By Brian E. Clark
The last few years have been hard on many restaurant chains, and Milio’s Sandwiches is no exception.
The recession forced Mike Liautaud, who founded the company in 1989 under the name “Big Mike’s,” to close three of his 40-plus stores, cap improvements, ask for discounts from vendors and impose a wage freeze on employees.
But Liautaud, a Chicago native who has sandwich shops in four states, never lost his positive attitude. And he didn’t have to lay off any employees.
Soon, he’ll be opening a new store in eastern Iowa. And there will be more to follow, he said after an “Icons” speech at the Concourse Hotel in Madison sponsored by In Business Magazine.
“Business has stabilized and is now coming back,” said Liautaud, who started his company with a $50,000 investment and one shop in Madison. “Now I’m ready for the next battle.”
Liautaud, a burly man who could moonlight as a motivational speaker, said he always planned to take his sandwich shop concept — which includes deliveries — national.
“I had a big dream,” he said. “If you have little dreams, you’ll have little results. It’s all a matter of management and outperforming your competitors.”
Though Liautaud has always tried surrounded himself with upbeat employees, he said he’s also paid close attention to profit and loss statements and other business basics. Because of the recession, he said he’s made extra efforts to avoid waste and overspending.
“I may not be the smartest guy,” he said modestly. “But I know the fundamentals. Our company is operationally sound and we spend time with employees getting them to understand the fundamentals, too, and that allows us to compete better.”
He also said Milio’s hires talented people and then empowers them with respect, motivation, upward career paths and other tools they need to succeed.
Liautaud said he’s also a big fan of a business philosophy that entails four key ingredients to success.
1) Be there and emotionally present for people to show you respect them because it will improve communication and strengthen relationships.
2) Have fun because it’s a natural way of being creative.
3) Make customers’ day by finding simple ways to serve and delight them.
4) Choose your attitude by taking responsibility for how you respond to what life throws at you.
He said he also believes in the “Zap vs. Sap” theory by putting energy into people and situations rather than taking it away.
Liautaud, whose business attire is blue jeans, said he believes both he and his employees should enjoy their work.
“That’s a state of mind that brings energy,” he said with a big grin. “Be positive. If you are, people will want to be around you. And don’t take yourself too seriously.
“I teach this religiously at the office,” he said. “It helps with people’s families and other relationships, too.”
Though being enthusiastic helps, Liautaud said, there is no “secret bullet” to business success and “no Jesus is showing up on your doorstep.”
And the cost-cutting efforts continue. He said he recently negotiated savings of $4,000 from one vendor and $6,000 from another, resulting in $10,000 that he can invest in rebranding efforts and updating stores than are in need of a makeover.
Liautaud also told his audience that he is, for the most part, done taking on debt to finance his operation.
Instead, he said he is going to work on franchising more Milio’s shops backed by high net-worth individuals who have deep pockets.
“There are still costs to cut,” he said. “And we are not giving up on the fundamentals. We’ll be hammering away at vendors because that is now part of our business model.”