This MVP multi-unit franchisee and Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year shares his strategies for building a strong multi-unit pizza franchise business
Joe Walker doesn’t believe in doing anything half-heartedly, which is how he was able to ramp up so quickly to 21 units in the Carolinas and Virginia. After retiring from the military with the rank of major and opening his own commercial real estate business, Walker quickly discovered that Marco’s Pizza was the right opportunity at the right time. It also turned out to be the impetus behind his 700-employee business development company, JH Development LLC.
After 8 years in pizza franchising, Walker was recently named the winner of the Veteran Entrepreneurship Award for the 2019 Multi-Unit Franchising Conference and Magazine Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards in Las Vegas. In this Marco’s Pizza franchise review, he shares his story.
What were you doing before you joined Marco’s in 2011?
Immediately prior I’d been in commercial real estate development and brokerage for about 2½ years, and that was on the heels of a 4½-year active duty Army commitment. I was stationed out of Fort Benning, GA, and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III to Baqubah and Ramadi, Iraq.
When you got out of the service and you went into commercial real estate, what made you stop and say, “Hey, I think I maybe want to own a pizza franchise”?
Part of my job as a commercial real estate development associate was to seek out and pursue retail tenants that were growing in what was then a retracting real estate economy. So I started commercial real estate September of 2008. If I was on stage giving a speech, I’d make some quip about how selling real estate in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005 would have been an easier job than selling real estate in Columbia, South Carolina, in September of 2008. But nonetheless, I started in September of 2008. Obviously one of my charges was to go out there and find tenants that were growing in, again, a retracted real estate economy.
About two years in, I came across this brand called Marco’s Pizza. I started digging into why they were growing when everybody else was getting smaller within their industry space. I wanted to sort of dig into what they’d done different, what set them apart, and along the way, discovered that it was a franchise concept. It was the first time I had ever really delved into the franchising model.
What did you like about it?
Franchising resonated with me immediately because it felt very militaristic in construct: They give you an operations order, they set you up, they show you how to turn out a product by way of an operations order. It’s your job to go build a team around that or to direct them and point them all in the same direction. So it felt very, very comfortable to me following that type of system. When you put the two together, the franchising resonating and me being interested in pizza, and then pull into that the concept of a superior product within an industry space delivered with a better image and service, that’s what influenced me to take the plunge, so to speak.
Did you start out with a multi-pack, or did you start out single and then build from there?
One of the things that my real estate background kind of led me towards is I wanted to control the brand within a significant geographic swath. I knew that I wanted to go out there and do it right, and I didn’t want somebody moving in the same brand and doing it wrong, potentially spoiling my investment. As such, I was able to sign a 17-unit multi-unit development agreement out of the gate. I executed on that agreement, got up to about 14 units before I started buying other geographic territories and growing outside of the central South Carolina DMA. We ended up being in upstate South Carolina, central South Carolina, coastal South Carolina, coastal North Carolina, Virginia, both central and northwestern Virginia, and we did a brief soiree into Jackson, Mississippi.
How is your management team structured? Are you still working in commercial real estate?
The Marco’s story is one vertical under an enterprise company that I’ve built. I have a COO, chief development officer, chief marketing officer, chief financial officer. As Marco’s has succeeded, I’ve parlayed the available cash flow into other brands, other companies. We’ve spun off verticals — we have a real estate development company, a construction company, a third-party marketing company, Marco’s Pizza and Carolina Mattress and Furniture, which is a retail mattress and furniture concept. We just sold Orangetheory Fitness, which was another multi-unit franchise vertical I had, and we now own a commodities third-party logistics business here in South Carolina.
Across all the verticals, we’ve got probably 700 employees. But Marco’s is the locomotive that has made it all possible.
When you found Marco’s and realized the superiority of the product, did you ever look into other pizza franchises?
You know, it was one of those God things where it fell in my lap at a time when I was looking for something else to do other than real estate. I had an investor that was willing to put the capital behind me to go execute on this deal, and Marco’s was there. They were at the forefront, and I had created and cultivated personal relationships with the executives at the time.
It was a product that I believed in, I knew this market didn’t have a product that could be delivered to your door that could beat it, so it was one of those things where it was kind of a beacon in the dark.
What would you say are the most important things a prospective multi-unit owner should know about joining this franchise company?
I would say that one of the most important points for me and my continued investment in this brand is the committedness and stick-to-itiveness of the owner, Jack Butorac. He has been adamant that this is a brand he wants to take to a certain point, and he has stuck to it and done what he committed to do at every step along the way.
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