Subs.” we continue to Believe in Better — both in the quality of food we serve and in the communities we support. As a family-owned company, it’s important that we respect our roots and create positive change for families without our store walls and our communities. We view every opportunity as a chance to be Better at Heart and treat each obstacle as a chance to grow and better serve our guests and communities.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    I am not sure if being the CFO of two restaurant concepts during the 2008 recession or leading a brand through the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic would be the most challenging time of my career. During instances, I had to operate in a world of unknowns. However, I would say the first challenging time really prepared for the second. One key thing I learned during the 2008 recession is that everyone’s eyes are on the leadership team, especially the CEO, President and CFO. Leading with confidence and commitment — even when you might be concerned yourself — breeds comfort for your teams and gives them the peace of mind they need to do their jobs well. It’s important to be planful by devising a strategy that can quickly and efficiently be implemented by a strong team that can execute at a moment’s notice.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    Ha! Only now that I turned 50 in the middle of a pandemic have I considered giving up. I am extremely motived by the fear of failure. I never want to let my colleagues, my family or myself down. What really drives me is the opportunity to provide a high-quality life for my family, utilize my great relationships with my coworkers to generate great business results and give back to my community.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    The most critical role of a leader is to be patient, but make quick decisions when it’s critical. During a crisis it’s crucial to be available at all times and make sound business decisions on the spot when needed. Beyond that, be consistent and honest in your communication. People see right through insincerity.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    The best way to boost morale is to remove barriers to company success. That starts by showing up with an open mind. To do so, you must be willing to listen and observe more than you speak. I like to think of it this way — we were given two eyes and ears, but only one mouth. Listening and observing provides an unbiased view of potential solutions. It’s also critical to define all possible solutions before ruling them out and always consider the impact “do nothing” will have on the business as you’re your first option.

    It’s also important to put your money where your mouth is. Once you know your options, your willingness to put the resources — people, time and money — necessary in place to remove a barrier will come easy and will show your commitment to doing what’s necessary for your team to achieve great results.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    Communicating difficult news is never easy, but it’s most impactful when you share it face to face. I also believe doing so in an honest and sincere way and as quickly as possible helps keeps emotions at bay.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    A great leader generates stellar financial results by exercising flexibility and responsibility through plan execution. I recommend having a plan with variable assumptions that you can change as you change your vision. It’s important that you can also retrospectively challenge your plan and refine it for future needs using historical results.

    A vision can be executed in a series of tactical steps, but not all visions will have the same result. For any tactic that poses a material change in your business, use live test environments first whenever possible.

    Tests allow you to vet out any operational issues, see unintended impacts on your employees, guests and business and allow you to understand the results on a limited scope. If the results are favorable, but receive pushback, be prepared to provide concessions to achieve the full results. This can include slight tweaks to the test or even paying for a portion of any capital required.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    As a professional who grew up within the finance sector, my number one principle is to always have a cash reserve equal to 3–6 months of operating expenses.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    1. Not using outside resources. You hired a banker, tax partner, attorneys, etc. for a reason. Provide them with annual updates on your business so they can know it really well and be in the best position to provide advice and assistance as needed and in real time.
    2. I’m fine without too much cash. As I noted above, cash is king. Have a cash reserve and ideally a line of credit.
    3. Not knowing the financials of your business. It’s important to know the breakeven of your business so you know how to plan for and survive through expense reduction, deferrals, mitigation or elimination.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    At Cousins Subs we have a one-, three- and 10-year plan. In each plan we have assumptions and a stress test built into them that allows for certain levers to be pulled when cash flow decreases. It’s important to know all of your levers before you need to use them. Make sure, if you need a vendor partner to help you pull a lever, that you have built a strong relationship with them during the good times.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    1. Lead by example. During the pandemic, we knew we couldn’t survive without out employees. We also knew many of them didn’t have a choice whether to work or not. Instead of running our business as normal or cutting pay to ensure margins, we made a vow to never decrease pay and pay out previously earned bonuses. We also wanted to show our staff appreciation, so we issued nearly $60,000 in bonuses to our crew members.
    2. Be accessible. I shared my cell number with all of our franchise partners, corporate support center staff and corporate restaurant general managers. I sign off all of my system messages by telling recipients to call or email me directly with questions. During the pandemic, I’ve received calls almost daily from franchise partners seeking guidance. I recently took time off of work for family time. Although I was on vacation, I dedicated a set amount of time to field calls instead of forwarding them to my colleagues to follow up. Why? I want our system to know I am here for each and every member of it.
    3. Listen and observe more than you speak. Emotions and ingenuity are high in times of uncertainty. Often people need to share thoughts or ideas and, as a result, need someone to listen. When you confide, it creates trust. Before we installed plexi barriers in all of our restaurants, one of our employees purchased a clear shower curtain to use as a barrier. We liked the idea, and initially planned to move forward with curtains as a barrier. But then another idea sparked through discussion with a vendor who proposed using its closed facility to produce custom plexi barriers for our stores.
    4. Be transparent. Just as much as you want to know what’s going on, so do your colleagues. When you provide updates, stick to the facts and be honest. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I took the lead on being the single source of pandemic-related communication for our system of nearly 100 restaurants and a corporate support center. To ensure my updates were accurate and comprehensive, I learned the ins and outs of FFCRA, the CARES Act, PPP and more. If I am the sole communicator, I need to know how to apply each to our industry so I could communicate the impact to the system. I provided a summary, which includes steps to take as operators, so our franchise partners and store teams could quickly and easily make changes to ensure our restaurants are complaint and focus on efficiently running their restaurants. At first I sent out daily communications, but as we’ve moved through the pandemic communication has been issued weekly. The emails are intended to provide the ‘must know’ information our restaurant teams need to be successful.
    5. Have a financial plan — As we powered through the pandemic, we reconcile our cash daily and forecast it 90 days out. Doing so showed us, in the early stages of the pandemic, we had enough for 6–8 weeks if sales continued to stay down between 30–40%. We were able to add assumptions on how much cash we could save and how much longer we could survive based on decisions like pay decreases, rent abatements, service termination, etc. Without that forecast, we would not have made the quick decisions we did to preserve the business in advance of receiving PPP funding.

    Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’” — Shawshank Redemption.

    I unexpectedly lost my father just after getting married and that showed me just how precious life truly is. While you are busy planning life, make sure to take time and be present in the here and now to enjoy it. Take time for your kids and your spouse and see the world!

    How can our readers further follow your work?

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