Empower The Experts: Interview With Donatos Chairwoman Jane Grote Abell

I recently went one on one with Jane Grote Abell. Jane is the chairwoman and a founding family member of Donatos.

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here? 

Jane: Thank you for taking the time to learn a little more about Donatos and our secret sauce. How did I get here? Well, the short answer would be that I was born into the business. I literally grew up in a house behind our first restaurant. My dad built his first restaurant without a dining room, so every night our customers would come knock on our door and my mom always invited them in to wait for their pizza. Needless to say, we had a living room full of customers who quickly became our friends. I loved the energy of the customers sitting around our kitchen table talking about their lives, struggles and success in life. I honestly fell in love with the people that worked for my dad and our customers more so than the pizza. It captured my heart at a very early age. I started working in the restaurant as soon as I could after school and alongside my grandma making the dough all during the summers through elementary school.  During high school, I spent the weekends after football games working in the restaurant and in the summers managing shifts. I attended The Ohio State University and worked year-round managing at our campus location. After graduation in 1988, I worked in our Training Department and then interviewed for our Human Resource Department. I changed the name to the People Department in 1992 because I believe the sole purpose of being in business is to serve our people and provide opportunities. In 1996, I put together a proposal to become a Chief People Officer, and I believe I was the first in the industry to hold this title. Shortly after that, we sold to McDonald’s and I was promoted to lead the Real Estate, Franchise Sales, and Franchise Development Department. Once my dad and I bought the company back, I became the COO and President until 2010 when I named my successor, my husband Tom Krouse, as CEO, and I became Executive Chairwoman of the Board and Chief Purpose Officer.

What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? I have had many failures and setbacks in my career. The one that has been the most instrumental happened during my days under the arches.  While it was an exciting time working for McDonalds, it was a very challenging time for me professionally.  Up until 1999, I had only worked for our privately held family business. I had to quickly learn how to operate in the world of a publicly traded corporation.  While I made many mistakes during this time, my biggest failure was losing my soul and not staying true to my authentic self. I started believing that I had to operate differently in different situations. I began to put on armor and started ‘code switching’ in order to prove myself as someone more than just a family member. I adjusted my style, speech, appearance, behavior and expression in order to optimize the comfort of others or prove myself worthy of being at the table. I didn’t like who I was becoming and fortunately during a very stressful time of closing one of our markets I had an ‘ah ha’ moment. I decided that being true to myself was more important than my next position. I realized that if I wasn’t in a place with a safe enough work environment to do that than how could I expect our 5,000 associates to feel like they could be their authentic self at work. Shortly after I recognized this, I shifted back and our CEO, the late Bill Rose, who was brought on from McDonald’s, began recognizing my leadership. He not only promoted me but told my dad that I should be the next CEO for Donatos. As a family member, it is always reassuring to have an outside objective advocate.

My biggest challenge would have to be leading the team to buy back our family business from McDonald’s. What I learned most during this time wasn’t how to put the strategy together because we had smart people around the table working on the buy back. It was the passion of our people. Regardless of the rumors spreading around that McDonald’s was closing the business, our people stayed, they showed up, they were servant leaders, and led with love!

Adam: How have you navigated the personal and professional relationships with the many family members you work closely with?

Jane: The challenge is certainly a factor and only 30% of family-owned businesses last into the 2nd generation, 12% last into the 3rd generation and a mere 3% of family-owned and operated businesses last into the 4th generation.  There are a lot of reasons for this statistic. Family business, like anything in life with family, can be messy and magical.  It is messy when there is not a clear path for onboarding, succession planning, and expectations. But it can be magical when there is clear communication about the mission, vision, and values for the future and a place for each family member where they can contribute to the business.

What advice do you have on how to successfully manage working with a spouse and family members?

Jane: The best advice I would give to family in family business is to make sure that you surround yourself with experts and join organizations that understand the dynamics of family business.  Every family business is unique. You should learn from multi-generational businesses in order to decide what path is the best for your business and family.  As we moved into the 3rd generation a year ago with my son joining the business, we are navigating new waters and learning the value of successful onboarding. As a 2nd generation family member, I joined the family business in a professional position, right after I graduated from The Ohio State University.  While this strategy has its challenges, I had already worked in the restaurants for over 10 years so I had the respect internally, but I constantly had to prove my value to many external hires. For the 3rd generation, we decided that it would be best to build a career somewhere else first for 5 years before joining the family business.  My son, Tony Capuano, graduated and became an entrepreneur when he purchased 5 SNAP Fitness gyms.  He owned and operated them as a franchise and eventually trained his replacement. In addition, he is a co-founder of a start-up technology company known as PrescribeFit. Both opportunities gave him the experience to learn what it is like to run his own business as a CEO, be a franchisee, lead a team, and train his successor.  It also gave him experience to raise capital and hire a CEO for his start-up business. He brings valuable insight and creativity to our 58-year-old business. He is our Executive Director of Innovation at Donatos and works closely with his grandpa, Jim Grote, who is affectionately known as Papa Pizza at our Edge Innovation Center.

Adam: In your experience, what are the key steps to growing and scaling your business?

Jane: This is a great question. I believe the key steps to growing and scaling a family business is to do it for the right reasons.  For us, it is about building on Our Mission to promote goodwill and to build our business on the power of unconditional love.  We believe that doing business with principles is the missing piece in business.  We refer to this as Agape Capitalism.  We believe in the ethic of the golden rule, where free enterprise is necessary within a free society, where imagination, creativity and power of belief create abundance, and where every day is earth day.  For us, to build a billion-dollar brand without giving more than we receive would not fulfill our vision.  Simply put, be true to who you are and make decisions that reflect your values, so you don’t build for the wrong reasons. We were never in business for an exit strategy, so our timeline isn’t determined by the ‘street’ or a valuation. This allows us to grow responsibly and make sure that we don’t grow faster than we can develop our people.

Adam: What are your best tips on the topics of sales, marketing and branding? 

Jane: My best tip on sales, marketing and branding is to empower the experts to execute and deploy the brand vision. My husband, Tom Krouse, who is our President and CEO, and our SVP of Marketing, Carol Pasquariello, are the best in the industry at ensuring value proposition is authentic to our founding principles. Always hire people who are smarter than you and make sure they are people who you trust to carry out a marketing strategy

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Jane: My best advice in leading and managing teams is to lead people and manage the business. I believe in hiring people that are smarter than I am. My dad challenged me at the age of 23 to either hire someone with the experience in human resources or he would hire them for me to report to. That was a valuable lesson for me because I wasn’t sure I would find someone who had the experience in human resources that would report to me as a young professional. Never second guess the ability to attract great talent when you have a great mission. I was fortunate to hire Ken Williams, who served as a SVP of Human Resources for a $200MM dollar restaurant franchise. He was humble, kind and wise. I learned a lot from him in the 10 years we worked together. When we sold to McDonalds, he left to serve as the Chief Administration Officer for Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  He taught me the fundamentals of Human Resources, but more importantly he taught me what servant leadership really looked like in a business.

Adam: What do you believe are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jane: I wrote about the qualities that I believe to be instrumental in my book “The Missing Piece – Doing Business the Donatos Way”. I believe there are four essential qualities for a leader to exhibit in order to be effective.  I write about the importance of Character, Conviction, Courage, and Compassion.  Always surround yourself with people of character who inspire you to be the best version of yourself.  Be sure that your conviction is aligned with your purpose in life and in business. Always have the courage to live your values out loud, and lead with compassion.

Adam: What are the best leadership lessons you have learned from leading in the philanthropic and nonprofit space?

Jane: I have served on several boards over the last 20 years in the nonprofit world, but co-founding our nonprofit, Reeb Ave Center (www.reebavenuecenter.org), has been a true labor of love. We were challenged by Mayor Michael Coleman to give back to the community where we grew up on the South Side of Columbus. My mentor and friend Tanny Crane and I set out on a mission to lift up a community by giving a hand up, not a handout.  We were able to contribute with our time, talent, and treasure.  We worked with a collaborative group of leaders, entrepreneurs, executives, civic leaders, and nonprofits in community to build a hub of hope. We raised $14 MM to renovate an abandoned elementary school building that now houses 13 nonprofits who are dedicated to our mission to help our neighbors find jobs and get their education. We are proud of the work that we can do in the neighborhood. We have been recognized as one of the top 15 national nonprofits that are achieving results in a collaborative way.  And we are proud to have been visited by the Obama Administration and Peter Buffet alongside of the United Way.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jane: I think the best piece of advice I have been given in life and in business was from my dad, to always lead with love and do the right thing.

Adam Mendler is the CEO of The Veloz Group, where he co-founded and oversees ventures across a wide variety of industries. Adam is also the creator and host of the business and leadership podcast Thirty Minute Mentors, where he goes one on one with America’s most successful people – Fortune 500 CEOs, founders of household name companies, Hall of Fame and Olympic gold medal winning athletes, political and military leaders – for intimate half-hour conversations each week.

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