Biggby Coffee Franchisor Mike McFall on What it Means to Win
With nearly 25 years of experience in franchising, McFall reflects on what it takes to thrive – and how to define success on your own terms.
As someone that has worked in nearly every position at Biggby Coffee, including as a barista at the original cafe, Michael J. McFall knows a thing or two about building a successful franchise from the ground up.
After partnering with the company’s co-founder, Bob Fish, in 1997, McFall helped grow Biggby Coffee from a humble coffeehouse in East Lansing, Michigan to a franchise empire with over 300 stores across the U.S. and revenue topping $140 million in 2019 – an admirable feat based largely on smart business practices and a model focused on sustainable success.
“I think most startup franchisors are like, ‘Oh, I got a check for $30,000 – I’m gonna buy a boat.’ It’s an early mindset versus how we play for the long-term,” says McFall, now the company’s co-CEO, explaining that the brand’s emphasis on sustainability over immediate rewards contributed to the franchise’s 25-year success.
Today, with 160 contracted locations expected to open within the next two years, the team at Biggby Coffee still has their eyes on sustainability as the brand continues to scale. With a reinvigorated goal of elevating the workplace, McFall is also on a mission – this time, to create a better business with a heightened sense of purpose.
In good company
According to McFall, part of Biggby’s franchising success can be credited to its deliberate focus on attracting the right franchisee candidates and supporting them in their efforts to create positive environments in their stores – an organic process that can’t be automated or simplified with personality profiles or similar tools franchisors have come to rely on in recent years.
“In my experience over the years, if you think that you can run a prospect through some kind of a personality profile and have it kick out an answer as to whether somebody’s going to be successful or not, it just doesn’t work that way,” McFall says.
Instead, McFall emphasizes getting to know prospective franchisees and communicating the brand’s values to them effectively. At Biggby Coffee, McFall says the team looks for franchisees that are aligned with the company’s culture and values – something that should be a priority even when a franchisor’s industry is experiencing a boom in popularity.
“We only want franchise owners getting involved that really align well with the work that we’re in the middle of – and the work that we’re in the middle of is to prove that a workplace and an environment can be a loving, supportive, nurturing environment and be one heck of a company,” McFall says.
To ensure the company attracts and recruits the right candidates, Biggby Coffee’s team places a high priority on straightforward communication early in the process. By making sure candidates fully understand the brand’s values and vision, McFall says qualified franchisees tend to self-select into the system while others opt out. By default, the process establishes a shared value system that empowers everyone in the franchise to create a better workplace together.
“Our purpose is to support you in building a life that you love – no matter who you are, if we have interaction with you, that’s our purpose. And the vision around our organization is to improve workplace culture as a vehicle. Workplace can be a vehicle to support people in their own personal development and growth,” McFall says.
Beyond choosing the right franchisees, McFall says creating a strong company culture is also critical for success and growth as a franchisor – a process that starts with defining a brand’s identity.
“I have a concept in my book (“Grind”) that I wrote about called the ‘bumper sticker.’ And the bumper sticker is, you’ve got four words to communicate who you are and what you do. You need to figure out what that is. You need to boil down what you are, who you are, and what you do into four words – and then you need to live up to those,” McFall says.
Defining what a brand is about goes deeper than being able to describe its products and services, though. According to McFall, franchisors also need to clarify their brand’s culture – even when its products speak for themselves.
“I think, fundamentally, the product you offer has to be strong, solid and good quality,” McFall says. “…But you’ve got to have the right culture and branding, too. They go part and parcel.”
For McFall, a brand’s culture is more than the sum of its parts. From products and standards to customer service and the ways employees interact with each other, a company’s culture is defined by its actions and presence.
“Culture, to me, is a different kind of question than branding or product. Culture involves your spirit and how you interact with the world. So your brand is like the messaging, the product is obviously the product, and then the culture is, how do you interact with the world? What is the way that people can expect you to behave, whether it’s an employee or a vendor or customer?” McFall says.
At Biggby Coffee, a culture centered around treating people like humans has contributed to the brand’s overall success – a concept McFall plans to place even more emphasis on as the company forges on.
“The days of people being looked at as assets that you invest in, sort of like a machine – that people are sort of like machinery, capital investments – those days are coming to an end. We’ve always believed in this, and we’ve just been able to articulate it very clearly in the past few years. Our hope is that we’re attracting franchise owners that believe in that, too,” McFall says.
A model for sustainability
Despite Biggby Coffee’s undeniable success, McFall says the company’s focus today isn’t on celebrating old victories but rather on making sure the franchise continues to flourish as time goes on.
“I don’t look at what we’ve done as extraordinary. I’m worried about tomorrow – I’m worried about how we are going to become the company we need to be in the next three to five to seven years,” McFall says.
At Biggby Coffee, a key part of ensuring the brand’s continued growth involves making sure new franchisees are set up for success from the start – and supported by their peers on an ongoing basis as they develop their businesses.
“What we’re really focused on is making sure that we get those [new stores] open in a healthy way. Taking care of the franchise owners – especially the group, about half of those are new franchise owners. So, taking care of those people in a really healthy way so they have a good experience in their opening and get off to a good start,” McFall says.
Part of that process involves making sure new franchise owners have a strong support system to rely on. To cultivate a culture of mentorship and camaraderie within its franchise network, the Biggby Coffee team found success in a unique grassroots approach to business development called an “area representative model.”
“We now have very sophisticated, experienced franchise owners in local marketplaces supporting these new stores opening. It’s a really different kind of model than the corporate entity-based model, and we’re seeing great results from that,” McFall says.
McFall says the model, which connects new franchisees with experienced area representatives near their local territories, allows Biggby Coffee to scale more aggressively without compromising the quality of support provided to new franchisees. As an added benefit to representatives, territories come without extra fees.
“We want area representatives that are solely focused on the same things we are – which is, store-level performance, profitability, the unit, revenue at the unit, and so on. And so that’s built right into our contracts – they have to meet certain criteria. And if they don’t, and we take the territory back, they didn’t pay anything for it, right? They just didn’t perform. It’s a lot easier to do that than when somebody just wrote you a check for a million bucks,” McFall says.
While that choice might seem confusing to some franchisors, McFall says it was a “fundamental decision” based on a belief in building continual sources of revenue, like royalties from successful franchisees.
“I think that there’s a lot of franchisors, especially new ones, that live off that initial fee revenue. And that’s a really dangerous way to live. Could we have generated a few million bucks in the past four years over-selling these areas? I’m sure we could have, but it would set the relationship up on the wrong premise,” McFall says.
Serving a greater purpose
Beyond the more traditional business aspects of building a thriving brand over the last quarter-century, finding meaning has also been an important component of McFall’s career as he helped scale Biggby Coffee from a small Midwestern coffeehouse to a $100-million-dollar coffee franchise.
“Sometime around 2015, 2016, it became pretty clear that Bob (Fish) and I weren’t going to have to worry about retirement and we were gonna be able to put our kids through college. … That’s where we really got pensive and started dealing in the existential stuff like, what is this about?” McFall says.
For McFall, who is currently working on a second book called “Grow,” the answer to that question came in the form of an increasing emphasis on growth – a mindset he believes is critical for success, both in business and on a personal level.
“I teach a class, and this pretty reflective student asked me, ‘Why are you so obsessed with growth?’ …” McFall says. “My answer was: because if you’re growing, it means you’re getting better and you’re improving. And that, to me, is what needs to be our obsession – how do we get better every single week? How do we get better every single month? What do we need to be doing now to get better? Growth, to me, is the demonstration of improvement.”
Part of that realization stemmed from a transformational observation McFall made while spending time golfing at the country club where he is a member.
“I looked around and I was like, ‘Man, this place is full of a bunch of guys like me – you know, 50- or 60-year-old fat white dudes. And all we’re trying to do, hanging out with each other, is prove who’s richer. No one [appears] to be doing anything interesting.’ And I just kind of instantly decided that wasn’t going to be my life,” McFall says.
Since then, McFall’s definition of success has changed – extending beyond finances to the idea of making the world a better place through better ways of doing business. As an unusually successful entrepreneur, the concept of using Biggby Coffee as a vehicle for supporting others in building lives they love has become a personal mission for McFall as he looks toward the future.
“[Entrepreneurs] all have an obligation. Private enterprise is the most powerful force on the planet. By a factor of, I don’t even know how many hundreds, it is the most powerful force on the planet. It has all the resources, it has all the smart people. And so those of us that control private enterprise, we have to get involved in improving the human condition, or we’re all in a lot of trouble. No one else is going to do it,” McFall says.
To learn more about Biggby Coffee, visit https://www.biggbyfranchising.com.