Keith Hertling has a bracelet inscribed with the words, “I am second,” to remind him of a core leadership principle.
“It means [that when you are a leader] it’s no longer about you anymore,” Hertling explained. “When you’re a leader, you’ve got to put people first.”
Hertling has always been a coach. While in college he fell into a position coaching for the Special Olympics. The first job that drew him in after graduation was coaching football, first at a high school, then college.
Then, working as a personal trainer for more than 20 years, his decision to open a fast-food franchise may have seemed like a departure from his path. Yet he says every job he had up until that point was preparing him for the one in which he would truly make a difference.
Hertling has spent the last 15 years working for Jersey Mike’s, the Manasquan-based sub-shop chain founded in 1956 and now in 1,400 locations nationwide. He started as a franchisee in Kansas; today, he’s shaping the feel of the company as vice president of leadership, coaching and culture.
Like many others who have worked their way up in the company, Hertling says he sweats oil and vinegar.
He spent a recent Friday morning teaching a leadership class to 20 people from across the country who had come to Jersey Mike’s headquarters as one of the last stops on their 500-hour journey toward owning and managing their own franchise. He sat down with NJBIZ afterward to talk about motivational tenets and his new book, “Life Lessons on Leadership, Coaching and Culture.”
NJBIZ: One of the things you teach is that you need to develop a listening culture. What does that mean?
Hertling: Peter Cancro (Jersey Mike’s CEO) worked at the sub shop when he was 14. He used to say his voice mattered. They asked him questions like, “What do you think?” We ask questions all the time, and that’s part of a coaching habit. What’re the right questions to ask? That’s what we teach. You get people engaged and they’ll think, “Maybe I can stay here. Maybe I’m valued.”
The three words we use all the time are love, serve, care. People think we’re funny when we say that, but if you just saw this graduating class, out of 20, I think 18 were crying because they know they fit in the culture.
That’s a successful strategy in any business. Take care of your people right off the bat. Train them. We have this program called STAY: Sweat, Tears and Years. We had a kid just in today from Kansas, my old store, and he’s going to partner with Peter and get his own store. When people come in, they think it’s just a job. But when they work three or four years and they like it, they can get their own store.
NJBIZ: How do you motivate someone who just saw this as a temporary, non-career job to become an owner?
Hertling: We teach them right off the bat the career path. We show them a pay path and where they want to go. We show them a P&L the first day. We’re showing them some value. “Look, you need to understand the business. We’re going to teach you the business while you work here.” It’s in the new-employee orientation. You keep moving up, you get raises and can move yourself to shift leader and manager. Once you’re a manager and you’re in good standing, you’re qualified to be an owner.
STAY is our way of growing from within. You see some of the great leaders of all time, Jim Collins (author and lecturer on the subject of company sustainability and growth), Jack Welch (former chairman and CEO of General Electric), all these top dogs — they were showing how it didn’t work when you hire the headhunter. One of your guys leaves, passes away, whatever, and then you hire someone who didn’t know the culture. And it never really worked. But when you grow from within — and we see this within our own company — it works.
NJBIZ: What lessons do you impart upon others as a coach?
Hertling: Our coaches clinic is a full day of leadership, how to treat your people right and how to recruit the right people — how to train them and how to retain them. The workforce right now is horrible, the turnover rate costs a lot of money. We recruit people to try out for the team — we don’t just have you fill out an application. We might have you come back a third time. We want to make sure that we’re hiring the right person because the turnover is so high.
[The overall workforce is] 70 percent unhappy. Of that, 30 percent are really disconnected. They quit before they quit. How do you get these people happy? You’ve got to get them holy. People freak out at that, but when we say, what is holy? It’s just doing the right thing. We’re trying to treat our people like saints. How do we do that? We serve. We serve subs, we serve smiles. Use the word love more. “Hey man, I love that hat on you,” or “I love the way you wrapped that sub.” We want to encourage more positive enthusiasm in the store. People don’t want to come in and see a Puddleglum, a dark cloud of energy.
NJBIZ: How do you keep morale up like that? How do you make people feel valued?
Hertling: It’s about recognition. It’s not about giving everybody a raise. It’s about giving them time off — giving them a free day off. Buying people tickets to something, given them a weekend away at the Shore. It’s about finding what motivates people and pulling the trigger. It’s about taking care of your people. You might pay for their hospital stay. You might get them a game of golf. It doesn’t have to be huge. But really, it’s about how do we recognize our guys.
Last year, I hit 250 stores on my tour of coaching clinics, leadership classes and our Sub Above rallies.
NJBIZ: OK, say I’m at a Sub Above rally. What’s happening?
Hertling: OK. You just got here, you’re new. You have 200 people in the room, and a few people up front trying to inspire people because Peter just threw down a big chunk of advertising money and we’re going to have more people in the store. “Are you ready? Are you ready?” So we teach them how to be ready. Do you have the red ripe tomatoes? Do you have enough people on hand?
We say if you want to inspire someone, you break down the word “inspire” and you get “inspirare,” or “breathe into.” We say breathe into your spirit of enthusiasm — “en theos,” or “of the spirit.” Breathe your spirit into your people. But you can’t be fake. If you want to inspire people, you gotta be inspired.
People don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. And that’s what my position is. We say people are our purpose. If you don’t take care of your people, someone else will. That’s been the formula for success from the top down.
NJBIZ: What’s the most valuable lesson you teach at Jersey Mike’s?
Hertling: Martin Luther King said, “Anybody can be great because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” That’s pretty much what we teach. We’re serving people anyway. We’re not just a sub shop. You can make it whatever you want. You can make it a Cheers, you can make it a church, you’re in charge. But if you don’t take charge, it’s not going to be any of these.
When I opened up my first store in the middle of Kansas, we opened up at a record at the time — 600 subs a day. On a Sunday, my life mentor, Father Barnabas, who was the head monk at Benedictine College, where I was for eight years, was in town and watching. We served him a sub and after the lunch rush was over, he came over and said, “Keith, what an amazing ministry you have here.” My managers went “whoa,” but he’s a priest, he’s going to see that. What he saw was the interaction, the loving of the customer, the “thank you,” the “come backs,” the vibe. So what we said was, “let’s make this different — let’s treat everybody when they come through like they’re saints.” That’s what we teach people. Value the guys that are paying your salary. You’re nothing without the customer.
NJBIZ: How do you want your leadership and coaching to pan out for the people who work under you for the next year, 10 years, 20 years?
Hertling: My purpose is to educate, motivate, inspire. That was the purpose of the book — you motivate through stories, scripture and study. I have a few guys I’m mentoring right now so that in four or five years, they can take this job. That’s what we teach our guys: Train your people so they can take your job. If you’re a manager and you want to become owner, you can’t do that without training someone to take your place as manager.
One of the things I took away from the monks [at Benedictine] was that the quality of your reading determines the quality of your life. They used to say, “What are you reading? What are you putting into your head? What are you watching?” Everything you look at today in the business world is about the brain. So I made this book not only for our managers [and] for our crew, but for anyone in any business that wants to improve their culture.