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Growing up, Christopher Klebba told Insider his dad was always working, so his mom tried her best to get them healthy meals regularly, despite the limited options in Northville, Michigan. It was during this time that his passion for health and fitness developed.
Today, Klebba, 28, is the owner of 14 Smoothie King franchises in Michigan and Ohio, with 51 more scheduled to open over the next five years.
“They were the first to really focus on what they’re not adding in their smoothies,” Klebba said, explaining his attraction to the brand. “It’s just the whole fruits and veggies.”
Smoothie King’s “purpose-driven” model allows it to stand out, he said. There’s a smoothie for every lifestyle and condition, including smoothies for athletes, vegans, cancer patients, pregnant moms, and children.
Klebba credits his father, Chris, for being a model for entrepreneurial success. A former body builder, Chris converted a gym to launch the first Planet Fitness in Northville, partnering with Bain Capital and Morgan Stanley to ultimately own 38 of the franchises.
“It lit a fire in me early,” Klebba said. He said his father demonstrated the benefits of leadership development — “motivating and engaging teams and the magic that you can make happen, the lives you can change on a big scale in a franchise system.” His Smooth King franchises employ roughly 400 people.
Klebba, who now lives in Brighton, Michigan, founded Northern Diamond Management in 2017, an equity management firm that acts as a parent for Northern Blends, the Smoothie King holding company.
In the midst of the pandemic, Klebba opened four stores, and another three are under construction. Since all of his Smoothie Kings are drive-throughs, “it was perfect timing,” he said. “That was a huge advantage that allowed us to still serve the community.” The company reported record-breaking growth in 2020, with plans to expand further in 2021 into new markets such as Chicago.
Franchises, he said, provide an ideal entrepreneurial opportunity, since they’re a proven concept and often have a lot marketing power behind them. Also, “there’s a lot of shared mutual knowledge about the brand,” which is particularly helpful, he said.
Klebba shared his tips for building and maintaining a successful franchise.
Cultivate a strong relationship with the franchisor
Those operating franchises tend to overlook the franchisee/franchisor relationship, he said. But it’s important to cultivate relationships with the executive team to ensure that your vision and that of the franchisee are aligned.
“You have to agree on everything, what’s the model, where is it going?” he said, “and how do we keep the model evolving in the future? That’s going to be the most important relationship.”
Establish core values and keep them at the forefront of your business
Core values should be “your guiding compass” and why you exist, Klebba said. Values provide an essential roadmap to the many facets across his company, including who he hires and how he develops talent.
The rallying cry for his Smoothie King franchises is: “We help people discover their purpose and deliver an unrivaled experience.” He often recites that phrase, along with the values, with fellow employees and “we hold each other accountable” to them, he said. Before he rolls out a new concept or considers opening a new store, he will ask, “Why do we exist? Why do we want to do this?”
People who stand out in the franchise system are those who find the best performers, he said.
“Our best product is our people,” he said.
80% of the time in executive meetings is devoted to discussing leadership issues, including where the best leaders are coming from and how they’re developing. Everybody Klebba hires has the potential to be a leader and is being developed to be one, he said. This helps to make every employee feel like they can make an impact, that they’re a part of something bigger than their paycheck and aren’t a dispensable employee.
At franchises he’s owned for more than a year, he said, 100% of store-level managers were promoted from within.
“The only way to grow is to create internal fantastic leaders,” he said. He said those who are high performing are promoted at a high rate; as new stores open, a person who’s running an existing store may be tapped to run it, while those working for that person are often promoted to the leadership position.
Having a strong leadership culture is particularly important since he can’t be in every store at once. “You have to rely on your leaders,” he said.
Provide meaningful incentives
Klebba disagrees with the view of some in the industry that it’s a waste of time to develop leaders who won’t stay long. He said the emphasis should be on creating a culture where employees will want to remain with the company.
He said there should be an expectation that time spent with his company “will change your life.”
“We’re going to help develop you as a person and give you skills and get you where you want to go,” he said. He warns against using one reward system that serves the entire company, instead suggesting that it be tailored to each employee’s individual circumstance.
It used to be that each employee received a Starbucks gift card in recognition of their work. But that didn’t result in much engagement. Klebba prefers to get to know his employees to learn what type of reward would be most meaningful to them.
One of his employees was a single mother who wanted to spend more time with her daughter. He worked her shift for two days so she could attend her daughter’s softball tournament.
“You’re getting so much more engagement out of leading people through their values and helping them achieve their priorities than having a blanket type of reward,” he said.
Create a road map for success and share it with your employees
Have a flow chart documenting the order of operations for the business, and include the three elements that need to be achieved to move the business forward. That should be shared with frontline workers.
Klebba said he’s laid out a detailed path for employees that discusses expectations for a frontline, entry-level employee all the way to district leader and beyond. “We have literally a training roadmap of all the tools and materials that are going to take you on that path,” he said.
Klebba said he enjoys his product so much that once a week, he heads to the drive-through to get his favorite Smoothie King Drink, “Pineapple Recharge.” With no family of his own, he invests most of his waking hours in his franchises.
“There’s no separation of personal and business,” he said about running a franchise. “It’s your life.”