By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Want to know the secret to entrepreneurial success? Pick one or two products to offer your customers and do them well. Really well.
Okay, there may be more to it than that. But not much, says Bill McKechnie.
“I subscribe to the mantra that success can be found in simplicity,” says McKechnie, who owns 5G Holdings, LLC, the Nashville, Tennessee franchisee for Five Guys Burgers and Fries. “If you divide your success too much, you will degrade the quality of your product.”
It’s a view that mirrors the philosophy of the Five Guys organization, which began in 1986 as a carry-out burger joint in Alexandria, Virginia and now has 969 locations (and counting). According to the company’s website, owners Jerry and Janie Murrell and their five sons attribute Five Guys’ phenomenal growth to “their passionate and often fanatical focus on Quality Service and Cleanliness and their continual effort to keep things simple.”
Since acquiring Five Guys’ Nashville territory in 2006, the 54-year-old McKechnie has opened four stores in the area and plans to open eight more, including three this year. In 2004, he got his start in the hamburger business by purchasing the rights for the Five Guys territory in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he operates three locations.
In one sense, McKechnie returned to his roots by acquiring the territory in Charlottesville, his current hometown and the site of his alma mater, the University of Virginia. In addition to his undergraduate degree from UVA, he has an MBA from the University of Chicago and a master’s from the London School of Economics.
Finding a Passion
After finishing school, McKechnie went to New York and became a security analyst – a job he didn’t like (“I was spending more time with analyses and less with people,” he says). He moved to the Washington, DC area to accept a position as director of finance and administration for a defense electronics firm in Fairfax, Virginia.
During that time, he got his first taste of entrepreneurship when he became involved with a startup that provided training and logistics support for the defense industry. “I enjoyed the mechanics of starting something from scratch,” says McKechnie.
Still, McKechnie says he wasn’t enamored with his industry, which dealt with intangibles and “lacked a sense of identification with the product.” He began searching for a new opportunity that would give him a passion.
That search led him to Great Harvest Bread Company, a specialty bakery franchise company based in Dillon, Montana. In 1993, he opened his own Great Harvest Bakery in Alexandria, Virginia, where he embraced the company’s mission to “be loose and fun, bake phenomenal bread, run fast for customers, create exciting bakeries and give generously to others.”
“Quality requires focus and focus requires discipline.” – Bill McKechnie, 5G Holdings
Eleven years later, McKechnie sold the bakery and moved back to Charlottesville, trading DC’s hectic pace for the more laid-back atmosphere of a mid-sized city. He thinks his transition from Great Harvest to Five Guys wasn’t overly difficult because of the commonalities between the concepts.
“Hamburgers and bread are almost like commodities where the customer has many choices and differentiation is blurred,” he says. “If you stand for quality, you need to set a clear, recognizable standard to distinguish yourself — so that when it comes time for that customer to make a choice, only one name comes to mind.”
While this strategy may sound simple, executing it properly isn’t. “Quality requires focus and focus requires discipline,” says McKechnie. “Whether you are talking bread or hamburgers, you have a much greater ability to control the quality of the product when you only focus on a very limited number of offerings.”
“If I de-simplify and offer additional products in an effort to gather additional customers,” he asks rhetorically, “how much does that take my eye off the ball and risk losing my core customer and what I do well?”
For McKechnie, who was 46 when he bought his first Five Guys franchise, being an older entrepreneur has advantages and disadvantages. “With my age, I’ve acquired skills and experience that run the business gamut,” he says. “I have an understanding of demographics, which enables me to support and defend the development side of what I do.”
“On the other hand, it’s the restaurant industry and a 24/7 business,” he adds. “I’ve probably lost a step, but I try to counteract that by working smarter. I wish I had the same energy I had at 20 but would not trade the experience I’ve gained.”
Part of that working-smarter approach is getting sufficient rest. “I have a life outside of work – family, kids, wife, friends,” he says. “Balance is key. For me, that means being able to refresh with things that are important to me.”
Between opening more Five Guys locations and overseeing his current ones, McKechnie knows his workload won’t lighten anytime soon. But he’s having a good time.
“Any entrepreneurial endeavor requires large amounts of time and energy,” he says. “You had better be willing to make those commitments if you want to enter that environment.
“Otherwise, you’re better off staying out of it.”