Inspire Brands CEO achieves growth while strengthening relationships

Inspire Brands was created just over three years ago when Arby’s purchased Buffalo Wild Wings. In 3-1/2 years it has become the second largest restaurant company in the U.S., adding a slew of recognized brands including Jimmy John’s, Sonic, Dunkin’, and Baskin-Robbins to the original group.

For Inspire, success and growth include an ongoing responsibility to ensure the companies operate as good citizens not only in communities where they serve but most importantly, for their people.

At a recent goBeyondProfit event hosted by Inspire, CEO Paul Brown spoke candidly about the balance of leading a massive franchise organize with central clarity, while remaining caring and nimble in the face of marketplace uncertainty. We gained a number of insights from Brown’s conversation with fellow executives at the event:

Paul Brown
CEO, Inspire Brands

How have you partnered with your franchises to evolve your citizenship strategy? Can you share some lessons learned along the way?

“We’ve really worked hard with our franchisees because, while we own and operate 2,300 restaurants, the rest of the 32,000 restaurants are owned and operated by individual franchisees.

“They are also very generous in their community, so we try to work with them around how they can direct their efforts in the most productive way. And we supplement what they’re doing in their own communities with what we are doing at the corporate level.

“We started out with a lot of disparate efforts going on in the communities. Franchisees had their own individual projects that didn’t really knit together into an overall theme.

“What we did at first was pull all the funds raised in the individual restaurants centrally, and then gave to causes we determined at the corporate level. What we saw — unsurprisingly — was a lot of the energy at the franchisee base dissipated, so that was one of the lessons learned. The trick is streamlining impact while ensuring the franchisees and team members in the local markets feel empowered and in control.

“When we studied it, we found almost everything our franchisees were giving to came under the umbrella of youth empowerment. So, now youth empowerment is the umbrella for all our community giving, including when we support our young team member base. And we commit that 50% of everything raised at the individual market level goes back into that market.”

The restaurant industry was hit particularly hard by COVID uncertainty and risk. What’s one tough decision you made that paid off?

“One thing we did for several layers of management in the restaurants was protect their salaries and bonuses.

“I felt it was the right thing to do, because so many of these managers were tenured and this was not anything they had control over. And we also did it because it was the right way to protect the business long term. We knew at some point the business was going to come back and these are the team members that ultimately were able to get us back where we needed to go.”

Is there a silver lining for how your culture evolved through the crisis?

“To put it in perspective, 60% of the team members in our restaurants are age 24 or below and over 70% are 30 and below. And sometimes their lives are in a little bit of a fragile state, and they have to come into the restaurants every day, physically.

“The height of the pandemic caused us to think about their immediate needs. A lot of our people wanted to raise money to help, so we started collecting funds from the corporate teams. It was a great connective tissue culturally for us.

“We created a formal program called Upward Mobility for team members in our restaurants. Whether that individual wants to have upward mobility with us as a career or they’re on their way to school, there are a lot of barriers like needing laptops, scholarship programs and mentoring. Now we have the mechanism to actually help them move on to whatever their goals are in their career or personal lives. 

“That came out of COVID: us understanding that there’s a lot more that we can be doing as an employer for the people that work for us, even if sometimes they’re only working for us for three to six months.

“I think having team members feel a sense of community with the people they work with and for is really important. In many ways, over the past couple of years that sense of community has been lost. And then this whole 100% virtual environment has made it very difficult for those connections to happen. I think the trick for any employer is creating a sense of community or bonds. We’re building on this year and spending a lot of time thinking about that now.”

How do you think the role of the Chief Executive has evolved over the past years? 

“CEOs now need to get even closer to the team members, be more accessible, listen more and be open minded to things that maybe they weren’t before, or they didn’t think about before.

“I think a CEO has to actually allow his or her norms be to be challenged, too, and accept the fact that you have to manage a company differently now than you did going into COVID.

“You have to be more agile. I can tell you one thing 100% confidently: whatever we plan for next year will be wrong. So, we have to actually manage as a team and be incredibly agile and hands-on in a way that perhaps, quite honestly, a CEO could get away with not being a couple years ago.”

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