“Overnight success takes decades,” said Peter Cancro, founder and chief executive of Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems Inc. And Cancro should know. He has spent his entire career at the same company, starting with the original Mike’s Subs in Point Pleasant, N.J., in 1971, and purchasing it from its owners in 1975 when he was just 17 years old.

Cancro refined the concept for a dozen years before changing the name to Jersey Mike’s. He began selling franchises in 1987. The chain is projected to hit $396 million in sales from 700 units by the end of 2013.

Cancro spoke with former Golden Chain Award winner Nick Vojnovic, president and owner of Little Greek Franchise Development LLC, who earned his award in 2007 while leading Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. An excerpt from their conversation follows:

Nick Vojnovic: Let’s start off with your words. Give us the quick history of when you got started. What motivated you?


2013 GOLDEN CHAIN
A timeline of career and company highlights for Peter Cancro
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Peter Cancro: I started in 1971. It was my first job, and I was looking ahead to [the University of] North Carolina at Chapel Hill to play football and study law and political science. … The times back then, everyone was doing everything younger. … It was not that big of a deal when I went to a football coach of mine and said, “I think we can do something.” And we did. … We were able to raise money and buy the existing [Mike’s Subs] store from the owner, and things worked out.

NV: I’m a big believer in franchise growth. Why did you choose franchising as opposed to all corporate stores?

PC: I didn’t have the capital to expand, and I wanted to expand more rapidly, and with corporate stores, you can’t unless you look to go public or get private money to grow. ... Right now we are looking to expand some corporate stores, but obviously we’re a franchise company. … We’re looking to up the percentage of corporate stores to at least 10 percent when we have 1,000 stores. … We’re always in the business, on the forefront, testing products and training and just being in the business with our franchise owners.

NV: You mentioned 1,000 stores — how high is up?

PC: It’s funny, people say to me now, “Peter, did you ever dream you’d be where you are right now?” And I sort of look at them and say, “You really want me to tell you?” I thought we would have been where we are now 15 years ago. Right now, we’re just starting to grow. … We’re going to double the size within the next four years. … We’re going after about 200 units a year.

NV: What do you look for in key people that are part of your team?

PC: Everyone in our company … met through friends and relationships. Everyone in my company — and even franchise owners — has to share the core philosophy of our company, and that’s the whole giving side: putting other people first, being a leader that pulls people along, doesn’t push them. That’s the quality I look for in my leaders — someone that is willing to do the work, not ask someone else to do it, and that says, “Come along. This is what I see. This is where we’re going.” … We like celebrating everybody along the way.

NV: As you look back, does anything in particular stick out as a proudest moment? What jumps out at you?

PC: Just the other day, we talked about how we’re growing and everybody is talking about our growth, but what we’re talking about in our company is all the training initiatives we’re going to be doing and the “back to basics” and the speed of service and being genuine when you greet your customers. … Too many chains are like, “Hi, may we help you?” and, “Come again,” and it’s so impersonal. We’re going around the country with task teams and doubling down, tripling down.

NV: It sounds like you really enjoy where you are today. Would that be a fair call?

PC: Yes, it is. You know, years ago, you got up and you did everything, … knew everything inside and out. There wasn’t one facet of the business I haven’t been in charge of or done. Now, it’s more of the head coach position: … Where is our vision, where are we going, and how are we going to get there? …  My role, as I see it, is still getting out there around the country, meeting with the owners and trying to inspire and saying, “Come on, we can do it.” Talking to the crews behind the counter, 15-year-old kids, and saying, “Look, this is where I started.” It’s kind of neat to be able to say that. … I ask them if they think they can take me [in making a sub]. … They really think they can take me, but, of course, they can’t.

NV: Part of your core culture is giving back; I really like the whole interaction of your concept. People are friendly and conversing, connected. Can you share your thoughts on that?

PC: It started at a small town, Point Pleasant Beach, Jersey Shore — a community where I was in high school. … I watched [some restaurants] give unconditionally to the youth, to the first aid [services], to the food bank, … so I said, “You know what? That’s what we’re going to do.” Unbeknownst to me, today, marketing experts will tell you that cause-related marketing is what you should be doing. … It’s something that people recognize, and it’s part of our company. It’s so rewarding to give and so exciting. All of our franchise owners, on Giving Day this past March, raised $1.7 million and gave to over 86 charities. … It’s the owners that do it. … They see the return beyond their own excitement and pleasure. It’s not me; it’s them.

NV: Is there anything people might not realize about you? It sounds like this giving aspect of the business is what you get excited about.

PC: It’s kind of simple. It’s just get up every day [and] meet with people. That’s what moves me; that’s my passion — constantly being involved and touching people’s lives. It’s about being in a Starbucks and coming across somebody that needs something — and you can tell in their eyes when you greet them — and [asking] what you can do at that point to make a difference in their lives. It sounds kind of hokey, but if you look for it, if you’re open to it, it’s amazing what you can do. People lift each other up. 

Nick Vojnovic is the owner and president of Little Greek Franchise Development LLC, parent to the Little Greek chain. Vojnovic won a Golden Chain Award in 2007 for his leadership at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, where he served as president for 12 years.