The dynamic duo of Operations and HR is an unusual pairing in the QSR space. But Apollo Joulios and Kayla Ladd (both of Wowza/Whirld Concepts, a Jamba and Cinnabon franchisee) are proving that this team can be a powerful one—using their distinct domains to more than double the company’s size and scale largely from within.
Their origin stories are quite different, however. Apollo got his start at Jamba in high school, at the same time his father, Panos, came in to train as a manager. Apollo left Jamba to go to college on a different track, while Panos eventually became a franchisee in California.
Meanwhile, Kayla had been doing some HR work on the side for a franchisee in Arizona. That franchisee was in the process of closing stores, not opening them. So Kayla was on her way out of the industry when Panos approached her about coming on board as his operator when he expanded into her state.
He also invited Apollo back into the fold as Director of Operations, and bam!—Wowza/Whirld Concepts took off. They now have 41 stores and counting, with more than 700 employees during peak season.
This growth, while exceptional, is not unique. But what sets their organization apart is the dedicated growth of both the HR and the Operations functions as distinct, related functions. Kayla, in fact, is now the HR Manager for Wowza/Whirld, a job that did not exist until she identified opportunities for the company to double down on building out human resources into what it is today.
In this interview, we talk with Apollo and Kayla about how (and why) they grew out a dedicated HR function, how this evolution empowered company-wide opportunities for growth, how their extreme operational transparency between functions (and throughout the organization) enables them to scale quickly and sustainably, and where leaders can begin to develop similar strategies for their own teams.
Spinning out a dedicated HR org
When Kayla came on board as an operator for Wowza/Whirld, the company was growing so quickly that she found herself handling most HR issues while also being its only operations leader in the state of Arizona. And that didn’t change once they started adding district managers—they all had HR functions under their umbrellas, and Kayla still did too.
“We all knew what was coming,” she says. “We needed to have a dedicated HR department to handle the needs of the business, to support the continued growth efforts of our business and to make sure that our people were at the center of that growth.”
Kayla easily took on so many HR functions because she had a solid team of district managers and store managers to handle the operations side of things. But she recognized that other operations managers might not be so fortunate—so she, along with Apollo, undertook the conscientious process of creating a distinct HR program alongside Ops.
In that process, they learned these key lessons:
- You’re building up Ops at the same time you’re building up HR. When splitting off an Operations leader to become an HR leader, you want to make sure that Ops is still being taken care of. That means training upper-level replacements for whoever, like Kayla, is making the transition
- Communicate policies and procedures to the company. Kayla flags this as a big deal, and it keeps HR from being insular within the organization. Even though HR might now oversee recruiting, hiring, onboarding and training, streamlining those processes and implementing them across locations and districts is crucial to maintaining consistency.
- Recruit for the managerial ranks—and recruit from within. For Ops to stand distinct from HR, it needs strong leadership at both the store and regional levels. So early on, Kayla and Apollo recruited heavily for strong store managers and assistant managers—and as they grew, they recruited from those ranks for district managers. “We were lucky enough to grow from within,” Kayla says. “All but one of our current DMs has worked for Jamba at a team member level. That’s very helpful.”
Creating company-wide opportunities with the Ops and HR dynamic
One of the higher-level reasons Wowza/Whirld decided to spin HR off from Ops was that, with the company portfolio multiplying so rapidly, they identified the opportunity and the benefit of creating company-wide initiatives on both sides. When HR was folded into Ops at all levels, each manager largely had to create and implement these initiatives themselves. With dedicated functions, those programs can become more efficiently centralized.
“I’d had so many ideas, just coming from an operations standpoint, where we could improve as a company,” Kayla says. “We were doing so many great things and I wanted the ability to share those great things with the company as a whole, as opposed to them just being at a store level or maybe a district level. Creating opportunities at a more company-wide level, as opposed to an individual store level, was a huge benefit.”
Apollo loves having a separate HR branch to collaborate with because of the structure it provides to the organization as it scales—which in turn helps the organization improve the environment for its people. After all, operations and the people function go hand-in-hand: you can’t operate, and you can’t grow, without your people.
“We are so big that having that many employees just takes up so much time,” he says. “And we’re not going to slow down. Our goal is to keep adding on. The efficiency of this collaboration of minds, identifying needs and coming up with fresh new ideas has been great.”
Scaling from within by being transparent
One of the dangers of splitting off these functions is that HR and Ops become siloed. (Perhaps this is why so many QSR companies operate without distinguishing these functions!) So Wowza/Whirld operates with extreme operational transparency—not only between these functions, but between the parent organization and individual store teams.
“From the team member to the GM, to our DMs, we’re transparent with our timelines, with our expectations, with financials,” Apollo explains. “We want them to run their districts and stores as if they own them. The only way to do that is to be transparent, show them where every dollar goes, show them where the people go.”
For Wowza/Whirld, this transparency takes the form of monthly calls with DMs to go through profit and loss statements and succession planning on the Ops side, plus training and development updates, company policies, and health and wellness programs on the HR side. Then the DMs have subsequent sit-downs with their GMs and AGMs, and some of that information makes it all the way to hourly team members.
This level of transparency is not typical for managers in the industry—many companies share more on a need-to-know basis, with more need-to-know the higher up the ladder a manager climbs. A typical managerial track might start with learning about cost of goods sold and hitting certain benchmarks. But a new manager doesn’t understand all the context behind the decisions they have to make. And as they move up, they slowly pick up more knowledge. But the Wowza/Whirld model of transparency offers a stronger sense of understanding right from the get-go.
“If you don’t share what goes into the business and you don’t educate the teams, they won’t really understand,” Apollo says. “If we don't teach that at an early stage, we won't be a successful business.”
Getting comfy with extreme transparency
A lot of leaders may balk at the idea of being quite so transparent the whole way down the chain. But Apollo and Kayla see this extreme clarity as an essential component of their build-leadership-from-within approach.
“Knowledge is power,” Kayla says. “We definitely want to empower our store leaders to own their business, and they can't do that if they don't know what's going in and what's coming out of their stores.”
Apollo expounds on this idea: “There's the things that you can control and the things that you can't,” he says. “We really like to focus on what you can control. So, labor and COGS and what you spend. What are you spending on office supplies? What are you spending on uniforms? And at the end of each month, it's neat to see the trickle down from when we share with the DMs, and then they share with their teams. It’s eye-opening, especially with the newer GMs and AGMs, who are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just didn't know that paper cost this much.’”
Even leaders who are comfortable with sharing financials with managers might get squeamish about talking money with hourly team members. Apollo talks about GMs who have put price tags on each piece of equipment in a store to show the team how much, say, an orange juicer costs—opening the team members’ eyes and making them better stewards of the company’s assets.
Of course, their company is not simply throwing numbers at DMs and team members and expecting the understanding to come. One of the strengths of the distinct HR org is that Kayla’s team oversees trainings for understanding different facets of the financials—giving managers better context into the information, and easing the hesitancy some leaders might feel about sharing this information so transparently.
“We train our DMs first to feel comfortable with digging into their P&Ls, and then encourage them to spend time training their GMs and AGMs during their monthly one-on-ones,” Kayla explains. “And it takes years for them to fully grasp a P&L, because it can be very complex. It’s daunting to look at. So we include a lot of training.”
Final thoughts: It takes the right people
The Wowza/Whirld model works: the organization has more than doubled in size by any metric. But all the efficiency behind strengthening both HR and Ops functions—and all the brilliance behind extreme transparency—won’t amount to much without a certain human element.
So if there’s one place to get started in unlocking your operational efficiency, it’s this: Believe in your brand. Then, find other people who believe in it too.
“It starts with our people,” Kayla says. “I have seen resumes four pages long with experience in the restaurant industry. The person can have as much experience and knowledge as we want, but if they are not bought into our ideals, our mission, our brand, what we try to do every day, it’s just not going to work. They won't be happy. They're not going to be successful, and they’re not going to be a long-term solution.”
Apollo concurs. “You have to believe in the brand, you have to believe in who you work for and you have to believe in your teams,” he says. “Nothing will get done unless there's that buy-in from everyone. This comes with the transparency piece. I mean, we wouldn’t even be here right now if Kayla hadn’t gotten transparency with our roadmap years back. That has led to us being transparent with the rest of the teams. And we’re all here because we absolutely love the brand and we believe in what we do.”
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