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An interview with Wingstop Chief Executive James Flynn

James Flynn of Wingstop
James Flynn

James Flynn is the chief executive of Wingstop Restaurants, Inc. As such, he is responsible for the chain’s top line strategy and the company’s full scope of development. Under his leadership Wingstop has enjoyed 29 consecutive quarters of same store sales gains and he is currently leading the Dallas area-based chain on a growth surge. A highly disciplined individual, Flynn is a high achiever who likes the challenge of business.

Prior to joining Wingstop, Flynn served as the president of Trident Management Corporation from 1990 to 2003. At Trident, Flynn served a number of private retail and restaurant companies as chief executive, president, or consultant for equity participation.

Flynn has also worked with Phillips-Smith Specialty Group, a venture capital firm. At Phillips-Smith, Flynn identified investment opportunities; served as chief executive of Hearing Masters, a portfolio market test company; and worked on several troubled portfolio companies.

From 1987 to 1990, Flynn was president and chief operating officer of Al Copeland Enterprises, the parent company of Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken and Biscuits and Church’s Chicken.

Title: President and chief executive

Concept, Headquarters Location: Wingstop, Richardson, Texas

Check Averages: $26 from email orders; average onsite $14

Wingstop storeNumber of Units: 473

States: 38

Newest Ventures: We are going to be testing some new side dishes and our new thrust will be expansion.

Hometown: Potsdam, New York

Education: U.S. Naval Academy and an MBA from Harvard

First Restaurant Job: Franchisee for Pizza Inn in 1977

Restaurant Light Bulb Moment: I did consultant work for McKinsey and Co. and worked with PepsiCo and Burger King. I really have enjoyed working in the restaurant business. 

Heroes: My wife, Linda

What Do You Cook at Home: We don’t cook at home. We eat out more than anyone you have ever met in your life.

Pick your final meal: Ice cream sundae with Hershey’s syrup

Favorite TV, Movie, Music: I listen to Country and Western music. I watch the History Channel and I haven’t seen a movie in years.

Favorite Part of the Job: I really like to see somebody move ahead and perform very well. I get so much pleasure to see people develop and perform at a high level. 

Guilty Pleasure: I have a real sweet tooth.

Best Stress Management: I get up every morning and go to the gym at 3:30. I am a nut for exercising and it is a great stress reliever. After that I go to the office about 6 or 6:15. I get a lot done and it leaves me time during the day to work with others. 

Career Highlights: I enjoyed getting the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Two of the other Dallas recipients, Ross Perot and Roger Staubach, also attended the U.S. Naval Academy. I don’t put myself in their league but I thought it was interesting that three Naval Academy guys got into business. It was also great winning the Golden Chain Award a couple of years back.

Best Advice Ever Received: Find a job where you are more excited about Monday morning than Friday afternoon.

Best Advice Ever Given: I tried to give that same advice.

Favorite Book: I read mainly current novels. I don’t read much nonfiction anymore. Right now I am reading Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn.

Hobbies: Exercise and work.

Personal: Married with three daughters 

Wingstop wingsWhat steps have you taken to fortify your company since the recession first took hold in December of 2007?
The recession hasn’t really impacted us. The biggest concern we had was the price of chicken. We introduced the boneless wings where we could establish a contract. If you look at our concept it is just trying to manage and execute it. Our growth has primarily been better execution.

What have been the biggest challenges that you have faced during these tough economic times? 
For us the biggest challenge has been the fluctuation in chicken prices. Believe it or not right now there is an oversupply of chicken. Strangely enough wing prices have come down which they have never done before that I can remember during football season. This is fortunate because it is keeping our food costs low to about 30%.

Did you choose the restaurant industry or did it choose you? 
I guess you would say it chose me when I started consulting for Herman Lay and the president of Burger King.

What is your best-selling menu item? 
If you added our wings, fries and beverages together you would have about 93% of our total business.

You attended the U.S. Naval Academy. How has that shaped your business life?
I think first of all I am probably too structured. I am extremely disciplined. I was an altar boy, and Eagle Scout and I believe in the honor code 100%.

How did you keep your employees morale up during the worst of this “Great Recession?”
Our business kept growing during that time so we didn’t really experience a morale problem. It never really hurt us because consumers were trading down from casual dining. But after so many successful quarters it’s getting harder and harder.

Wingstop has experienced 29 consecutive quarters of positive comparable store sales during a very tough time. What are the primary drivers of those results?
I think we have really put a push on training and execution in the field. We have established a number of advertising coops. When we got here there was only one and now there are about eight or nine across the country.

What is the marketing philosophy of Wingstop?
Basically we like to push the fact that we cook to order only, we never use heat lamps and that we are the wing experts.

Who is your biggest competition?
It is pizza. Eighty percent of our business is takeout. We are introducing an app that will let you order off your cell phone. When Pizza Hut advertises WingStreet our sales go up. It puts the idea of wings in people’s mind.

How have the Troy Aikman advertising promotions for Wingstop performed?
The relationship has been great. He has been with us for I think about eight years. In everything that we have done with him he has been punctual and professional. He is a great person to work with in so many ways. And now that he is a sportscaster it has helped us as we move to other markets. He is no longer considered just a Dallas Cowboy. His reputation is much broader now.

What is your favorite flavor of wings on your menu? 
I like Hickory Smoke barbecue and my wife is Lemon Pepper fan. 

How has your company embraced social marketing?
We have online ordering but we don’t utilize Twitter and Facebook.

What growth plans do you have for your company moving forward?
We have about one store for every 70,000 people in our home market of Dallas or 73 units. We have brought in some experienced folks to help us grow faster. We have averaged between 45 and 60 new stores annually. We want to gear that number up to 100 a year. We are moving into new parts of the country where we have no visibility and the Northeast is going to be a big part of that. We just opened our first unit in Queens, New York and we are moving up the Eastern Seaboard. Eventually we are looking at one unit per every 100,000 people in any DMA we enter.

How is your company preparing for the federal healthcare legislation that was passed?  
We don’t know yet. We just found out that our healthcare costs are going up 40% next year and that has nothing to do with the bill.

How do you encourage customer feedback and how do you use that information?
We do extensive mystery shopping. We like people who are in there frequently and we average about 12 mystery shops per year. In addition to that we have a person who just responds to company inquiries and customer feedback.

What are your priorities and goals for 2011?
Our priorities will be testing the new sides and our new owners, Roark Capital Group, will be testing our synergies with Cinnabon. Because of our relationship with Roark we will be getting more leverage in our distribution. We can take advantage of the total size of our organization.  

What is the next big milestone you would like to see your company reach?
I am looking forward to 2011 because we will be reaching the big 500 number. After that we will be looking to 2015 when we expect to get to 1,000 units. 

How has your company been affected by the healthy movement?
It really hasn’t. We had all the menu boards ready to go in California but then there was a delay. Overall it hasn’t affected us very much.

What are the next target markets for growth?
We are talking about Philadelphia. We just sold a ten-store package in D.C. and now we have 11 stores in the Chicago market. In fact our number one store in sales is in Elmwood Park, Ill, where he does about $40,000 a week in a tiny Wingstop.