Charles Bruce
Former CEO
Johnny Rockets
James Fratzke
Head of Client Success
Fratzke Media
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REad Interview Transcript

Quick disclaimer: these transcripts are auto-generated. They are best used in addition to the Podcast audio not instead of. We cannot guarantee 100% accuracy.

James Fratzke: [00:00:00] Charles thanks for being on the show today I appreciate your time.


Charles Bruce: [00:00:03] Always, my pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.


James Fratzke: [00:00:05] You know we did a lot of research over here on your life and one of the things that was most interesting to me and I figured we would start right here was you've been to over 70 countries. Is that true


Charles Bruce: [00:00:15] Absolutely is true. And I've been to many of them many times.


James Fratzke: [00:00:19] So why? Well I mean that's a lot.


Charles Bruce: [00:00:22] It is. I grew up in a small rural town and people in my hometown didn't go anywhere, besides my dad going to fight in World War II, no one ever went anywhere. I mean they're still there. And I've always had the desire to visit the world. And I've always been a renaissance guy though didn't realize until I got older and so I was determined one way or another I was going to go see the world. And I had no money so I thought you know international business would be a wonderful way to do it. And it's been fantastic. Believe me it really has.


James Fratzke: [00:00:53] So your goal is hey I'm going to see the world the best way to do that is to pick a major and get into a career that basically will pay to send me around the world and meet new people and see new things.


Charles Bruce: [00:01:06] That's exactly right. And back then when I went to college I did speak one other language so Spanish made the most sense since. I learned to speak Spanish fluently studied in Mexico also at a place called [...] and if I were to do it today I'd study Spanish and Chinese Mandarin by the way because that would be important to speak that language. But yeah so I set myself up understanding how businesses work. Be able speak -- could speak another language being willing to travel. And I did it.


James Fratzke: [00:01:37] I love that. Well, let's talk about that I mean you had a goal and you accomplished it. How important has that been in your life


Charles Bruce: [00:01:45] It is absolutely critically important. And I was very specific. My entire life about setting goals for where I wanted to be in terms of my title and my position, my income level, etc by what ages and I accomplished all of those it's really important because you can't leave your life to chance and just random events.


Charles Bruce: [00:02:06] There are many things in your life you can't control but there are many things you can control and I look at it. I came up through marketing and studied it. It's like a marketing plan. You got to execute the plan. What is your strategy to advance your career and achieve your objectives? And then you have to begin implementing it, execute against it, and then you're going to find you'll make course corrections along the way, but very very focused and very dedicated to achieving my objectives.


James Fratzke: [00:02:33] And congratulations. I mean you've really risen from you know in your bio. You talk about being from poor rural Kansas and being the first person in your family to graduate college and then rising to the level of CEO. Not in one but two companies. Those are not small accomplishments so congratulations.


Charles Bruce: [00:02:52] Thank you. Thank you. If my conversation started early today for this call I'll be doing it for a third time. So we'll see.


James Fratzke: [00:03:01] We look forward to that. You know that was one question I was going to ask you is it you know seeing your life trajectory it doesn't seem like you're done. It does seem like you're going to ride into the sunset and just retire does it


Charles Bruce: [00:03:14] No absolutely not. I have no intention of doing that.


Charles Bruce: [00:03:18] I'm a very high energy guy I say type-A people are too laid back for me. I mean I'm a very high energy guy. I'm very experienced. I'm in tremendous physical shape and good health. And my true objective though is I'd love to interact with people, I love to engage in conversation and I'd love to share what I know with others. Hey look if I can rise from being a poor guy in rural Kansas to do what I've done there are plenty of people out there that could benefit from mentoring that I could give them and give them a chance to achieve their goals also.


James Fratzke: [00:03:52] You know there are so many things in that last statement that we could unpack but I want to go back a little bit and talk about the goal setting and get a little bit more tactical and unpack it.


James Fratzke: [00:04:01] Are there certain ways that through your life that you've. What are those tactics? You write it down in a book? Do you put it on a dream board? I mean what are those things for you to track and make sure you're staying on track with your goals


Charles Bruce: [00:04:13] Well a lot of it. I'm fortunate to have a very good memory and a lot of it. I just keep in my head. I am a prolific note taker and I mean I'm again a renaissance guy, so I'm less good with technology but I'm really good with a pen and pencil and paper. And so I've always written things down and kept a lot of notes. I had that. Oh that Steven Covey I create what that system was called.


Charles Bruce: [00:04:43] I mean hundreds of pages of notes and things that I wrote down. A plan really just like I've done in my business life. The first thing I do is write down a plan. When I go over, whether I'm leading a department or heading the company as a CEO to turn it around -- before I ever fire the first shot, I sit down and write the plan out because it's got to be in writing. People have to be able to understand and follow it and so I did the same thing with my luck. It's really applying my life lessons to the business.


James Fratzke: [00:05:13] Now you talked about fitness. You're a healthy guy. How has staying healthy played into your success? And maybe you can walk us through a little bit about you know what are those things that you do in your life to stay healthy.


Charles Bruce: [00:05:26] Well for one thing it's critically important as I've said to people that I've talked to -- hey listen owners, investors want their senior executives to be like their budgets which means they're lean. OK we don't want a lot of fat and sloppy things around here because they all think about throw something against the wall and see what sticks. That's the most nonsensical thing I've ever heard. No one can waste resources like that. You're there to create value with the resources that you have. Same way in your life. I was smart enough to realize that growing up don't smoke OK for one day. That is just because I saw so much death in my family from smoking low income people smoke a lot and die from it and then also I had to do a lot of hard physical work and I love sports.


Charles Bruce: [00:06:11] I played a lot of sports so that got me in really good physical shape and it's all about diet and exercise. But for example, when I went to work at Pizza Hut, I'll tell you how important it is that you look right. Pizza Hut at that time was owned by PepsiCo Pepsi Co had KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Frito-Lay, etc. A really high level highly charged competitive environment. I loved it but they used to say these aren't my words, I'm just playing back the words of the industry were that time, if you were going to go to work Pepsi had to Pepsi pretty. So I mean you better look right. Back then of course we had to wear suits make sure you had the shoes with the right tassels the right length red tie you know and it's not that strict anymore, but your first impression that you leave with people is highly important. I mean when they see you we all do that, right away people start making assumptions about who you are how you live what you're going to be able to do and you only get one chance to do it. So it's really important. Besides, that the most important thing is I work out every day because it makes me feel really good.


James Fratzke: [00:07:22] Pepsi pretty. I love that. Well, you know I was at Disney and you know about 10 years ago they had these strict rules about making sure your face was shaven and you were clean cut and you had the Disney look. And I think there's this culture shift today where a lot of maybe millennials that are getting into the workforce kind of react in a sense of well no company has the right to tell me to dress a certain way or to act a certain way. Do you think that that's a miss on the millennials part? That's a missed opportunity for them to get that job or starting a career that they're passionate about


Charles Bruce: [00:07:57] I absolutely think that. Because it's a discipline to be able to maintain yourself, carry yourself, do things in a certain way in a way that that it gives people confidence that you're able to do the job they are considering hiring you for. Remember what do we do when we get hired? We're there to create value. Okay? I mean because you're going to you're going to consume resources to do your job you better create value that are greater than the resources you're going to consume. How do you do that? How do you get the chance to do that? I think to go in and say well, you know look in many respects I'm very free spirit also I'm very bold, I'm very aggressive but I'm never careless or reckless and I think people want to have confidence that you were able to do that and to be honest with you, I take millennial's when they walk in because I've interviewed them -- I mean when a guy walks in and he's got a buttoned down collar it's unbuttoned and his hair is messed up and I got to execute a plan. I got to have people who could do it efficiently and I have to have confidence that so I'm going to invest in is going to be able to do that. I think again it's that first impression. I think you be a free spirit if you want to but understand you're in an organization that's dedicated to allocating resources to deliver a service or product and create value for the investors and opportunities for the employees. So that's what you're there for.


James Fratzke: [00:09:13] I think that's a great call. And I would take what you just said and basically say hey you need to prove that you're going to earn your seat. Because it's not free. Right, That's a 40 50 60 thousand dollar salary that they're going to be spending on you. Let me talk about mentor-ship -- You mentioned it. Did you have a mentor growing up you know through your life was there anybody that stood out to you


Charles Bruce: [00:09:37] No there really wasn't. Because again I grew up in the hardscrabble life as I say tell people a lot. I'm not complaining I'm not bragging. It was a tough life. OK. You know when my older brothers spent more time in jail than they did in the classroom in a small town that's not a good thing. I mean really. I mean the deck stacked against you. So I really didn't have a mentor in fact the counselor in high school wouldn't even talk to me. It all it did was increased my determination to overcome all those obstacles and go ahead and achieve what I wanted to achieve anyway. But I did have the good fortune of working with some wonderful people in my career. The first was when I went and went to work at the international division of the Coleman Company to work with Sheldon Coleman Sr. Whose father founded the company in 1902-03 the year Sheldon was born. Sheldon was one of the most [...] incredible the most incredible executive I ever met in my life just the opportunity to work around him. He didn't take me under his wing to be a mentor really. But just watching how he handled the crowd how he interacted with people how he treat everyone respect he made everyone feel like they were really special. And no matter if you were working on the factory floor or you were the CEO of a major company doing business with the Coleman Company. So you learn from people like that.


Charles Bruce: [00:10:51] I also learned from the recently retired about two years ago President CEO of Wendy's guy named Abel [...]. Abel and I worked together for a number of years and he's another guy who taught me that what I call integrated brand strategy. A brilliant guy absolutely brilliant. Very demanding very tough, but to just watch how he conducts himself and the way he does business and the respect that people have for him even though it again didn't take mentors, hey come on now I'm going to mentor ya. But just be around people who have great habits who are successful who are willing to let you challenge them and have conversations with. Learn from it. And that's what I did. I learned that every opportunity I had the good fortune worked for some very special people.


James Fratzke: [00:11:38] I think that's a good call out to where you know a lot of times folks are looking for a mentor or they say oh it's too hard to find a mentor. But your point is it doesn't have to be this super established relationship. If there are super smart people around you just open your ears, open your eyes, observe, listen, learn. Maybe ask some questions and in some sort of sense, they act as a mentor through just the way that they carry themselves and their actions.


James Fratzke: [00:12:10] As long as you're willing to receive that and listen and try to learn from it.


Charles Bruce: [00:12:15] I call it practicing the ancient arts of listening and observation. I mean really listen to what people say observe their behavior interact with them at the appropriate time and don't waste their time obviously. But I mean the biggest mentor you have is the guy you see in the mirror in the morning. Start there and make sure you're prepared. And then when people go out that you're usually asking for the opportunity to earn people's trust. Okay? And once they start trusting you and seeing what you can do know you're committed and the way you carry yourself the way you talk etc. even though they're not going to take under their wing as a mentor that you're going to be around people who are going to be incredibly talented incredibly successful most of them are really good people not all of them and learn from it. I mean to discard the things that don't work and add to your list of those skills and tell us those things that do. It's plenty of opportunities out there to do that.


James Fratzke: [00:13:08] Let's shift gears a little bit and talk about success. I think there's a lot of different ways that people define success. What is your definition of success Charles? And you know what is your guiding light?


Charles Bruce: [00:13:20] Well I've always been incredibly internally motivated and I think for the right reasons. But I will tell you that I was motivated to get out of the lifestyle that I was in. OK that I was born into. No offense to my parents tried their best.


Charles Bruce: [00:13:35] But I was incredibly motivated from a very young age because I knew I could achieve something if I stayed focused, didn't expect any entitlement to be given to me, just give me the opportunity to earn trust. I had multiple majors for success certainly the first one was get a college degree. How important was that? Now I have this membership card that says I have the opportunity. Knock on the door and maybe get in where I can then prove myself. But I never would have had that opportunity if I didn't get the first step which is getting the college degree, which I paid for on my own because again my family had no money. And then I began to measure success not in just material ways but of course you have to achieve certain things so you could have a lifestyle. You got to buy a suit, back then you did, you have to be able to you know get to work and those kinds of things. So you have to be able to have some of those material benefits. But what as you get older like, like I have where you are you really find that you measure your success like in my case I've been married almost 39 years. And during that time I've been gone most of the time and we've raised a child, we've had a child together and she's currently working on a master's degree in engineering. And I also my real success now is this feeling I get when I can help others.


Charles Bruce: [00:15:00] I've helped a lot of my nieces and nephews from a very large family get through college paying their dorm rent and things like that. But my true feeling of success now has come as President and CEO of last two companies, to turn a company around to look at my colleagues get the opportunity to advance their career so I can give up promotions and raises. We can buy more things from the suppliers and the community we create more jobs. And to sit back and I don't want any credit or anything. But if when I could take a company turn around to sell it successfully and share the wealth that I've made in it and share it with others, man I tell you that as that is an incredibly good feeling. If more people are more generous like that your world would be better off but I really do feel that that's where my success is when I'm helping others. Because when you give without measure you'll get it back tenfold and probably 10000 gold because you never know.


James Fratzke: [00:15:58] Well let's unpack that. You mean you've said that before like if you give without measure you'll get it back tenfold. So walk me through because that's tough Charles, like you know there's so much this kind of me first mentality these days that it's hey this is my money, this is my time, these are my resources. How do you how do you just give without measure and say OK I'm going to give my time my money my resources to others? How do you do it


Charles Bruce: [00:16:22] Well certainly you give your time. I have always given my time to my colleagues and the people that worked for me when I've gone in and taken over either department or entire company. My commitment is always this: I'm going to come into an organization I'm going to share everything that I have, I'm going to give everything that I have. I'm going to tell you it's not your right to challenge me it's your obligation do it with respect and let's focus on improving the performance of this company and if you are the same employee in 18 to 36 months I should be fired because I've been a failure. I should be able to make you so much more productive. You know this company that they said and I've done this four times two as CEO [...] we'll never get this thing turned around. Are you kidding me. We were so successful because you got to create a winning culture and you do that by giving without measure. Like giving your time by showing that you're you know you're there. You're helping everyone find success. Get small wins. Build on that. And so all of those are ways of giving without measure. I've given, I've given up money that I could have taken. Believe me I would like to have had it. But I knew it was important to keep my colleagues on board so we could get even more when we sold the company. And it worked perfectly. Is it risky? Yeah, but I'm just it's just who I am right or wrong.


James Fratzke: [00:17:40] Let's talk about college a little bit. You listening to you speak about your time I think you went to you was a Kansas State or what.


Charles Bruce: [00:17:47] Kansas State University. I certainly did.


James Fratzke: [00:17:49] I mean you sound very proud to have gone there today. I think there's a paradigm switch where folks are saying do we need to go to college? Or is it more important to just get started in the workforce and start building that experience? What you have to say to that?


Charles Bruce: [00:18:05] I think it depends on what you want to do. When I look at people going deeply into debt to get a you know arts philosophy or art history degree with no prospect of getting a job. You know look I'm a renaissance guy. I love study. I love science I love history. I could have spent my life reading you know history books literature and learning other languages. Never would have made a living at it. But I think I have a I have people in my family that I've counseled about that. Look there are over 6 million unfilled jobs in this country. There are hundreds of thousands of technical jobs that are unfilled. If you have that propensity and you don't think college is right for you. Then go get the technical skill and the training. I know guys who made terrific living done that.


Charles Bruce: [00:18:50] So I think it depends. The idea of going to college a four year institution especially, where I'm with Kansas State it's a college town. I mean it's purely so very rural [...] Place it's beautiful and it's a college town. It's a great experience but I wouldn't have done it and gone into debt if I thought you know I was never going to get anywhere with it. So I think it's it's a decision that I think people need to think about even more seriously because it's so easy to take on so much debt now and to be burdened with that. So it depends what you want to do. I have a nephew that got a degree in archaeology. Well he's never used it because he can't get a job. Whether or not -- I have a very smart -- There are several smart cousins, one of whom whose son came home he was going to Oklahoma State at the time, came home said "Dad I've decided I'm going to change my major to philosophy". He said Son that's brilliant. My cousin happens to be a very successful engineer [...] Son that's brilliant. Why don't you go on all the job search sites and do a search on philosophers and see how many of them are getting hired right now -- What kind of pay they're getting and company car and all the extra benefits? Meaning would it be fun to study philosophy. Yeah but what are you going to do. So I think you just got to decide what is it you want to do with life? What are your goals? Like I said earlier, what do you want to achieve? What is going to be the best path to get there? To me it's like running a business. I mean I'm going to allocate resources. I'm going to expect returns for those resources. My resource go to college was my time, my money, my effort, the jobs I held when I was going to school and I went to study something that would give me a return and it has.


James Fratzke: [00:20:33] You sound like and you can tell me if I'm wrong. But just from listening Charles, you sound like a no excuses type of guy that probably has to do a lot with your upbringing and how you've been able to mold and shape your life. To be this successful person that you are today.


James Fratzke: [00:20:49] What happens when somebody -- if your daughter came to you or to kind of depersonalize it. If somebody came to you and said Charles -- just it's just too hard. I can't do it. I mean what is your pep talk to them


Charles Bruce: [00:21:03] My daughter did that. You know it's so difficult I said well first what are your options? What are you going to do? How could failure be an option


Charles Bruce: [00:21:13] And being the renaissance guy with the historic perspective I say you know think about we as we grew up as a human race. What if you had decided in medieval Europe that you didn't want to go out and work on your crops today, you know because you just didn't feel up to it. I said that's fine but you'll starve to death during the winter. I mean it's just a cruel reality.


Charles Bruce: [00:21:39] I mean for me failure was never an option. I couldn't borrow ten bucks from my parents if I had to because they had no money. It just was never an option. And so when we think oh you know life's so hard. Yes it is hard. But the alternative is far worse. Suck it up and go for it. I mean you just can't. You just can't let those things get you down because once you start to get it down, you're done.


James Fratzke: [00:22:03] What kind reminds me of a quote I saw you say in an interview which was reasonable men come to reasonable conclusions. What happens though in an organization or in life when you're dealing with unreasonable people? What do you do in that situation


Charles Bruce: [00:22:21] I've been in that situation and with disastrous effects especially for the people who are unreasonable. I can just give you a quick example when I was at Captain D's we turned it around three consecutive years of record sales and profits. Ran a very successful process. Piper Jaffray was the investment banker on it, ended up selling the company which we brought from nowhere for 160 million dollars. Well, the owners were very unreasonable. They came in, and the first thing they did was fired all of us did the turnaround. Well devastated a lot of our lives. Believe me, that was hard. Because I couldn't get them to be reasonable because no, we're going to do it our way. Well, they got their way. They wasted a lot of us in the process. Most of us bounce back. Obviously, I bounced back from that and went on doing what I'm still doing. But what happened to these very unreasonable investors. The company they bought for 160 million dollars they sold six years later for 22 million. They lost 138 million dollars it went out of business. They all got sued by the investors and they not only had to liquidate the company they personally because of their arrogance and their greed lost everything. Sometimes people are just going to be unreasonable. I have had another incident where dealing with the extremely obstinate and irrational and unreasonable CEO and I went to the board of directors and said here's a choice one of us goes. Who's going? I said I'll go gladly because I'll go get another job. But I don't want to stay if he's staying because the company -- go broke anyway and I don't want to waste any more time here. And so well we could fire you for this. Yes, you can. So that's fine. Thanks. Thank you. It's been a pleasure working here, and I'll go find my next job. And they fired him, and we turned around and were highly successful and made a lot of money in the process. So it happens. Business like everything is randomly populated with people of all types. All types no matter what your career is you're going to run into all types. It's our ability to navigate through that how you how you think personally about dealing with other people how you interact and how you deal with the unreasonable as well as reasonable people because you're going to meet them all.


James Fratzke: [00:24:44] Isn't that the truth. I think, you know I was listening to an interview with Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post and she has a policy at her company which is if you have a problem, go say it to that person's face. But if we find out you're talking behind someone's back consider this your last warning. I love that aspect. I think today's company culture is so focused on secrecy reporting your grievances to HR. Would you agree? Do you think that that's kind of a failure in the system and Arianna's approach of having this one on one tough conversations is a much better approach


Charles Bruce: [00:25:25] Arianna is more patient than I am when I go into an organization. I say look here my rules are simple: we treat everyone with respect. We tolerate disrespect no one. But one thing I absolutely detest is Machiavellian manipulative backstabbing politics. I said I'll just tell you this up front this is not a moral or emotional issue with me. It's just straight forward so that you know if I find anyone practicing manipulative Machiavellian backstabbing politics here in this organization, please understand this that the terms of your resignation are two, they're unconditional and immediate. Simple as that. That's the rule. You know you don't like it. I'll help you go find another job. Again there's not an emotional or moral issue with me. But if you're going to practice that I can't have you ruining a company that we're trying to fix. I've had several people then leave because they couldn't give up their bad habits. I wished them well I didn't hold anything I guess and I just wanted them out of the organization. And I made it clear. It's what I what I talked about so often with people the three commons that I use in life are common sense, common decency, common courtesy. You know we don't need to go to a manual somewhere to figure out whether or not you should be saying certain things or acting certain way towards others of your colleagues. It's just I mean why? It's just practice a little of the common sense, common decency, common courtesy.


Charles Bruce: [00:26:55] It works every time worked for me, and more than 70 countries and I'm a Scandinavian looking guy you know tall and blond and everything. And I've met a lot of places people don't look like I do. Works every time.


James Fratzke: [00:27:06] Let's unpack those three Cs. How did you come up with that? Do you remember


Charles Bruce: [00:27:12] Well, when I was growing up my dad with his sixth-grade education, just a good old boy. He said son you got to have horse sense, is what he called horse sense. Well since I'm so sophisticated I evolved into common sense and it's just the practice of the way I try to deal with people and seeing how others deal poorly with people how I wanted to be treated, that they just over time that just evolved. I mean this came to me you know common sense, common decency, common courtesy. I'm telling you they work every time. Sometimes you get people that are so evil so bad so obstinate that it's not going to work. But overall it's just it's just something that I continually think and I'm continually evolving my personality I have my fundamentals that are fundamental to who I am. But I'm always adapting and learning and making my own course corrections because the world around us is so dynamic and that to me those three commons were ways to really help consistently navigate through any situation I found myself in on a global basis.


James Fratzke: [00:28:16] Right. And I absolutely love that. It's simple to remember and to your point whether it's horse sense or common sense. I think the takeaway there is treat others the way that you would like to be treated. And if you do that then you'll be able to build some relationships that are more meaningful. You'll be able to live a life that's more meaningful and hopefully more successful.


Charles Bruce: [00:28:41] So what I say in my organization treat everyone with respect, tolerate disrespect from no one. You know when I tolerate, I don't tolerate disrespect doesn't mean I go get in a fist fight with someone. Because I worked in restaurant brands that are mostly franchises, I told the franchisees -- If you treat us disrespectfully then we just, we won't help you. We're not going to work with you. When you finally decide you can call and work with us on a respectful basis. We'll work with you. Otherwise, don't come calling. Simple as that. We have to go out of our way and contort ourselves to be bad.


Charles Bruce: [00:29:16] It is just so simple. So simple to be the other way.


James Fratzke: [00:29:21] It's too much work. Let's talk about your marriage. Thirty-nine years mean that is no small task. You've been working kind of at this high level in the industry, the restaurant industry for 30 years. You have a daughter who's got you know her own life that she's trying to build she's going to school for a master’s degree. Did you have work-life balance during that time is there a such thing as work-life balance when you're trying to get to the levels of CEO and run successful companies


Charles Bruce: [00:29:54] By most measures, no. People would say you don't have work-life balance. But my commitment in life is I'm going to be sure that my family is always cared for and I'm going to do whatever I have to do. But at the same time, I have a lot of work to do to come from where I came from and to get where I want to go. I mean I will be honest I was always the one willing to be gone the longest, take the longest trips, travel the farthest, taking tough assignments given to me. I'll go, I'll do it.


Charles Bruce: [00:30:22] And my wife understood that and my daughter understood that. So they realized that I had this family's best interests in mind. But I had to take a lot of long plane rides and be gone. You know I was gone one-year, eight months. It's just you know you just have to do what you have to do. And you make the most of the time that you have, and you know again it's just like always building on strengths and minimize weaknesses.


James Fratzke: [00:30:51] For the people that are at the beginning of that path. They're on route to have a career like yours Charles, what would you recommend to them as far as finding a partner that just understands, that their significant other is going to have to work hard might be traveling eight months out of the year?


James Fratzke: [00:31:12] How did you find such a partner to just put up with your stuff?


Charles Bruce: [00:31:20] She made a bad decision. No I guess you just know when you do. I mean I'm so candid and so honest -- brutally candid. Respectfully so. That I just made it clear this is who I am and what I do. I mean I've met my wife she's nine years younger than I am, still married to me, believe that? It's true. I had just come back from four weeks in the Middle East in Europe, and we dated, and a couple of weeks later I said well I'll call you when I get back. Where are you going? Well, I got to -- I forget three or four-week trip. I'll be back after that. What?! I said look this is who I am. This is what I do for a living. OK. Sorry. Actually, I'm not sorry and I love every minute of it. But just to lay out the rules if this is if this works for you fine. If not then I obviously am the wrong guy for you. That's I'm just candidly honest about things all the time. Respectfully so but candidly.


James Fratzke: [00:32:21] I think that you hit two important words there respectful but candid and honest. I think maybe some of that you know with divorce rates what they are today you know 50 percent basically, maybe not enough people are having candid, respectful conversations. Right up front. And you know they get married and then five or six years later sometimes less, they start having those conversations the candid conversations. They're not as respectful anymore, and maybe that's the reason why we're in the trouble that we are today as far as marriage goes.


Charles Bruce: [00:32:55] Well I think it is. I mean I grew up with a very traditional old-fashioned families where like my mom and dad got married and they never even looked at another man or woman till the day they died, and my aunts and uncles were all the same way. I mean that's just the way it was. And you see that it's not all fun and games and it's not. Mostly it's not. So just understand that's what you're going to get into. And just be like I said, candid and honest about it. We all make compromises and trade-offs in life, and we have to. And I don't mean those that violate your inner soul. Don't get me wrong about that. Well, my compromise is I guess I can embezzle a couple of million dollars from this company will be fine right? No, I mean you don't do stuff like that. But life is going to be full of compromises and trade-offs. In the case like my case, where my wife has a college education but never has worked outside of home then. There were a lot of compromise and trade-offs on her part.


James Fratzke: [00:33:52] What is can you think of maybe what one of the biggest compromises you've had to make over the years? One that stood out to you it was a real gut check moment for you.


Charles Bruce: [00:34:02] Well it's tough when you're gone on holidays and birthdays, and I've had to do that. This goes back several years ago but when I was at the international division of the cola company we were doing a lot of business in Iran during the time of the Shah of Iran and when that whole thing fell apart and we were at risk of losing several million dollars and a colleague and I had to really hustle working with a couple of banks -- I remember the name of the bank [...] and a couple of New York banks to make sure that we got several million dollars that we were owed. This wasn't something we were taking illegally out of the country before the country fell before the Shah of Iran literally left and went down to Egypt and the whole thing. I mean we see where Iran is today. That was the start of it. And I mean we worked right through New Year's Eve excuse me Christmas, Eve Christmas Day. I mean we worked through the end of the year. I mean I'll, see you I'll see you when I get back. I mean that was because those holidays are very important to us. But it was just one of those things that was a tough one. But we got it all done, and you know. I was there at my daughter's birth. I didn't miss that.


James Fratzke: [00:35:18] Well that's great. That's awesome. Let me shift gears just a little bit to Johnny Rockets. You were once quoted saying about Johnny that or Johnny Rockets rather that in the past they had focused on kind of internal opinions on how to move the company along when you came in as CEO you wanted to focus more on the opinions of past and future guests and focus more on that data. Were there any big lessons that you learned from your experience at Johnny Rockets


Charles Bruce: [00:35:50] Yeah they were completely off strategy. I've learned it everywhere I've gone to do turn around, completely off strategy. Sitting around listening to themselves talk in the office and not out where they should be, they the executives in the restaurants talking to customers and finding out if you're providing the kind of customer experience that they want. It's amazing how far away executives can get from where the real business takes place you wonder what's going on in the business. Talk to your area managers or I speak Spanish I'll go talk to the kitchen staff because most of them speak Spanish. One thing I always used to do -- is difficult in some brands. When I was at the Coleman -- excuse me Pizza Hut when we had the standard you know freestanding stores there we call the red roofs. Go to a store and look at the cars in the parking lot. Who's there? I mean you're not going to see many Maserati’s or Jaguars -- understand who your customers are. They didn't understand that. They were trying to be something that did not match what their brand image was for consumers at all -- completely out of alignment. So you gotta listen to what your target demographics and core users are saying and how you deliver the kind of experience that they're looking at and anticipating and expecting with your brand. As I say marketing by the way never studied marketing but when I got my first marking job it came with a raise, so I took it.


Charles Bruce: [00:37:15] And because I always thought it was about really good planning and execution which it is by the way. But marketing is trying to create a willing exchange of your goods or services with someone over whom you have no control. Okay? You better understand what that customer's needs and wants are and you better figure out a way to get them to him or her and figure out a way to promote the brand always through three things. The message, media and creative. What's the message you're saying has to be incredibly specific? What forms of media are used to drop that message right and that customers potential customers lap. And what does a creative look like [...] Attract someone's attention in half a second or less. So it's all fundamental. People just get so far off base, so you know again listen to themselves rather than listen to their guests. So they need to talk to.


James Fratzke: [00:38:03] Right. Absolutely I totally agree with that, and I think that one thing that some brands miss today's is they're having a hard time telling their story. I mean there are so many different channels of media whether it's on social media or it's your Web site, or it's email marketing or digital advertising. There seems to be a disconnect on how the brand story is being told across all those channels and you once said in an interview building a brand is like telling a tale that never gets completely told if you stop telling the tale that brand dies. So what are some of those recommendations you might have for brands out there today that don't seem to be telling the story very well


Charles Bruce: [00:38:43] What is the core of the brand. Don't tell a story that's contrived and I hate the stories that are cute too -- you try to be cute to people don't want to hear that, people don't have time for that as I say we're all on sensory overload.


Charles Bruce: [00:39:02] OK. I mean we get 10000 stimuli day we remember 10? Time is the currency of the 21st century. Respect people's time interact your brand with them in a way that really respects their time -- don't waste it and give them what it is that you have discovered through your research that they are looking for by interacting with your brand and continue to tell that tale.


Charles Bruce: [00:39:27] Brands have to evolve. Brands are living entities. I compare it to your health. Hey show me your health send your health over [...] no, but you see manifestations [...] Everything about your living brand is a manifestation of whether it's bricks and mortar or your message or advertising whatever it is. Make sure you understand what that story is you're telling and continually tell it in a way that's engaging and that delivers what the good your target demographic [...] looking for. Don't shove something on them that is meaningless. I mean Johnny Rocket's classic example. They thought they were a diner. Research showed consumers have zero interest in diners. You know why? Why do you want to double down on diners? They actually thought I don't know if you're a Johnny Rockets you wouldn't surprise you if you haven't.


James Fratzke: [00:40:18] I have been to a Johnny Rockets yes.


Charles Bruce: [00:40:20] Did they sing while you were there the workers sing?


James Fratzke: [00:40:23] They didn't sing when I was there, no.


Charles Bruce: [00:40:26] Well I stopped it when I got there because I thought that was one of the most [...] look you got Millennials who are connected to the world via technology are posting some stupid 1950s song that no one knows have them dance around. I mean it makes no sense at all. They thought if we just danced more and we twirled the straws more and we painted smiley faces with ketchup on plates that was going to do it. I mean are you kidding me? Talk about an insult to today's consumer. They didn't understand what their brand was and how it interacted and that's why they were doing so badly. Changed all that got in line with the consumer turning around and we're doing extremely well in a very difficult restaurant market.


Charles Bruce: [00:41:05] Brands have to evolve. And at times along the way you have to you have to jettison those things and are no longer important. When we redid Johnny Rockets. We retain those visual cues that were important to what the brand was, but we jettisoned so much other stuff because it was irrelevant.


Charles Bruce: [00:41:24] And oh my gosh did people panic. How could you do that? Well, we did that because look our sales took off. Did the same thing at Peter Piper pizza. I mean it hadn't changed hadn't evolved for 30 years. We dramatically changed based on the research. What research told us. And when I left, and we sold that very successfully we had 56 consecutive months of same-store sales growth, and they hadn't. And they'd been down for four years before we started work on it. You can do it, it's possible. Tell a brand story but understand the rational reasonable [...] Understand to whom you're marketing brand and what resonates with them and give great service by the way.


James Fratzke: [00:42:03] Right. I think service is a key piece that a lot of people are missing these days. They feel like the expectation is: well you come in, I give you your food, and you eat, and then you leave, and you're supposed to be giving everybody a five-star review, and that's not how it works. You don't get to those five-star reviews unless service is really above and beyond what the expectation is.


Charles Bruce: [00:42:26] I don't know if we have any people that are involved in this podcast that are in the restaurant business, work in the restaurant fabulous industry today and by the way it's huge. Some smart people a lot of fun.


Charles Bruce: [00:42:36] But in the restaurant business what people really failed to understand, most important part of a restaurant, every restaurant is the menu. Because in the menu it's where you deliver or violate the brand promise where operations training, purchasing, distribution, finance, H.R. everything comes together there, and it's all about delivering a great memorable experience to your customer every time.


Charles Bruce: [00:43:02] And once you understand that and your strategy as a CEO [...] you could call it integrated a brand strategy -- integrates all of those in alignment. Put people in alignment with the right skills motivate them to exceed their highest expectations. You can take these old tired brands and make them just hum. Everything about your brand, every touch point about your brand is important. We went through and walked through our Johnny Rocket stores. Where does this brand touch people? The salt shaker. Well, we don't want a salt packet we want a salt mill. They can grind their own salt, same with pepper everything is a touch point where do we put the napkins in? How clean is the bathroom? What's a door in the bathroom looks like? Do we have the front door? Everything is everything is part of your brand image you can't overlook anything, and if you if, you do what you just said and just resign yourself the fact that we're just gonna be a cheap discount store.


Charles Bruce: [00:43:55] Okay I'll see you when you declare bankruptcy. You know, and you're liquidating because that's next. I mean that's where you go next, and viable brands can be kept alive for a long time when they are rejuvenated and properly managed. With a really solid strategy, adequately funded, flawlessly executed wins every time. You don't have to be the prettiest sexiest brand around. You can do it because you're taking care your guests and understanding what they want.


James Fratzke: [00:44:29] I love that. I want to shift to some rapid-fire questions as we can get to the tail end of our time here So here's my first one is a fun one. Stick with me here and let me know if it doesn't make sense because they came up with it myself. But, if you could send a postcard to anybody past or present who would you send it to? And what would it say


Charles Bruce: [00:44:50] You know I'd love to have met General Eisenhower. I've always been fascinated. I've read a lot of books that the author Stephen Ambrose wrote about General Eisenhower. I would love to sit down and have a conversation with General Eisenhower.


James Fratzke: [00:45:04] Nice speaking of reading. Do you like to read


Charles Bruce: [00:45:08] I read a lot. I read a lot of books.


James Fratzke: [00:45:10] So what are the top three that you'd recommend to our listeners?


Charles Bruce: [00:45:14] Right now, there's a fabulous book called 14 1 the year the Chinese discover the world, written by a captain of a nuclear sub in the British Navy guy named Gavin Menzies. And I'm telling you it turns a world upside down. I mean the Chinese were in South America, the Arctic, the Antarctic, North America in 1421. Before Columbus ever thought about the [...] And it's absolutely an unbelievably good book. It's fantastic. There's another one called because I love history 1491 and that was what the new world really looked like as proven through forensic studies, archaeology, anthropology all these other things. What really looked like before the arrival of the of the Europeans. Fabulous, fabulous book. And one that I really recently enjoyed, it's heavy reading is called The Origins of Political Order and in today's bizarre world the way things are going on. It's written by Francis Fukuyama a brilliant writer and it's from the pre-humans through the French Revolution. He's followed that up with one called Political Order, Political Decay -- I'm reading that one now, but it literally lays out and when you look around and see what's going on today in politics -- it's a repeat of what's been going on in politics since the early Chinese dynasties, since the Sumerians, since the Persians -- I mean it's really incredible. Those are three of them that I highly recommend that are there are so many others so many great books out there.


Charles Bruce: [00:47:08] You noticed I didn't mention a business book because I rarely, rarely, rarely read a business because most quite frankly aren't worth the paper they're written on. There are some good ones Good to Great was good, Tipping Point [...] was a hard read but excellent. I mean there are some, but for the most part the real learning comes in understanding where we came from where we evolved from what were the trends what has shaped who we are as a human race today and what were those events and how did they impact us. That's where the knowledge is in my opinion.


James Fratzke: [00:47:46] All right well you're not the first successful person to ever say that. I think a lot of successful CEOs read a lot of history and they all say human nature hasn't changed much. So if you want to see where the world is going look back to the past because there are some good examples of things that have happened.


Charles Bruce: [00:48:07] Absolutely. That is exactly right. Like I said most of those business books you know are the seven habits or the nine habits. This is the one habit. I mean you have to have to be success. Oh, come on man. No.


Charles Bruce: [00:48:25] Go read. Go read history start to fill your brain with things you can assimilate and start to shape your own philosophy. And there's so much to be learned there.


James Fratzke: [00:48:34] Two more questions for you Charles. Here's the first one you've been to 70 countries. If somebody's listening to this podcast has never been to one what would be your recommendation what's the one place they need to go see and why.


Charles Bruce: [00:48:48] It [0.3] depends on what you want to do. But my opinion just for sheer beauty a place it's so far removed, the clean air -- go to New Zealand. I do love New Zealand. I've been there probably 20 times. I absolutely love New Zealand. It's really a very relaxing place when I first went there it was it was hardly developed, and this is going on 40 years ago. But now it's just modern -- I mean the great food great wine -- a lovely place. I highly recommend New Zealand and a place that I've always really enjoyed just because it's so vibrant, although it's crowded [...] Hong Kong couldn't be more polar different than New Zealand on total opposite ends. But if you're going to go to two and you want to see two extremes of life go to New Zealand and since you're over that part of the world go to Hong Kong.


James Fratzke: [00:49:45] Well I've not been to New Zealand or Hong Kong. I've done some Europe. So now I think I've just you've inspired me to go to New Zealand. I'll send you a postcard when I get there.


James Fratzke: [00:49:55] All right here's the last question for you if you could hit the easy button on any of your life experiences. Just skip past all the hard stuff and get right to the lesson. Which one would it be


Charles Bruce: [00:50:06] Well I actually have thought about that many times. I really do wish -- I don't dwell on it, don't get me wrong. That I would have had someone I could have gone to ask about -- just for some guidance on you know where should I go now, when I get into college what should I study and what can I possibly become? Look I think I've been pretty successful and very happy with my life. Don't get me wrong. But I honestly think I had much more than I could have done and hopefully still will do. I just wish I could have gone to someone because again my dad had a 6th-grade education -- he's an oilfield worker. I mean you know my mom had an 8th-grade education and raised kids. I mean I'm from 68 grandkids and our two families. And so it's -- I just didn't have anyone to turn to, and that's why I take so seriously, trying to share anything that I can. Any perspective wisdom, mentorship, whatever because I believe in giving that way with that measure really makes me feel good. I wish someone might give me a little help along the way. Didn't happen -- it's all right. I overcame.


James Fratzke: [00:51:17] Well that's important. I think that the key takeaway there is is that he didn't let it stop you from getting to the point you are today which I think it's so easy to to make those excuses and to give up. So congratulationsfor that.


Charles Bruce: [00:51:30] Well thanks. One piece of philosophy I'll pass on real quickly when I was 20 years old at K-State working at JDs Pizza Parlor trying to make a living, had no car walking to class, all that and I thought this is so hard I'm never going to make it.


Charles Bruce: [00:51:43] I sat down and I said you know what. You can choose not to be a victim of your past. That's my decision this day. Going forward I will choose not to be a victim of my past. We can all do it. Just choose not to be a victim of your past. OK.


Charles Bruce: [00:52:01] And work hard and you can you can achieve unlimited opportunities out there for people who really want to work hard and try the three commons and get out there and go do something.


James Fratzke: [00:52:16] I love it. I think that's a great piece of wisdom to end on. If folks wanted to follow you Charles and see what your next act was your next big thing is there a recommendation online, should they follow you on LinkedIn? I mean do you have a twitter I mean how does that work


Charles Bruce: [00:52:31] The only place you'll find me -- remember I'm a renaissance guy I was born and fifteen hundred stayed in a cocoon 450 years before I popped out is on LinkedIn. So if I hopefully I'm going to go meet with these investors next week and if I get the CEO offer then I'll put that on LinkedIn and you'll see I'm hopefully President CEO again of another even bigger company. The others turned around so we'll see.


James Fratzke: [00:52:56] Great. Well we're excited for you. And we'll be looking out for that. Charles thank you so much for your time today. It was a great interview and we appreciate it.


Charles Bruce: [00:53:04] Thank you very much for your time and all the best to you. Keep the faith.

About the show:

On each episode of the LEADERS podcast, host James Fratzke, will interview a proven leader, CEO, entrepreneur, or founder and unpack their story of success. There’s this quote by Sir Isaac Newton “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” And that’s what the LEADERS podcast is all about. It's an opportunity for us to stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from their journey.

About the host:
James Fratzke

James Fratzke is a Co-Founder and Head of Client Success at Fratzke Media. His passion for storytelling comes from his time at the Walt Disney Company where he and his team executed record-breaking media events. He has helped tell the stories of major brands like Dollar Tree, Advance Auto Parts, and Jelly Belly.

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More Podcasts

At Fratzke Media, our paths cross with some amazing people. Learn more about their habits, insights and stories behind their success.

On this episode, I interview Charles Bruce. He came from a poor family in Kansas and made his own way. He decided to go to college because he knew it was his only way out. Charles went on to be the CEO of two companies. His latest stint was as CEO of the restaurant chain Johnny Rockets.

I loved this conversation with Charles. I think you will too. We talk about travel. Fitness. And goal setting. There are lots of great golden nuggets from start to finish including his three c’s and how to deal with unreasonable people. Enjoy my conversation with Charles Bruce.