At a time in his life when other boys his age were thinking mainly about Friday nights and fast cars, Bill Wrisinger was thinking about profit and loss statements.
When Wrisinger was 19, he became one of the youngest owner-operators in the history of Sonic. Sixteen years later, he's built that operation into a 49-store operation that spans four states.
he key to success, he says, is as simple as loving what he does.
"I have a passion for it," said Wrisinger, chief executive officer of Blue Springs, Mo.-based Wrisinger-King Franchise Group. "It never really has been work to me. It's just been a way of life."
Indeed, his email address includes the brand's name, and his voice message greeting urges callers to "have a super Sonic day."
While some could perceive that as corny, Wrisinger's business partner John King says it's real.
"Bill doesn't put on a show for anybody," said King, Wrisinger-King's vice president and secretary. "You see what you get."
Wrisinger and King's business relationship is an unusual one. Wrisinger was 22 — and 20 years younger than King — when Wrisinger trained King to take over his first Sonic store in 1985. Rather than being put off by being shown the ropes by someone so young, King developed something akin to a father-son relationship with Wrisinger, and the two built their franchise group into a successful company.
"We had a vision and chased after it every single day," Wrisinger said.
Wrisinger began working at a Lexington, Mo., Sonic at age 18 in 1982, and quickly developed a passion for service and caring about the customer. By the next year, he was offered the position of owner/operator with a 25 percent interest in the restaurant when the managing partner left.
Then newly married, he talked it over with his wife, and they decided it was an opportunity worth taking. One of the partners co-signed his loan
He saw the challenge of managing a store as not unlike his days on sports team during his school years.
"It's like putting a team together and coaching a team (by) getting everybody in the right positions and doing the right things," Wrisinger said.
He was offered a partnership in his second store with the caveat that he train King to take it over. In 1988, the two remodeled and reopened a closed Sonic store — and formed their franchise partnership.
King, now semi-retired at age 65, said he has enjoyed watching Wrisinger, now 45, grow as a business man over the years. Wrisinger has always been in charge of the franchise group's operations, and King said that's the perfect business relationship for them "because you can't have two bosses." And Wrisinger has the acumen for it.
"He's always been a go getter," King said. "Whenever a problem comes up, he'll get it solved before the day is over."
It's all about the customer
Wrisinger also takes the Sonic model and program to heart, King said. But that doesn't mean he accepts every directive blindly. If the program isn't good for business, he lets the corporation know it.
"If he doesn't like it, he'll step up and say so," King said. "He's no yes man."
For Wrisinger, it's still about customer service. From his very first days with the chain and even as an owner/operator, he wanted every customer's experience to be a good one. And he took it personally if it wasn't.
"I would have a knot in my stomach (if an order was incorrect) because it was about fast, hot food fresh and friendly" and a botched order failed to deliver that, Wrisinger said.
Sonic has noticed Wrisinger's love for the customer and brand as well.
"Bill is an operator at heart," said Rob Geresi, senior vice president of field services, Sonic. "He has never forgotten that the success of his business ultimately depends on how well he and his team takes care of our guests."
From micro-manager to visionary
Wrisinger said his management style has evolved as the franchise system has grown. For example, for the first 20 of his 25 years in franchising, he was a micro-manager.
"Nobody made a decision without the blessing of Bill Wrisinger, and that was just the style I was trained in and continued to embrace," he said.
That management style had to change as the number of units increased because he'd created a culture in which managers and employees weren't thinking for themselves.
Wrisinger hired multiunit operator Rick McElaney to take on role of president of operations. With McElaney's style of looking for "problem solvers, not problem reporters," the company now focuses on providing management the right tools to solve problems themselves, Wrisinger said.
With McElaney heading operations, Wrisinger said he has taken on the role of visionary and delegator. With only three employees — including McElaney — who report directly to him, Wrisinger can spend his time looking ahead instead of over everyone's shoulder.
"I think more globally of where Wrisinger-King wants to be within the Sonic system or within the restaurant industry and share that vision with my team and encourage them to go out and accomplish those things," he said.
Wrisinger-King's goals including adding more stores, including looking at brands outside of Sonic. The company's main goal of 2009 is to reverse the current soft cycle it is in, brought on by the tightened economy and "significant increases in the cost of raw goods, labor and utilities," Wrisinger said.
The company's plans for growth are continuing but "at a more cautious rate," Wrisinger said, thanks to significant increases in construction and land costs.
One thing that's helping the franchise group in these tough times, King said, is that Wrisinger has followed King's advice to have a good relationship with its creditors.
"When you're in a crisis like today, (the key is to) make sure you're not a number with the bank," King said.
Christa is editor of QSRweb.com and contributes to FastCasual.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. She has experience in the restaurant industry as well as 15 years as a journalist.