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 Kevin Wilson, 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.
Kevin obtained his business degree from the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Kevin and his wife Katy live in Virginia Beach, Virginia with their three children.
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?
Right out of college I accepted a position as a consultant with the strategy consulting firm Bain and Company in Toronto. When Bain launched a new office in Dallas, Texas in 1991 I was invited to join that team and I transferred to Dallas. I spent almost five years with Bain, and that time was instrumental in laying the strong business and analytics foundation I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
Over the next decade or so, I founded Benny’s Bagels, a franchise of retail bagel stores, I held positions with South African Airways in South Africa, I was a Managing Director with two private equity firms, and also was a part of the creation of Volaris. I developed the initial concept of the ultra low cost airline and then co-founded the airline in March of 2005. Today Volaris is the largest airline in Mexico and is publicly traded on the NYSE.
In 2012, I acquired Mosquito Joe, a locally owned mosquito control company in Norfolk, Virginia, with the goal of turning this into a franchise and becoming a nationally recognized brand. Six years later, Mosquito Joe had grown to 350 locations in 34 states. In 2018 we sold the company to The Dwyer Group, now called Neighborly, producing an outstanding outcome for our investors, employees, and franchisees. In 2015 we launched Pool Scouts, a pool cleaning and maintenance business, Home Clean Heroes came along in 2017 and in 2018 we acquired British Swim School. All of these are now under the umbrella of Buzz Franchise Brands (BFB), a multi-brand franchising company 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?
Just last week one of my employees reminded me of one afternoon in the early days of getting Buzz Franchise Brands off the ground when I decided to help load the dishwasher in our kitchen. I did not read the label on anything I put into the dishwasher and we were greeted a couple of hours later with an office full of bubbles. They pretty quickly reminded me to stick to my strengths, which apparently do not include reading labels.
But in all seriousness, it’s a funny mistake that reminds me that part of being a great leader is surrounding yourself with people who are smart, experts in their fields and never stop learning.
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 would say if I had to distill it down, there are two people who come to mind. The first one is my wife, Katy. We met at Bain, so from the very beginning she knew I was an entrepreneur at heart. That comes with a fair bit of risk, but she was always along for the ride. She really supported me and pushed me to take chances.
The second is a partner I had at Bain and he was the first guy to back me in Benny’s Bagels and his name is Greg Brennaman. He went on to do amazing things in his career at Continental Airlines, Burger King, PriceWaterHouseCoopers Consulting, and Quiznos. He was a mentor and I have tried to emulate the way he thought about things and the way he kept it super simple. He focused on the most important issues, he communicated very effectively and you always knew where you stood. I worked for him for about four years and in that time, I really learned from watching him work, seeing how he worked with people and solved problems.
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?
The purpose was and continues to be to help people get into business for themselves and to help them be successful. It is also in the mission of our brands. Pool Scouts was born from customers needing a professional and trustworthy service for their residential pools. Home Clean Heroes came from the idea that the residential cleaning model could be stronger and we could bring customers a human relationship with a high-tech model that gives them cleaner homes. That’s still our mission today. It’s in our values. They are: lead with integrity, be curious and innovate, have fun, empower and serve, and act with purpose. The words are a little fancier, but at the end of the day, these values call to a shared participation in the success of helping people.
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?
Without question, the first is my core team surrounding me; Brian (President and COO), Anglea (Chief Marketing Officer), and Mike (Chief Financial Officer). Those are the people that have been a part of every decision. We huddled in early March when we saw COVID-19 unfolding. The first decision I made was to pull down our line of credit from the bank. We pulled it all down to shore up our balance sheet. Then, we got the entire team on the phone. I told everyone that it was going to be hard, but the important thing was that no one was going to lose their job. I made a commitment, and I did that for two reasons. I wanted them supporting our franchisees who were also in an unsettling time, and I didn’t want their thoughts throughout the day to be “Am I going to lose my job today, or this week?” Another reason I did that is because I felt like we were going to get out of this pandemic — it might be six months, it might be a year. So, I didn’t want to get to the other side and have to go through the cost and time associated with hiring and training. If I had laid people off, I wouldn’t be able to get those same people back. The cost of letting people go is a short-term fix, but long term I wanted to keep our talent.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
At the end of the day, no one wants to fail. I don’t want to fail. If I gave up, if I quit, there were a lot of franchisees who had just acquired a new business and they didn’t know me or Buzz Franchise Brands well. They wanted and needed support. These people who invested their money, time and trust in our businesses are what always drives me when things are difficult or challenging.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Without question, you have to communicate frequently and clearly. You have to do this without being negative and giving hope.
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?
I have always thought of my employees as part of a family. They are people to me, they are not employees. So, it’s important when something like a pandemic is happening that you reach out to them. That’s what I did. I called them and I didn’t ask them about work, I asked them about how they were doing, how I could help. They have families, they have worries, fears and they have their own challenges outside of your bubble. By letting them know that you see them as a human instills in them confidence that they are where they should be with your company and they work that much harder for you. And of course, a happy hour and virtual game can go a long way to bring your team together and blow off some steam.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Clearly and honestly. You have to take responsibility. You have to go to your team, the people who are looking to you for guidance and say “This is all on me, it’s not on you but we’re going to work on this together.”
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We look at our model a lot. The model allows us to think through different scenarios. We always have a low and a high. Whatever change we’re contemplating, we put that in the model and we see what that does to our results. We never wanted to run out of cash — a company never goes out of business because they lost money — they go out of business because they run out of cash.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I do think it’s important to understand when you have to make a decision. When it comes to decision making, I think a lot of people largely fall into three categories: the first is those who make a decision way too early, the next is people who make a decision way too late and then a very small percent make them when they should be made. I think that’s something you have to learn and trust yourself on and rely on your team. But, not making rash decisions and not procrastinating is key.
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?
Underestimating how much cash will be needed to keep the business operating. This pandemic can be considered a black swan event so using assumptions that are only incremental probably will not work. Retaining your talent and always ensuring they are working on the most important issues facing the company. Stay true to your core values. If they have been well thought out, they should serve you even in difficult times. And like I said above, making decisions entirely too early or too late.
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?
Again, it goes back to cash flow and decision making. We are well capitalized but we also pulled down the resources at our disposal to be able to keep our balance sheet in a good place. My team and I also were in constant communication on what decisions we could make and at what points.
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.
- Communicate frequently and clearly.
- Take accountability — lead by example and if mistakes were made, own those.
- If you want your team to work harder, you have to work harder. Be the example.
- Be engaged — with you and your stakeholders. If it’s your suppliers, customers, franchisees, employees — those are usually the key stakeholders. Talk to them frequently and keep that engagement high. Make sure it’s a two-way communication.
- Remember that your team is a group of people that you’ve invested in, but they’ve also invested in you. Check in on them, let them know you care.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Winston Churchill once said “It is no use saying ‘we are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” I don’t think any other quote is more appropriate for leading during a turbulent time. It’s hard, and sometimes when you’re in the “trenches” so to speak, it doesn’t feel like growth. But if you’re pushing forward with your vision and purpose and doing what is necessary, like Churchill you’ll overcome and succeed.
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