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Freaky successful: How Jimmy John’s rises to the top

Posted on March 5, 2009 by Karen Pojmann

We can presume they weren’t in it just for the free sandwiches.

The crowd of business students who packed Bush Auditorium for a chance to hear from Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of Jimmy John’s, the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant chain, wanted insight. At 45, Liautaud is a multi-millionaire. The sandwich shop he started in Charleston, Ill., at age 19 has morphed into a billion-dollar, 850-store empire.

Liautaud’s persona matches his carefully controlled “Freaky Fast, Freaky Good” ad campaign. His straightforward, high-speed, seemingly ADHD-affected speech is peppered with “dude” and “the deal” and “straight sh—” and summaries of how this or that might “rock” or “suck.” At a glance, he seems like a regular guy.

Though tuned in to the college-age demographic, in many ways Liautaud is everything yesterday’s rapt audience is not. He graduated from high school second to last in his class and never went to college. When trying to open his third and fourth sandwich shops on the heels of his first two locations’ success, he was denied bank loans because he didn’t have — or know how to put together — a business plan. He talks with exasperation about out-of-touch business and government leaders and the top-notch, MBA-bearing “fancy, trained guys” who nearly ran his franchise division into the ground.

In the current economy, Liautaud’s business anti-plan is working, and business students want to know why.

So what advice did he have for budding entrepreneurs?

  • Simplicity. Jimmy John’s makes 25 sandwiches from two breads, one cheese and seven meats.
  • Attention to detail. Liautaud has single-handedly revived slumping franchises. In board meetings he talks about bread-baking methods and delivery times. “When you take care of the small stuff, the big stuff takes care of itself.”
  • Living in reality. “Tell the truth. Shoot it straight. Focusing on what has to be done, focusing on your bank balance every day and keeping yourself out of debt forces us to live in reality. The fact that those bankers were tough on me back then forced me to be a better operator.”
  • Taking one step at a time. “Do the job. Finish it. Do a good job, and then go to the next job.”
  • Thinking about other people. “Exceed people’s expectations. Give people more. Place others’ interests before your own, and you’ll always be taken care of. If it’s about what you ‘give,’ the ‘get’ is gonna follow.”
  • Working hard. “Come early, stay late, and be there Saturday and Sunday.”
  • Wasting not. “It’s no fun being inefficient. It’s fun to rock.”

The results?

“Is it hard? Yeah,” Liautaud says. “Is it rewarding? It’s the most fulfilling, most incredible thing in the world to be in charge of your own destiny. It’s a drug, man. It’s absolutely addicting to be in charge of your own destiny.”

comment icon Comments (1)

  • Great article about a great talk. Thanks to the Hotel & Restaurant Management Program of the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources for inviting him to talk.

    Julie Hosmer | March 8, 2009

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