Demanding Branch’s Manager Learns While Teaching – Chris Lee

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Colorado

SNOWFOX STARTED IN TEXAS, BUT YEARS AFTER OUR FOUNDING, AND DESPITE KROGER CONTINUALLY PROVIDING US WITH NEW OPPORTUNITIES HERE, GROCERY SUSHI COMPETITION IS FIERCE AND EVERY VICTORY HARD WON.

While our territory of Colorado is no less significant now than Texas, Snowfox’s challenge in the two regions is a study in contrast. Instead of having a lot of stores and battling for each new one, as in our home state, Colorado is a branch where we wowed client deli executives so decisively with our original plan that our initial launch consisted of 13 stores in the first month. We now boast 89 Snowfox location in King Soopers and their sister banner City Market.

That Snowfox market share still comes with great responsibility and necessary responsiveness to our client. Having served as Snowfox’s Colorado branch manager for almost five years, Chris Lee has implicit approval as the person for the job. Lee is now in the top 25 percent of longest-serving JFE managers. But his own self-reflection also tells a story of personal growth that closely parallels our company’s own lessons in balancing empathy for franchisees with enforcing uncompromising standards.

Mover and Shaker
Lee’s background is somewhat unique for JFE. Although born in Korea, he was raised in Colorado. And prior to making an impression on company leaders with his attention to detail and bi-lingual skills, Lee didn’t have a restaurant background.

In his late thirties when he came to JFE, Lee’s last major job was in international logistics for scientific measurement company and Hewlett-Packard spinoff Agilent Technologies. However, his degree and most of his work prior to Agilent was in sports marketing. Just prior to joining us, Lee did a stint in marketing for a Korean baseball team, the sport he played in high school and college.

Given his longevity at Snowfox, I made sure to ask the branch manager how he acquired the unique temperament and perspective required not just to excel but enjoy the stressors unique to branch management.

Because his parents moved around a lot, Lee said, he learned to be resilient. “We moved around a lot when I was a kid, from city to city and school to school, so it was tough having to make new friends at every new place,” he explained.

And still, Lee said, that experience probably lent itself to the socialization required in partnering with and guiding so many franchisees. Lee also reported that his branch manager duties require a kind of moving around he does enjoy—driving. Perhaps his sports background as well provides a clue that he’d never be content with a desk job.

A Legacy to Maintain
Coloradan Lloyd King founded King Soopers in 1947 with his first store in Arvada (Snowfox operates two stores there today). King Soopers then became a part of the fast-growing Kroger family of stores in 1983.

While Kroger stores dominate in most U.S. markets where they have stores–according to Nielsen Data Services, in 2015 the retailer led its competitors in 85 percent of the largest American cities—their King Soopers banner in particular visibly leads other grocers in contemporary merchandising and store features.

Soopers’ 2015 addition of a conveyor sushi (or kaiten) format in their new downtown Denver store probably best demonstrates their commitment to a fun experience for discerning customers.
JFE’s Operations Director Kevin Yang, himself our Colorado branch manager for most of his first two years with us, confirmed that King Soopers’s demonstrates its high standards in both its support for, and expectations of, our Snowfox branch.

“They’ve always asked for our opinions even on budget or remodel schedules,” Yang said. “Even when they were in the planning stages they’d ask us, ‘Where’s the best location for you? What type of signage should we have?’”

Recently, Yang said, in Grand Junction, King Soopers sister banner City Market even added the Snowfox logo to its giant street-side sign. So the 140-store chain was an essential partner to the Snowfox re-branding that both we and Kroger benefit from now in terms of an appealing, recognizable brand.

But the challenge for Chris Lee, his boss added, is having to anticipate the retail partner’s increased communication when managing his schedule. “They’re supportive, but in turn they also expect a lot and can be very exacting in what they expect” said Yang.

Growing Into the Job
In contrast with the kind of cooperation he experienced in sports organizations, Lee said, when he started at JFE he wasn’t ready for the resistance he experienced from chefs who weren’t used to having a younger adult critique them. It bears mentioning that among the many ways Snowfox is unique, we seek independent-minded franchisees but then ask them to be open to our guidance. When that mentorship comes in the form of a knowledgeable branch manager, but one who’s 10 years younger than the average operator, building trust is bound to be tough sometimes.

“In the beginning,” Lee recalled, “when compared to a traditional office setting, meeting so many people with differing concerns and personalities was a big change for me.”

Lee admitted that, in knowing what needed to be corrected to help a store, he could also be too quick to judge a chef’s resistance. “I used to make my own determination about why a chef didn’t seem to be complying with our guidance,” he said.

“Then I had chefs tell me I only work from a company perspective. So, like all of us, I was clearly still learning,” said the branch manager. “Now I go into each store with an open mind. I listen more and try to give people the benefit of the doubt.”

The ideal personality profile for a Snowfox branch manager in Lee’s opinion? “Someone who’s not shy but also not overconfident or cocky,” he said. “Because you have to deal effectively with such a variety of people.”

“Our chefs themselves can range from shy to talkative,” Lee pointed out. “And even the client store managers have such a broad spectrum of personalities. If you understand your own personality, you can adjust well I think.”

From Player to Coach
Since King Soopers’s merchandising standards are so high, it seems fitting that Lee’s greatest achievement as branch manager, according to Kevin Yang, is Snowfox private brand sales. Along with making our logo and brand visible, we’ve learned that the retail variety of PB merchandising also increases overall store sales and develops repeat customer traffic to the kiosk, keeping sushi in their mind whether they need it that day or not.

For our sushi sales, fitting to the former athlete’s background, Snowfox Colorado has racked up some rather impressive stats in recent years. Even though it wasn’t even one of our first four regions, today Colorado’s stores make up more than 20 percent of Snowfox’s grocery sales. But Operations Director Yang emphasized that the branch’s annual double-digit sales improvement speaks even louder than its number of stores.

The Snowfox branch manager has to have the resolve and maturity of a great coach, Yang explained. Naturally, he said, franchisees will have their own practices that may not be sound and can actually hold them back.

I’d personally add that in 10 years of testing different personalities in branch management, we’ve seen that if a branch manager accepts that close-mindedness rather than persuasively showing chefs the incremental benefits of our techniques, it not only results in poor regional performance but a kind of learned helplessness in the branch manager.

“Whether it’s being strictly by-the-book in sanitation or ensuring variety in the case, where Chris is successful it’s because he has 100 percent trust in our best practices,” Yang attested.

Lee, his boss told us, boasts higher comp store sales (a comparison with stores of the same size in other regions) because he combines that faith with a willingness to enforce our standards consistently in every store. As the Coloradan prepares to usher in the Centennial State’s 90th Snowfox location this summer, Lee’s honest self-assessment and the region’s sales indicate his confidence is persuading more and more chefs. TSS