Saxbys Coffee – How treating your people right can lead to success

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 4, 2015

Attending the grand opening of the Saxbys cafe April 13 on Drexel University’s campus was a unique event. What made it unique is that the cafe is entirely managed and operated by Drexel undergraduate students. It has a different feel than its well-known competitor in the coffee business. The atmosphere is “millennial trendy” – from the decor, to the background music, to the willingness of the Saxby team members to engage in friendly conversation with customers, who are referred to within the Saxby culture as guests. There is no doubt that this Saxbys cafe will be a huge hit with the students on Drexel’s campus.

Nick Bayer, the CEO of Saxbys Coffee, hosted the grand opening along with two key Drexel leaders who helped make this student managed and operated cafe a reality – President John A. Fry and founding dean of the Close School of Entrepreneurship Donna De Carolis. Congressman Chaka Fattah was also present to help celebrate the grand opening. I was so impressed with Bayer’s focus on creating a great customer experience that I interviewed him to learn more about his leadership philosophy and his focus on his team members and guests.

I asked Bayer why he decided to pursue the idea of having a Saxbys cafe managed and operated by college students. He said, “I saw college students who were looking for entrepreneurial opportunities, I saw colleges embracing entrepreneurship, and I felt that I wanted to provide the experiential component.”

Bayer chose Drexel for this Saxbys’ cafe because of the University’s reputation for being on the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship. Bayer said that he received great support from the University on choosing the right location for the Saxbys cafe – a corner that borders the academic and residential part of Drexel’s campus that is passed by over a thousand students each day walking to and from class.

Bayer feels that Saxbys’ culture is the most important determinant of his company’s success. I asked Bayer, “How do you differentiate Saxbys – why do customers come to your cafes and buy coffee?” He said, “We compete on people, not on product. Most people think that we are in the product business – we are actually in the people business. I realized that I can compete [with other companies] on people and on hospitality. People are at the core of what we do – our team members and guests.”

Bayer continued, “I thought that if you take people who are smart, passionate and prideful, and give them the tools and wide enough boundaries, good things could happen. I want this to be a place where people want to work. Our culture is defined by our people not by a product.”

Bayer and his senior leadership team give significant support to their cafe managers. He said, “I personally am an absolute zealot of the mentality of ‘servant leadership.’ Organizations work best when they are upside down. Our cafe managers are the CEOs of the businesses. All the people at headquarters exist to serve our cafe managers and their teams. We are here to help them to be better at their jobs. My expectation of them is to be servant leaders to the members of their teams. Their job is to make life better for their guests every single day.”

On the subject of empowerment, Bayer said, “We hire people with good critical judgment and empower them to make decisions. Other employers take power away from their employees. I don’t want to get in the way. I want my people making decisions. I hire people who will develop a sense of ownership in their business.”

The first manager of Drexel’s Saxbys cafe was Meghan Regan, a pre-junior on a six-month co-op work assignment. After being trained as a manager at other Saxbys locations, she assumed her role as manager of the Drexel cafe while it was being constructed. She was responsible for marketing and promotion of the cafe and hiring the staff – all part-time Drexel students.

I asked Regan what she thought about the culture of Saxbys. She stated, “I think the culture is amazing. Every Saxbys I worked at [during my training] felt like home. People come first. Team members are friendly with their guests and get to know their names.” Regan said, “Guests don’t mind waiting in line for 20 minutes. We apologize and give them a free drink card or ask if we can get them a cookie to enjoy while they wait. We ask them how their day is going … we don’t want them to be bored while waiting in line.”

Kelsey Goslin, another pre-junior on her co-op work assignment, followed Regan as the second cafe manager of the Saxbys at Drexel. I asked Goslin what traits she looks for when hiring team members. She said, “Saxbys looks for people who are outgoing, detail oriented and disciplined, a core value of Saxbys. People come back for that atmosphere and want to interact with the team members who work there. We want to hire people who are positive in their outlook and are hard working.”

Goslin stated that as a co-op student, she had the same decision-making authority and was held to the same metrics as any other Saxbys cafe manager. Goslin feels that the management experience she is gaining as a college student is invaluable to her future career, and will differentiate her among other job seekers in the market.

Bayer’s leadership philosophy is somewhat different than that of the franchisee of the Popeyes restaurant in Channelview, Texas that I wrote about last week. Bayer’s philosophy however, is the same as we adopted when I was CEO of PQ Corporation, a capital-intensive manufacturing business. It guided our approach to continuous improvement and how we helped our customers be successful in their businesses, with great results.

So, what are the takeaways on how to build your business and differentiate it from the competition, regardless of the business that you are in? Hire people with strong interpersonal skills and with good critical judgment, empower them, and create a culture where the focus is on creating a great customer experience. Treat employees and guests, customers and clients like you would like to be treated. Lead employees like you would like to be led. The businesses that adopt these principles are the ones that will excel.

Stanley W. Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership, and serves as the leadership catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com

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