When he agreed to come to Toledo four months ago, Jimmy Harmon knew that his first opportunity to become a chief executive officer would present unexpected challenges that his previous experience hadn’t quite covered.
But he also felt secure knowing that a mentor, Bob Bennett, the chairman of Bennett Management Corp., would be there the next few years to guide him through any rough patches.
When Mr. Bennett died unexpectedly on May 8 — just days after ironing out details of Mr. Harmon’s executive contract — the 42-year-old Colorado native realized that not only would the job be more challenging than anticipated, he’d also be working with far less guidance than expected.
But after 3½ months as CEO of privately owned Bennett Management, which owns Toledo’s iconic Tony Packo’s chain and 26 Burger King stores, Mr. Harmon said he thinks he now has a good grasp of Bennett’s restaurant operations, where they stand, and how best to run them.
Running the Burger King operations, which includes stores in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, has been an easy adjustment for Mr. Harmon, who is a former executive with the Einstein Bros. Bagels shops, and previously worked for franchise operations that controlled Hardees, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, and Arby’s stores.
“My experience leans toward [quick-serve restaurants], so the Burger King business was more familiar to me,” Mr. Harmon said last week. “They were much more stable ... and we’re having a great year on the Burger King side. It has been a fairly smooth transition.”
Running the Packo’s restaurants, which is controlled by Bennett’s TP Foods Inc. subsidiary, has meant a steeper learning curve.
“I think I’ve been fortunate with the team we have. And [Mr. Bennett’s widow] Emily has been a great resource. Her wisdom and leadership has been refreshing,” Mr. Harmon said. “You add to that the rest of the team, the Packos [Tony Jr., and Tony III], and it’s been great.”
Bennett Management acquired the Tony Packo’s chain in February, 2012.
Mr. Harmon spent nine years in Cleveland from 1996 to 2005 working for the Wendy’s/Arby’s Group and setting up Arby’s franchises across northern Ohio.
“I think I was fortunate in that I spent nine years here in Ohio. It really has helped me coming back to Ohio,” he said.
But while Mr. Harmon was in Toledo many times during those years, he never visited any of the Tony Packo’s stores.
Since mid-May, “I’ve eaten just about everything on the menu,” the CEO said. He still has not personally seen the intellectual property better known as Tony Packo’s secret sauces and recipes, but he knows that they are securely locked away in a safe place.
“I know that it’s trademarked and that it’s intellectual property and that we keep it very closely guarded,” Mr. Harmon said with a chuckle.
Having familiarized himself with the operations of Packo’s, Mr. Harmon said he now feels comfortable discussing the 81-year-old restaurant chain made famous nationally in the 1970s by the television series M*A*S*H.
“The Packo’s business is doing great. We’re having a great year. We’re very excited about the progress the team has already made. The customers have been coming in regularly, we’re seeing a lot of new faces,” Mr. Harmon said.
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Mr. Harmon said the rising financial fortunes of the chain — he declined to disclose its financial information — have been because of greater marketing efforts made by Mr. Bennett before his death. At the end of 2011, Mr. Bennett said the chain had about 200 employees and $10 million in annual sales.
“As you might remember, when Bob invested quite a bit of money in the business, a lot of that was for marketing and people. And I think we’re seeing the rewards from all the campaigns that he started late last year and that continued in the first part of this year,” Mr. Harmon said.
But in his short time in Toledo, Mr. Harmon also has been able to put his stamp on the operation with assistance from Tony Packo, Jr., and Mr. Packo’s son, Tony Packo III, who have been brainstorming ways to draw customers back to the restaurants.
One of their recent successes was the addition of salads to the Packo’s menu.
“We’re very excited about a salad test that we’re doing,” Mr. Harmon said. New items are a chicken salad and a fried pickles salad, using pickles and peppers that the chain is known for.
“It is something that is innovative that we've put together and that we've gotten rave reviews on,” said Mr. Harmon, who described the new item as “fantastic.”
Mr. Harmon meets with Packo’s managers weekly to discuss new ideas, and adding salads came from one such meeting. “We felt like we needed a bit of a product extension. In particular, we wanted to appeal to those folks that want to eat a little bit healthier, and salads are nice options, especially for the summer.
“And potentially, we could have more of a female clientele. Packo’s is skewed more to hungry males that come in and we wanted to broaden our appeal,” he said.
Mr. Harmon also approved a team idea to revive Packo’s VIP loyalty program that provides up to a $4 discount for return visits. “The Packos’ business had one for several years, but as we shifted different marketing strategies, it went away,” the CEO said. “We brought that back, and the customers have been extremely pleased.”
For his part, Mr. Harmon has been pushing harder to use social media to aid Packo’s.
“There’s so many things you can do from a social media standpoint,” the CEO said. First initiatives include advertisements on Google and Facebook, but there also could be a Tony Packo’s app for smart phones and tablets in the future, Mr. Harmon said.
“Potentially. I think the sky’s the limit digitally. You know we’re very active with Facebook and we get a tremendous amount of positive feedback through our Facebook page. That continues to grow and we think there’s many many more things we can do on the digital front,” he said.
“We think there’s plenty of opportunity on the social front to do a lot more and so that’s going to be a major piece of our marketing strategy for 2014,” he added.
1 step at a time
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After a court-controlled bidding process in October, 2011, selected Bennett Management’s $5.5 million offer to buy the Packo’s chain, Mr. Bennett said that he saw opportunities to grow and expand Packo’s possibly to Cleveland and Minnesota.
Mr. Harmon said expansion hasn’t been ruled out, but it’s not a priority.
“We have focused primarily on organic growth. That is, how do we take advantage of five locations that we have here and grow that business?” the CEO said.
“There has been plenty to do and so as you start with the customers who come in day-in, day-out for lunch and dinner and make sure that their experience is the right one, then you add some of the simpler things — like product-line extensions with the salads, the catering,” he said.
“We still get calls all the time from folks that want to franchise or license our business. We’re flattered,” Mr. Harmon said. “It’s an honor that people feel that strongly about our brand. But for the time being we’re focused on the organic growth side, but certainly we think in the long term this brand has enormous potential to grow.”
Mr. Harmon said for now the highest priority for Packo’s is providing it with stability.
A Packo family dispute originating in summer, 2010, led to the chain being put into receivership and eventually its sale to TP Foods, the first outside ownership for Tony Packo’s since its founding in 1932.
The initial court cases are finished, but appeals by Packo family member Robin Horvath of those Lucas County Common Pleas Court decisions are still pending.
Mr. Harmon, who said he feels it’s an advantage to not have been present for the litigation and acrimony, said his focus has been squarely on the operations and not the court “distractions.”
“I’ve been letting the teams know that we are going to get back to business and getting past the distractions. And I believe quite a bit of our success has been the settling of the teams and them knowing that we’ve got a united front and our leadership teams are focused on the business and really not distracted by these other things,” he said.
Getting “back to business” has meant focusing on improving operations like catering, and implementing more technology to make the Packo’s operations more efficient.
Catering to consumers
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Emily Bennett, Mr. Bennett’s widow and the new chairman of Bennett Management, said increasing Packo’s catering is an opportunity that could be hugely beneficial to TP Foods.
The company has sent its catering van to public events to gain more exposure — like an outing to Put-in-Bay for an event in front of the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial — and it seems to be paying off with new catering business, Mrs. Bennett said.
“We’ve done wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, private parties, and business corporate parties,” she said.
“We also have some larger dining areas at the [Packo’s at the] Park restaurant and will have space there dedicated to catering events for office parties or private parties during the holiday season,” Mrs. Bennett said.
Mr. Harmon said the company also will send out flyers to businesses and past catering customers “to remind them that we’re available to cater over the holidays. We think there’s a big opportunity for some holiday party catering,” he said.
Internally, Bennett Management has spent “significant money” to upgrade computer systems at Packo’s, Mr. Harmon said.
The new technology helps “manage food costs and recipes and helps us better manage labor and labor scheduling. Those tools weren’t in place before,” the CEO said.
Deploying the systems and familiarizing employees with them likely will last through year’s end, he said, but the results will be worth it.
“It really helps us with our labor scheduling and labor management ... and it absolutely helps us in forecasting our ordering, helps us in our sales projections on a day-in, day-out basis, really minimizes our waste, and keeps our product quality at the highest of standards,” he said.
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6128.