Born in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario with entrepreneurship in his blood: his father was a successful property developer. After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Waterloo, he starts a successful career in real estate and construction.
Annoyed by the lack of quality meats in supermarkets, he comes up with an idea for a new kind of frozen-food retailing. Reasoning that there were more repeat customers in food than in home-building, he recruits his brother-in-law Mark Nowak and starts M&M Meat Shops Ltd. (the name stands for “Mac and Mark”). The first store opens in Kitchener in the summer of 1980. The store’s unique products, simplified shopping experience and modest price point (thanks to low overhead) prove a hit with consumers.
In 1981, M&M opens its first franchised store, in Cambridge, Ont. In 1989, it opens its 50th Ontario outlet; two years later, it starts expanding elsewhere in Canada. Today, there are M&M stores in each province and territory—more than 460 in total in Canada—plus stand-alone departments (run under the “MyMenu” banner) in three The Andersons department stores in Ohio.
Why did you start your own chain instead of selling through grocers?
We believed in 1980—and continue to believe today—that supermarkets are bigger and less personal. We wanted to take the opposite approach and create an over-the-counter, modern butcher’s shop. We wanted quick parking, great service and quality products to get people in and out of the kitchen quickly.
We also wanted to control our own destiny. Once we got up to about 100 stores, we had almost all of the national retailers after us to put our products in their stores. They continue to do it today. But it’s too late for that. We’ve taken the franchise model, and franchisees get protected territories—we can’t just put our products in the supermarket down the street.
Why did you choose to franchise?
Franchising allows you to expand quickly and dominate a market. Other people are investing in the business, and you don’t need a high number of head-office people to do the hiring, the scheduling and the marketing—everything that goes with running a business. Franchisees have a vested interest in the business, so they have a keen desire to see it become successful.
What makes M&M’s relationships with its franchisees successful?
We discovered early on that the No. 1 thing franchisees want is communication about what is going on with the company. So, many years ago, we decided to tell them everything that was going on. We send them so much, we now hear them say, “You send too much information!” But it’s all about making them feel like they’re not islands out there. Even if they’re up in Whitehorse or Yellowknife, they have to feel like they’re still part of the M&M Meat Shops family.
We started going to Canadian Franchise Association (CFA) events in 1986 or 1987. We discovered that everybody who franchises successfully follows the same blueprint. It doesn’t matter what they’re selling. So, we just listened to what the “big boys” like Burger King and McDonald’s had to say. When they said, “You need one field consultant [a head-office liaison] for every 15 to 20 outlets,” we got a field consultant for every 15 to 20 outlets. When the CFA started asking me to speak, I told them I felt guilty because I was just sharing what I’d learned from other successful franchisors.
Why aren’t you using the franchise model for your U.S. operations?
In Canada, once we made the decision to go the franchising route, we were locked into that model. In the U.S., it’s wide open. We entered the U.S. just before the big economic collapse in 2008. The timing could not have been worse; the banks weren’t lending funds for small businesses to buy franchises. So, that’s why we’re pursuing the store-within-a-store concept instead. [The company currently sells its products in dedicated aisles at department stores run by Ohio-based chain The Andersons.] There is considerable enthusiasm for it, and I think we’re going to stay with this model there.
How did M&M successfully penetrate the Quebec market?
It was tough. We went in knowing that Quebeckers generally have far fewer barbecues than the rest of Canada, they don’t have the same enthusiasm for frozen foods and they eat out more. We knew all those things going in. So, we decided to educate them about the benefits of flash-frozen food. We were in a position to do that because we serve customers one on one over a service counter. You have to know it’s going to be an uphill battle going in.
How does M&M develop new products?
Many companies approach us with their products. But we don’t want to sell brands that are also available at the supermarkets. We want to be able to say legitimately to customers, “You cannot buy this elsewhere.”
Sometimes, suppliers approach us with an idea they think would work—things that aren’t in other retail operations, but are working at the food-service level. Sometimes we’ll find new products overseas. Also, four times a year, our director of purchasing asks all 460-some stores across Canada for a list of the top three items being asked for by consumers that we don’t carry. We take these suggestions and ask our suppliers whether they can make a unique, high-quality version for us. Then, we do testing using 10 people at head office who are phenomenal taste-testers. They’ll send a product back to the supplier until they feel it’s perfect. Then, we’ll introduce it to the public.
You stepped out of M&M’s day-to-day operations in the mid-2000s. Why?
I got to a point at which I thought, “I’ve put 25 years into this company. I think I’d like to take it easy, semi-retire and let somebody else run the day to day.” The business was rolling along; we were opening 20 to 25 stores a year and the economy was strong. That’s a good time to turn it over—when things are rolling.
Mine is now a minor role. I am on the flyers and I go to regional meetings and national conventions. I also visit as many as 100 stores each year—we call it The Friendship Tour. They’re preplanned visits; they’re not inspections. I’ll send out congratulatory notes to new franchisees; I’ll write anniversary cards for the people in our head office, to tell them what a great job they do. I’m more of a corporate cheerleader now, a “rah-rah” kind of guy.
What advice would you give to anyone starting a business?
First, you have to do research to know whether your idea is marketable. Once you do that, I think the secret is perseverance. So many people get distracted and try to do everything under the sun. They no longer have their eye on their core business. They lose focus. Also, you have to invite the right people to your team. I know a lot of people say that; but, you know, not a lot of companies do it, and they end up with troublemakers in the business. You really need to spend whatever time it takes to get the right people on the team.