Burrito Success-ion

In early June, after a few months of reflection, I called off the quiet and informal search I had begun at the start of the year for a President & COO of Boloco. Instead, I offered the role of Chief Operating Officer to Matt Taylor and of President to Erin Childs. These two have been instrumental contributors to Boloco for many years (14 and 8, respectively) and both of them my “Rocks of Gibraltar” during the past 3 years as we fought for survival, relevance, and purpose. I am thrilled for them, happy for the team we were able to promote from within, and selfishly relieved for me that I get to do a short side-step over to Chairman and Owner with two people I trust implicitly at the helm. Some of my friends have “retired”, but at 48 that sounds like an express train to the grave even if you can afford to do so. I’ve still got some go in me… unfinished business remains, my curiosity as to what is possible in those areas where I am most passionate persists. (More on that in a future post)

Make no mistake. The struggle at Boloco, as so many others in the restaurant industry can attest, is real. While we successfully pulled out of the nosedive of 2014–2016, there is no cruise control button in the restaurant biz these days. It’s hard as hell, at least for me. That said, unlike Sully’s US Air flight that ended in the Hudson, after what I often describe as our own series of bird strikes, our second engine at Boloco did restart, and we landed safely. Unlike so many other operators, of restaurants and planes, we’ve seen the abyss and lived to tell about it. I believe the experiences of swimming mightily and sinking precipitously and learning the lessons associated with each first-hand will serve Matt and Erin well in the months and years that follow.

Congratulations to both of them for a job well done and for their new roles and opportunities at Boloco. Being able to promote exclusively from within is a privilege and I feel lucky to have been able to do this.

Most of you reading will sign off now, and you should… but I wouldn’t be my mother’s son if a “short” story didn’t accompany this…

And now, for the rest of the story…

As June 4, 2018 approached — the 3-year anniversary of my repurchasing Boloco from our private equity investors — I knew my time remaining as CEO was limited. During my hiatus from 2013–2015, for many reasons some of which I’ll describe below, I promised myself never to operate restaurants again. That changed when the CEO I hired in 2015 didn’t work out… after four months I was back in the saddle doing exactly what I had promised myself I wouldn’t. “Kicking and screaming”, I told my friends who asked how it felt to be back in the driver’s seat.

Why all of this hesitation to lead?

First, because I knew a turnaround would be hard and uncertain. The company had lost over $3 million in the prior 12 months. This wasn’t atypical for a growth company, but in 2013 the company stopped growing… I was facing a broken, essentially bankrupt, business, not the growth company we had once been that chose to lose money because it was investing in a bigger and brighter future. When I was honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I could stop the bleeding. I thought someone else might be able to do it more effectively. I was nervous, perhaps even scared. I’m sure Erin, Matt and Erik (that’s Burnsie… former super star Boloco leader) felt that way a lot, too. I cried once in front of the latter pair, surely boosting their confidence a few months into this latest chapter. I told them, probably blubbering, I was sorry I failed them. Failed everyone. I was really struggling.

Also, because I had just recently started a new business I was really excited about. A tech platform I called “EEApp” — which we now call Worthee — entirely dedicated to using technology to improve the lives and futures of hourly workers… something I believe in deeply. I knew I was going to have to put EEApp aside to get Boloco “fixed”. And I did put it aside (until recently).

Finally, because of something they call “imposter syndrome”. But in this case, I really was an imposter (yes, more imposter syndromesymptoms, I know… a vicious never-ending circle). I knew, and still know, I wasn’t the best person for the job long-term. Just as I knew in 2011 that it was time for our Board to search for a kick-ass replacement to oversee the company’s planned growth to 4 distinct markets and from 17 to 60 restaurants by 2016. I felt I lacked the discipline and energy necessary to lead that charge, and I was tired. Fourteen years with the exact same job description was my own choosing, but in 2011 I felt I had run my course. My journal, which I’ve kept since 1989, portrays an individual in those years at times lashing out at others for the smallest of reasons — people I really respected and even admired. I had been unhappy for some time. And here I was, years later, heading back in. It turns out, that being said, that I was wrong on this as far as the short-term turnaround went… I needed not only to be there, I needed to be on point. And I was.

The financial turnaround of Boloco took 16 months. From October 2015, when I stepped back in as CEO, to January 2017 we continued to lose money. At times, I will admit it felt hopeless. With 20 restaurants open when I took over (the two in DC had been shuttered while I was away in 2014), we soon sold 8 of those locations to other companies (B.Good, Clover, and Zambrero). We also chose not to renew the leases of 2, and actively closed another — Cleveland Circle near Boston College. Even with the Chipotle closing down 3 doors away and making national news for sickening the entire BC Basketball team in addition to hundreds of others, we couldn’t get that sucker to work. It was the sale of those 8 restaurants, and especially the 5 to my former partners at B.Good, that saved Boloco from bankruptcy under my watch and dramatically improved our ailing balance sheet. Reducing our geographic reach (bye bye DC, we hardly knew ya) and number of moving parts allowed us to close our expensive offices on the Boston Common, reduce support staff through attrition (those who had no presence in the restaurants), and ultimately drop our overhead expenses by over 75%.

In February 2017, we turned a profit and we’ve been hanging in the black ever since. I remember when my old company Ethicon Endo-Surgery first turned a profit… in May 1993 I think it was. I still have the coffee mug they sent me to prove it. Oh sure… we still sweat payroll every two weeks, surprise bills from landlords and utility companies (things like a $40,000 water bill in the final days of our Natick location), but we are surviving, chipping away at friendly shareholder debt (mine mostly!), and putting a little bit away for that rainy day when we can refurbish our quickly-aging 9 remaining restaurants. The first makeover will actually take place this summer at the Boston Common — “cheap and cheerful” is the directive, but I think the end product will be unique and impressive.

One further thought that I’ve written about previously, but for which our team is very proud, during our most challenging times we pushed hard on the initiatives we believed in most when it would have been so easy to toss them aside. We became a Certified B Corp and converted from a Delaware C Corp to a Delaware Benefit Corporation. We have focused on doing what was right for our people, for the environment, and for our communities as a primary strategy for over two decades, so applying for certification (not for the faint of heart we learned quickly) felt natural even with all of the other fires burning at the time. The average wage at Boloco today is just over $14.50 per hour, versus about $11.50 three short years ago. Versus most of our peers, in that time we’ve spent nearly $2.5 million in “extra” wages to get closer to our goal of paying all full-time team members a livable wage ($14.17 in Boston currently for a single worker). A friend recently shared this quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 — 85 years ago — “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country… by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of decent living.” For years I’ve felt that businesses that use the legal “right” to underpay its people as a crutch for success or survival don’t actually deserve to be in business. FDR was ahead of his time. From that lens, the $2.5M spent on extra wages weren’t “extra” at all. I do at times remind myself, however, that were we paying market wages we would likely consider Boloco to be quite successful financially. Yes, turnover would be higher… but I see turnover often used as a tool to cast aside the veteran workers who command higher wages with new workers who start at the bottom. Sure, it’s a little harder to manage the constant churn, but the theory is that it’s the General Managers job to figure that hardship out, and you know what? They generally do just fine and the money flows to the company coffers.

Finally, and most important, we have a wonderful group of people leading our company. The average tenure of all team members is 3.99 years and of general managers 11.01 years — of whom 7 out of 9 are women, incidentally. For a company our size, those are generally unheard-of retention figures. Eight of our nine current General Managers were promoted from within and, in addition to their local leadership responsibilities, many of them carry roles typically held in “corporate” allowing us to keep overhead low, increase their skills for future responsibility, and raise their pay slightly higher. We often admit, just as Coach Herb Brooks did when selecting the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team, that Boloco may not be comprised of the “most experienced” or even the most “talented” individuals in the industry (who really knows about those things anyway until the history books have been written and re-written over and over again) but in terms of heart, dedication, purpose, finding the light amidst dark clouds, hustling and just making good, hard sh*t happen, our team is awesome. And for the turnaround job at hand these past 3 years, we actually may have been the very best team. We were certainly the right team.

When I began my search a few months ago, I assumed as I had done before that I needed a super strong President and Chief Operating Officer to replace me as CEO. Whether I consciously knew it or not, and being dangerously honest here, I was probably assuming it would be an older, white male with some greys who would make me feel “secure” in their words of confidence, ability to say the right things, etc. But something was bothering me. While I knew, and know, we needed a combination of discipline, professionalism, and day-to-day operating know-how, I also required someone with Boloco culture and philosophy running richly through heart and mind. I spoke to a few good people who have led excellent teams, some who didn’t even know I was fishing for their possible interest level. I contacted my favorite headhunter to give her an early heads up, though I figured, and she indirectly confirmed, that this was likely a search better conducted by me. I made sure that our VP of Operations, Matt Taylor, and our VP of Catering, Erin Childs, were each given a chance to look at the job description, both candidly sharing that they did not feel they could carry the torch.

Time passed, and I thought deeply about where we were as a company, our most important priorities, our current rhythm and our cadence versus where we wanted to be. Sometimes you don’t realize what you have until you toss it away, or don’t recognize it for all the good it brings until you try something else. I’ve done that so many times — felt like we were in a good place but assumed it had to be better.

I can’t remember when it hit me, but it was definitely a moment, and as opposed to an “aha” moment I would call it a “duh” moment. NO, I realized, I did not need to hire an experienced outsider to come in and tell our already experienced team what they needed to do.

Here we have Matt with 14 years under his belt, seeing all kinds of wins and losses along the way, having served in nearly every role imaginable. He started as the GM of a struggling Hanover, NH location way back in 2004. He later became Area Manager for Burlington, VT and Hanover and Concord, NH. He led the early days of opening the DC market. He stepped back into a GM role when asked to do so. And then stepped right back up again to VP Ops. Our “heavy lifter”, as I have often referred to him. Matt can get it done, whatever it is. Matt knows every nook and cranny of Boloco.

And Erin, one of the few true “professionals” in our company (and I do not qualify, as those closest to me can attest), with a disciplined, thoughtful approach to growth and execution, a deep respect for the culture and balance, and who could have left us fifteen times during her nearly 8 years with Boloco for greener pastures but didn’t. She came to us in 2010 thanks to our former CFO Patrick Renna to help us build a catering business of which we could be proud. And despite the sale and closing of more than half of our locations in 2016 and 2017, our catering business has grown, innovated and become stronger than ever.

Maybe neither of them individually could cover the role of President and COO, I thought, but maybe each of them could occupy one of those roles.

So, what happened? I called off the search and recognized the assets that were sitting in front of me the whole time. We’ve split the roles and selected two leaders who I’ve known for many years, who I trust, who are deeply committed to what Boloco stands for, and who have the strong desire to constantly improve and stretch into their new roles and ultimately help Boloco grow and thrive again.

Matt, Yin. Erin, Yang

Matt, COO. Erin, President.

Matt, Ops. Erin, Growth.

Matt and Erin. People first.

As they have been for the past few years, especially as we’ve worked our way through the muck, they remain partners, neither one being subordinate to the other, working together to achieve our goals, to improve the lives and futures of our people, to rebuild relevance, to matter, to succeed. The turnaround of the past 3 years is in so many ways due to their efforts as well as the efforts of others, most of whom still populate our team roster.

I couldn’t be more excited to step away as CEO, relegated to the ranks of Owner and Executive Chairman, and leave our resurging brand and special culture in the capable and passionate hands and hearts of Erin Childs and Matt Taylor.

Congratulations and a sincere thank you to both of you. 🙏🏼

Like what you read? Give John Pepper a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.