Growth, Scaling, and Life Lessons from Jimmy John Liautaud, Founder, Owner & Chairman of Jimmy John’s
By Lauren Davis ’18
Every week at Kellogg there is an impressive schedule of lunch & learns, panels, and events with leaders from all industries and sizes of companies. These events are in addition to the business leaders who are brought in as guest lecturers in courses like New Venture Discovery, as clients for courses like Analytical Consulting Lab, or as judges in case competitions like the Kellogg Business Design Challenge. Since starting here in the Fall, I have heard from several accomplished entrepreneurs and professionals, including:
- Founder of OkCupid, Sam Yagan
- Co-Founder of Bucketfeet, Raaja Nemani
- President of Red Lobster, Salli Setta
- Founder & Managing Partner of TEN35, Sherman Wright
- Former VP Operations at eBay, John Courtney
- And so many others!
These events have quickly become one of my favorite parts of the Kellogg experience. I find myself looking at the calendar months in advance to be sure I get a seat at every speaker event that looks interesting. So, when I saw that the founder and Chairman of Jimmy Johns was coming to campus, I signed up immediately.
Facilitated by Professor Karin O’Connor, the scheduled 1-hour roundtable with Jimmy John Liautaud turned into almost 2 hours of engaging story telling. It felt like we circled the world with him and got a firsthand account of his journey, from the initial loan his dad gave him at age 18 to the upcoming plans he has for the franchise.
Many of his lessons complemented the tools taught in the core curriculum. From my Business Strategy and Operations Management classes, I saw the Assets and Activities framework coming to life as he explained his use of high quality ingredients and superior service, combined with a laser-focus on efficient operations, to achieve competitive advantage in the marketplace. As the small group of ~15 students went around the room asking questions, a few key growth & scaling lessons stood out in the stories he told:
- Find what you are good at and take time to perfect it.
- Avoid chasing passing fads to make a quick buck.
- Know your risk tolerance and resist the temptation to take on more debt than you need.
- Do not rush growth. Be meticulous and only grow in the right locations at the right time.
Recruit Good Leaders
- Hire eagles, not ducks. Eagles will hire other eagles, because they’re not afraid of being eaten, but a duck will never hire an eagle.
Play Where You Can Win
- Both in your business and charitable endeavors, choose organizations and opportunities where your expertise, skills, or contributions will result in a real and lasting impact.
As the discussion drew to a close, I was last around the table to ask a question. I had so many I wanted to ask, but when it was my turn only one thing came to mind. I asked if he had ever been afraid. It was a question with an obvious answer – of course he had. Everyone is afraid at some point in their career. But earlier that week I had gone to an event called Hear My Story, where a panel of students shared their experiences on a theme, which that week happened to be “Failure Stories.” The openness and vulnerability of those classmates is likely what inspired my question of Mr. Liautaud, and the response he gave was unexpectedly moving.
Mr. Liautaud opened up about the mistakes he made in managing money early on, and the anguish he felt when he had to borrow money from a friend to make payroll. He talked about how this affected him as a leader and how he made it a priority from then on to do right by his employees. He then told us about a particularly painful time when he lost a partner and good friend on the eve of their second store opening, and the struggle it was to keep moving forward in the face of tragedy.
When you read about peoples’ staggering successes, it can be easy to forget the real emotion and daily struggle that comes with the journey. The raw honesty and open dialogue we had throughout the roundtable made for an incredibly powerful discussion. These moments where I can immerse myself in someone else’s story are what make my experience at Kellogg so much more than just the pursuit of a degree. The tactical skills I learn in the classroom will help me excel at my next job, but stories like these will help me get through challenges I cannot yet anticipate.
Lauren Davis ’18 is a 2Y student at Kellogg.