I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Wilson the CEO and President of Buzz Franchise Brands.
Kevin has held the position since July 2012. Prior to this, Kevin was a Senior Managing Director with Envest Ventures where he oversaw $160M across three funds that made 28 investments, four of which were franchisors. Before joining Envest, Kevin was a Senior Managing Director of Discovery Americas, a private equity fund based in Mexico City, Mexico. Utilizing his experience in the airline industry, he developed a business plan and co-founded Volaris, (NYSE: VLRS) an ultra low cost airline. His career includes being CEO of South African Airways Technical, the independently owned maintenance operation of South African Airways, based in Johannesburg, South Africa; the CEO and Founder of Benny’s Bagels, a franchisor of retail bagel stores based in Dallas, Texas. Kevin began his business career working for Bain and Company as a consultant in Toronto, Canada and Dallas, Texas.
As CEO of a diverse franchise parent company, Kevin can speak to some of the ways that different brands are affected differently based on the nature of this economic recession along with strategies to help different brands adapt and emerge.
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 was raised in London, Canada, and after university, I took a job as a consultant with the strategy consulting firm Bain and Company in Toronto. An opportunity arose to join the team that was launching a new Bain office in Dallas, Texas, and in February of 1991 I transferred to Dallas. I spent five years with Bain, working in several different industries, surrounded by some of the best people ever. I felt like every day my learning kept accelerating; and looking back on my career, I credit my time and experience with Bain as a foundational period for the rest of my career.
For the next 15 years, I created my first business, a franchisor of retail bagel stores, held a role as a senior executive with South African Airways in South Africa, and was a Managing Director with two private equity firms, one based in Mexico City and one in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Over this period of time, one accomplishment I am particularly proud of is the creation of Volaris, an ultra-low-cost airline based in Mexico. I developed the initial concept and then co-founded the airline in March of 2005. Today this airline is the largest in Mexico and is publicly traded on the NYSE.
In 2012 I acquired Mosquito Joe (MoJo), a two-truck operation based in Norfolk, Virginia, with the goal of turning this into a franchise and becoming a nationally recognized brand. Six years later, MoJo had grown to 350 locations in 34 states, and we sold the company to The Dwyer Group, now called Neighborly, producing an outstanding outcome for our investors, employees, and franchisees. Along the way we developed/acquired other brands — Pool Scouts, Home Clean Heroes, British Swim School — which are now under the umbrella of Buzz Franchise Brands (BFB), a multi-brand franchising company, which is where I am today.
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?
Early on, when I started Benny’s Bagels, I had a really difficult time finding and retaining a strong accountant. After I fired the third person in four months (that’s part of the funny part), I tried to understand what I had realized about each after they were hired that I didn’t like, and how could I improve my approach so that it wouldn’t happen again. Without making a long story longer, I realized that they were all very sloppy and not into the details. Knowing that during the interview process most people are dressed up and on their best behavior, I had to figure out the best question or approach to use to make sure I found a person that would best “sweat the details.” I decided to greet the candidates in the parking lot at their car when they arrived. It gave me an opportunity to look inside their car to see how clean it was. After all, if they didn’t keep their own car clean, why should I expect they would treat my books any differently? It worked like a charm and saved me time interviewing candidates; the next three candidates had interiors that looked like trash dumpsters. The fourth one had a 7-year-old car that looked brand new. She was hired and worked with me until we sold the company.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One of the greatest business academics of all time is Peter Drucker, and “The Effective Executive” is one of my favorite books he has written. This is an easy and timeless read, with practical steps that can make all managers both more effective as decision-makers and more efficient with their time. If you are looking to get more out of a day, this is a must-read.
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 have always enjoyed listening to people that have a business idea and offering them advice on things they should consider before launching. This idea of helping people is shared by everyone at Buzz Franchise Brands and is front and center as the mission for our business, “Enabling People to Realize Their Dreams.” The word “enable” is chosen carefully because we view our role as helping to supply a proven business model with a proven support structure, but the individual (generally franchisees) must still make it happen at the local level. This approach allows all parties to feel like they played a crucial role in the success of the business.
Do you have a “number-one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
It all begins and ends with your team. If you have a great team that is highly motivated, they will figure out how to win. Digging a little deeper, we define a great team as having the right people in the right jobs, focused on the most important issues facing the company. As a leader, understanding what motivates your team so they can each realize their full potential is something we all work to develop, but initially it starts with creating a fun and supportive corporate culture. We have emphasized this from the start of Buzz Franchise Brands, and have been fortunate to be recognized for it by reputable publications such as Entrepreneur, Inc. and Outside Magazine.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have one wife, three kids, ages 20, 18, 16, and one dog. In the early days of the pandemic my kids were convinced they would have preferred getting COVID-19 to living with me under the same roof 24/7! With a little flexibility from all sides, we moved into a routine that had us eating dinner together every night, communicating more frequently, and discussing more life issues. My wife and I found ourselves being more open with our kids on the challenges we both faced during our careers and how we overcame them. We talked about our failures and what we learned from them. Often kids look to their parent’s success and easily forget the 30+ years it took to get there. Some parents may also make what they do look “easy.” So, we talked a lot, did a few jigsaw puzzles, exercised, and took lots of walks.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our largest and most affected company, British Swim School (BSS) with 100+ locations in 22 states, was/is completely shut down. We had acquired this company 12 months prior to the beginning of this pandemic and spent enormous time, energy, and dollars to set a solid foundation for exponential growth over the next several years. Like many businesses around the country, by March of this year, that growth came to a grinding halt. Our BSS team, led by Brian Garrison, did a wonderful job of stabilizing the situation, helping our franchisees shore up their balance sheets and liquidity, conducted weekly refresher training seminars, developed content that franchisees could share with customers, and then over the last few weeks, began to jointly plan the relaunch. There were many conversations with franchisees who were seriously considering not reopening, but over time Brian and his team helped provide them confidence that we would all get through this together. As I write this, the states are just beginning to reopen, but a large unknown for us is how quickly our locations will ramp back up to pre-COVID levels.
Time will tell, but what we do still know is:
- 70 percent of our earth is covered in water;
- Drowning is the number one cause of preventable death for kids between the ages of 1 and 4, and;
- Kids still need to learn to swim and be safe in and around water!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I have always believed that whatever situation you may find yourself in, “It’s never as good as it seems and/or it’s never as bad as it seems.” This doesn’t mean that I don’t get excited and celebrate when we achieve a goal we’ve established, nor does it mean I don’t get upset if we fail or better put, let ourselves down. But this credo or maxim is something that I work on every day to keep me level and present. Beyond this, I need to get eight hours of sleep every night, and I need to exercise every day. The other thing I did was to try and have a conversation with a good friend a few times per week. I found this was a nice way to break up the day or the week.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
I see a number of challenges ahead for our company. When we went into this mess 10 weeks ago, the number one priority was survival: conserve as much as cash as you can, keep your employees motivated and continue to provide hope. This priority was the same for franchisees and for us as the franchisor. As the franchisor, we had one big additional priority: keeping our franchisees engaged in a situation where many of them were 100 percent shut down and producing no revenue.
The challenges and priorities in a post-COVID economy are a little different with uncertainty about the future:
- How many of our existing customers will come back?
- How fast will they come back?
- With 39 million people having lost their jobs, will we now plunge into a recession?
- How long will it last?
You still need to provide hope, keep employees motivated, and conserve cash, but you also need to bet on the future and begin to spend money on marketing, both to existing customers and to new customers. We plan to lead by example, by financially supporting the re-opening efforts for our franchisees and continuing with our high levels of engagement and helping to set expectations on what a likely recovery will look like. And what they see as the biggest opportunities of the post-COVID economy.
In our world of franchising, with 39 million people having now lost their jobs, and many of them not likely to return to the workforce for a long time, the opportunities we provide to become a franchise owner with any of our three brands in order to take control of your future, is huge.
Over the last 10 weeks we moved our “Meet the Team Day,” where we typically invite franchise candidates to our office, to a virtual format. This has made it easier for people to attend during a time where travel is limited. Although early, the results are very encouraging, and this new approach will definitely have a role in our process going forward.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act, or live?
I tend to be a little more optimistic about what we have gone through over the last two months than many of the people I speak to. I can tell you that if 100 percent of all the crazy ideas that are being proposed by politicians and so-called “experts” were implemented in this country, it would not be a place I would want to live. I have a background in the airline industry, and I can see the merit of the TSA taking temperatures when you go through security. This may eliminate a percent or two of people traveling and it will go a little way in making people feel “safer.” Masks on planes? How do you eat or drink? If you remove it to eat and drink, what’s the point? Getting rid of the middle seat? What if the plane doesn’t have a middle seat, do you get rid of both aisle seats? In both cases it would send fares up by 50 percent to 100 percent, and does it really do anything? Depending on what you read, aerosol can spread up to 17 feet. My reason for saying all of this is that we will probably see less than 5 percent of all these ideas get implemented, and over time, we will largely be back to the way things were. These ideas will provide great material for Jerry Seinfeld!
I do think everyone will place a higher importance on good hygiene — washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and taking more precautions around leaving the house when sick.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
Our plans always begin with our employees. We stopped working remotely on Monday, May 18, and returned to our office. We have instituted new procedures to keep our employees safe, balanced by the need to keep our company culture consistent with what we love. We’ve seen the results of eight weeks of uncertain communication by many of our government officials and have no intention of doing that with our employees as they return to work.
Beyond this, our focus is on supporting our existing franchisees as they begin to re-open. We will be helping them develop new financial plans that speak to the potential of an extended downturn in our economy while also being smart about how marketing dollars are spent.
We will be accelerating our new franchisee development efforts to continue bringing solid business opportunities to more people. In this area, we will spend more money than we originally planned for at the beginning of the year, building on the recent successes we’ve seen with our revised discovery process with candidates.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Be honest with the situation you find yourself in and challenge yourself to look at the data to make future-oriented decisions. So many bad decisions get made by thinking that our present state will be what we experience in the future. That is almost never the case. Many of Warren Buffet’s greatest investments have been made when everyone else believed the world was going to end. It’s a difficult and very uncomfortable position to be in when everyone is playing defense — the correct and opportunistic long-term decision is to play offense.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life-Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Winston Churchill was one of my heroes growing up, and I would try to read as much as possible about what he achieved and the challenges he overcame. Building anything is very difficult to do, and any successful person knows that obstacles will be put in your way, every step of the way. These obstacles are put in front of us to help us each realize the best we have.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Buzz Franchise Brands Website: buzzfranchisebrands.com