This 60-something quit his job to save a chicken chain

John Buttolph, a 63-year-old lawyer with no food or restaurant experience stepped away from a 35+ year career as an attorney to focus on resurrecting the Mrs. Winner’s a brand in the Southeast.
Source: Mrs. Winner's

John Buttolph may have revitalized the Mrs. Winner's Chicken & Biscuits brand, but he wasn't always in the restaurant business.

The 63-year-old CEO had spent more than 35 years as an attorney before taking the reins of the quick-service chain in 2012 while it was in bankruptcy court. Mrs. Winner's had shuttered all but 12 of its stores in 2010, all of which were owned by franchisees. Now, Buttolph's company is slated to open 100 new restaurants in the next five years.

His reason for starting a second career? A roundtable discussion at a reunion at his alma mater, Amherst College.

"Probably 25 men spoke, and every one of them, they were so tired, they projected such weariness and such, relative to my life, a pessimistic outlook about their future," Buttolph told CNBC. "I remember thinking at that point: I have a lot more life force in me still."

For entrepreneurs looking to restart their career or bust into a new one, Buttolph has a few tips.

1. Have an appetite for risk

"I always, for many years, wanted to be an entrepreneur," Buttolph said. "Acting as an adviser to business clients was, that was my legal practice, and I just felt at a certain point that I didn't want to advise any more. I wanted to be the decision-maker."

He said he saw Mrs. Winner's as an opportunity to delve into an industry he'd long been interested in.

"You've got to have an appetite for risk to leave a well-settled structure of business life after a 30- or 40-year career and say, 'OK, I'm going to do something else and I'm not that familiar with the structure. I'm just going to figure it out. I'm going to build it.'"

The downside of Buttolph's new career?

"I miss billing hourly," he said. "All the untold hours I have put in to developing this business and building a platform, and it's uncompensated."

2. Build relationships with your employees

"In a franchising model you are asking franchisees to invest their own hard- earned resource, both time and money, into a system that will provide support and structure for them," Buttolph said. "And it is just imperative as the franchiser that you really think carefully through the construction of that system."

Franchisees who remained after Mrs. Winner's bankruptcy filing had stopped paying royalties and initially did not want to reintegrate into the company when Buttolph took over. The stores were renamed and continued to operate independently.

Within six months, sales in those franchises dropped around 50 percent because of the loss of the name, said Buttolph. Eleven of the 12 stores that split from the company returned shortly after.

"I know the franchiser must listen to the franchisee and to the franchisees' business ideas and to the franchisees' concerns about the franchiser's business plan," Buttolph said of keeping strong business relationships.

"That doesn't mean that you change all of your plans because one or two franchisees don't like it, but the franchisee is running the business at the ground level and the franchiser has to be humble enough to know that a franchisee has some hard-won wisdom."

3. Know your industry

Buttolph knew very little of the restaurant business when he purchased the intellectual property and trademark of Mrs. Winner's. So, he bought a restaurant and operated it with the help of a general manager in order to understand the daily challenges that franchisees and chain owners face.

"For myself, what I had to do to become a more competent C-level professional is I attended several conferences with other C-level quick service professionals and I built a network of relationships with both professionals ... and mentors."

4. Make responsible choices

Entrepreneurs have to make a lot of difficult decisions, especially when they are just starting out.

"I had some folks come forward with very potentially lucrative opportunities for me as a franchiser — 10, 15 store deals, and I turned them down." Buttolph said. "And it was good that I turned them down because they were not responsible deals for the franchiser and they would have underserved particular markets. It's hard when you are starting out to turn down big money but you have to use your discretion."

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