Marco’s franchise review: Joan Von Herbulis of Loudoun County, VA

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Von Herbulis is keeping it all in the family, running her franchises with her son, daughter-in-law and husband

Exterior of a Marco's Pizza franchise
About 40 miles west of Washington, D.C., Joan Von Herbulis’ two Marco’s stores are only 10 miles apart in Loudoun County, VA. That makes it easier to share resources and keep the plates spinning, so to speak. The other thing that makes operations easier? Her son, Chris Browne. A little over three years ago, he was the one who introduced Von Herbulis and her husband to Marco’s in the first place — “it was literally love at first bite” — and now he’s co-owner of both stores. Von Herbulis shares her story in this Marco’s franchise review.

What were you doing before you joined Marco’s?
I was working for Capital One on the design team. We grew that team from 42 designers to almost 500 across the country, and we had acquisitions. It was a busy five years with them.

Have you ever owned your own business before?
Well, I’ve been self-employed. Real estate, insurance, finances.

And what brought you to Marco’s? How did you learn about them, and what made you say, “Okay, enough with the designer gig, I’m going to go and be an entrepreneur?”
Well, it was actually my son, who had started with another pizza company when he was in high school. He had a lot of leadership traits from playing sports, like football and basketball, and he always seemed to be the team leader. He got a little bit tired of that particular entity and moved to Richmond and became a general manager in training for the first Marco’s store that opened down there. Previously, he had asked if we wanted to buy into the other franchise, and we just said no. It just wasn’t that appealing to us. And then we drove to Richmond, had a taste, and it was literally love at first bite.

I took a look at our retirement plan and I thought, “All right, what is my level of income going to be on retirement?” I had never really planned on being this actively involved in the store operations. And then there was a change. My manager was recruited and left the company, and the head of design wound up being in New York. It’s just been the perfect storm for me to actually dive into Marco’s. And here I am.

Who do you own your stores with?
My son. With the first store, my husband is involved. There are the three of us, and then the second store we opened with my son and daughter-in-law and myself.

Are you all working full-time in the business?
I am working full-time in the business. My son took a position outside the company, but he’s still actively involved in some of the details.

Describe your role in the company.
The bookkeeping, the accounting, the advertising, the marketing, the community relationships, previously relationships with the schools and the churches. I am in the dish pit, I’m on the road delivering when we’re short-staffed, managing the front, working with the teens and general managers to make sure that they’re aware of different changes that take place. I wear a lot of different hats.

What would you say is the most satisfying thing about being a Marco’s Pizza owner?
I’ve never met a stranger, so I really love working with the customers and developing those relationships. In fact, I’ve developed some really good friendships within our community. The insiders, the teenagers, the crew, when they come in, I really enjoy seeing them evolve. There are some that are just not going to work out, and it’s okay for them to move on, but the ones that I see that really try, and they start growing and all of a sudden they’re learning and they’re really becoming multi-talented. From working with other teammates to interacting with customers to working the different stations and watching the competition, seeing who can be the best, is fun.

How large do you want to grow your franchise?
My goal is to get it right with the two stores we have before we go into a third and a fourth store. We’ve always had top-of-mind a 10-store business.

As a franchise owner, what are some of the things that Marco’s Support Center does to help you? What are some of the most valuable supports they provide?
They have meetings every week where they show some of the changes that are taking place. They address the website, they address pricing, new product roll-outs, just keeping you informed and in the loop on what is going on.

What kind of experience do you think someone needs to be successful with Marco’s?
I think that the most important thing would be an accounting, at least bookkeeping, background. That’s critical, because you have to know what your bottom line is in order to be able to grow and manage expenses as they come along.

I also think it’s important to have a particular personality. One of the changes that I’ve had to address within myself is the ability to let go and let grow. That has been, I think, my biggest challenge, because I tended to micromanage out of fear because I wanted everything to be done right. I wanted it to be done my way. My way isn’t always the right way.

How do you share resources between your two stores? They’re pretty close.
We have a GM for each store, but if we’re short-staffed and we need someone from the other store, we can borrow an employee. If we’re running out of cheese, we can run to the other store, grab some and make sure we return it. The second store has a large walk-in, so we only need one truck a week. There’s just a whole lot of things that we can do to support each other, and the GMs have good relationships where they can talk to each other and say, “How do you do this?” That’s helpful.

How often do you interact with other franchisees?
I would say at least twice a month. In fact, I had a phone call just last week for about half an hour on different marketing ideas, what’s working, what isn’t, how do you handle this, how do you handle that, and that’s been good. There’s another store I communicate with probably on a monthly basis. They only have one store at the moment, but I understand they’re looking to grow as well, so if they run out of sub rolls, for example, we loan them items, or boxes. I think it’s really important to be competitive and supportive at the same time. It’s kind of like a real estate business when you’re a Realtor. You’re competing for the sale, but you need to work with each other to be able to get the sale through.

Are you able to meet your business goals, or are you on your way to meeting your business goals, by owning these two stores?
I think, realistically, we’re probably another year away from meeting those goals, just because we’ve had to adjust for the commodities pricing. I keep talking about the rising price of cheese, which has been on everyone’s mind. That narrowed the margins quite a bit, but we’re getting through it and that’s settled back down again.

Have you had an “aha” moment where everything just crystallized for you and you went, “Yes, this was the right decision.”?
There are moments. When a customer from Store One brings in a box of chocolates every year for Christmas for me just to say thank you, or a customer brings in a necklace for me because she’s had it in a little pouch and it matches my earrings, or someone just saying, “Thank you so much for doing what you do for the community,” I want to cry. Other times, I have people that come in and just want to talk and share, or they’ll say, “Thank you for making me laugh through this. I really needed that.” Those are ‘aha’ moments. I get frustrated sometimes, when a customer wants a refund because they think the pizza didn’t look like what they saw on television. Those kinds of things, I have to just keep my mind in check and realize that that’s not the norm and that’s not why we’re here.

What advice would you give somebody who’s just starting out with Marco’s, or considering buying a Marco’s franchise?
I would say be realistic, especially during your first two years. Understand some of the challenges that you’re going to be faced with. Understand that you need to be someone that interacts with the community, that gets out there. You can’t just stay within the four walls. Make sure that you have the cash reserve, and make sure that you have a better understanding of the process and what it takes. Communicate with other franchisees who are successful, and just develop those relationships.

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