‘I’ve seen floods and shootings. At Dunkin’ we are prepared’
The Essex-born boss of Dunkin’ Brands tells David Millward how he masters the myriad challenges of the franchise sector
Nigel Travis is in good form. It is the Dunkin’ Brands chairman and chief executive’s 68th birthday, and Washington is preparing a small gift – tax legislation that will benefit the company’s 11,577 franchisees in the US.
Life is also looking good back in the UK, with Leyton Orient, the club he now owns, having notched up four wins on the trot following a dire 15-game run without a victory.
Having spent much of his professional career in the US, Travis’ office in Canton, just outside Boston, Massachusetts, has a distinct transatlantic feel. There is a cricket bat on the wall, a Miami Dolphins helmet on a shelf, and a card from Leyton Orient is proudly displayed on a sideboard behind his desk. Travis alternates between drinking Dunkin’s coffee and mugs of tea. “I oscillate between the two, being a good Brit.”
His 47-year career spans both sides of the Atlantic. This is his second spell in the US, returning there in 1998. “I am married to an American. I am not going back.”
Travis has spent a huge slice of his life working in the fast food industry with spells at Burger King and Papa John’s Pizza. There was, however, a 10-year interlude with Blockbuster.
As far as he is concerned, the transitions have been pretty seamless with the takeaway food and movie industries having a lot in common.
“When I was at Blockbuster, I used to describe Blockbuster as being fast food with movies, because they are very similar and I think there are a lot of similarities, they are fast moving, consumer driven.
“Technology has become increasingly important with all of them but was particularly important with Blockbuster.”
It is the smart use of technology that Travis hopes will keep Dunkin’ Brands – which includes the ice cream brand Baskin-robbins – ahead of the competition.
“There are now more mobile devices than there are people in the world. They are more powerful than computers were a decade ago.
“We have an industry-leading app, it stores orders, perks, rewards, and everything is done quickly.”
The emphasis Travis vests in the app is a reflection of how the efficiency with which meals are served has assumed ever-increasing importance in the US, where time and patience can be in short supply and tempers are often shorter.
There are plenty of alternatives if the service is slow or the customer is given the wrong meal. Breakfast is arguably where competition is fiercest in the US fast-food industry. It is a battleground where another Briton – Watford supporting Steve Easterbrook at Mcdonald’s – is among Travis’ main rivals.
There are, Travis says, 638,000 restaurants in the US and another 131,000 convenience stores.
“Everyone serves coffee in some form. We are in a very competitive business – breakfast continues to grow. We feel good about our morning business overall, which is obviously driven by coffee, breakfast sandwiches. Our differentiator for us is doughnuts, we are clearly the market leader in that.”
Most of the US fast-food industry is based on franchising, and few know more about it than Travis, whose book on how it works, The Challenge
Culture, is due to be published next year.
Dunkin’ Brands is a 100pc franchise operation. “I would say that the franchise business is not necessarily for the faint of heart, you have to have strong convictions, a thick skin and probably good relationship and communication skills.”
In all, there are 12,435 Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants across the world, and 7,944 Baskin-robbins shops. In the UK there are just nine Dunkin’ Donuts outlets and 137 Baskin-robbins stores. But the very nature of franchising places limits on what the parent company can do, and clearly, this poses a threat to the company’s corporate reputation.
“The biggest risk is food safety. We are in an industry where we take food safety very seriously. As I say to all my franchisees, it is job number one.”
Maintaining standards over a sprawling arm’s length empire is just one of the challenges that Travis faces in an industry where one has to expect the unexpected. “I have seen plane crashes, hurricanes – I was at Blockbuster when Hurricane Andrew destroyed South Miami. I have seen the effect of tornadoes and earthquakes. This year was very unusual because we had one after another of very significant strength. Puerto Rico was obviously pretty devastating and is still pretty devastated.”
Disasters can be man-made as well as natural. “It is not just terrorist attacks, it can be a shooting. It can be people on drugs, you name it. You have to be prepared, it sounds like the boy scouts, but you have to be prepared for everything,” he adds.
Just the day before Travis was interviewed by The Sunday Telegraph, a Baskin-robbins branch in Bakersfield, California, was robbed at gunpoint.
Other challenges are less dramatic. With the US economy booming and the Trump administration getting tough on immigration, finding workers is becoming increasingly problematic.
“You take the great state of Maine along with New Hampshire and Massachusetts and the average unemployment rate is about 3pc, which means we struggle to get employees,” Travis adds.
“I would say we need a constructive discussion about immigration ensuring that the borders are protected, that the people who come in go through an authorised process, and when they work they are properly qualified.”
But importing workers from abroad is not the only way of plugging the gap.
“One of the things we are working on is developing an apprenticeship of our industry, to demonstrate the attractiveness of our industry because we believe that companies like Dunkin’ Brands educate America’s workforce.
“It’s not only that Barack Obama’s first job was at Baskin-robbins, but in fact, about 60pc of Americans had their first job in quick service restaurants.
“I believe if there was some kind of apprenticeship that people receive, that would make the industry more attractive. People learn about turning up, clocking in, point of sale, dealing with customers – all the disciplines you need when you are working and that can set them on the staircase for furthering their career.”
Travis wants the brand to grow across the US from its northeastern heartland.
“I think we are different than most brands of any maturity in that we have got that opportunity to build Dunkin’ out and double the store footprint from about 9,000 stores to about 18,000 stores over the next 20 odd years.”
He is, of course, similarly ambitious for Leyton Orient, a club Essex-born Travis has supported since childhood – his first game was a 1-1 draw with Sunderland in 1959.
The 136-year-old club has fallen on hard times, losing its Football League status, and in March it was served with a winding-up order.
Travis’ investment has been substantial and he has sought the advice of the biggest names in US sport – the Krafts, who run the New England Patriots NFL team, and John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, as well as Liverpool.
“We inherited a team without credit card processing, a bank account and only nine young players, and it was two weeks before pre-season.”
Travis gets over to the UK every six weeks, and otherwise watches the games on a private feed – when he is not coaching football himself.
He sees similarities between football and the fast food industry.
“It’s like running Dunkin’, you have people problems, you have financial issues, you have marketing issues. But what we have done, we have tried to build a great culture at the club.”
Travis is a man of relentless stamina – he took 140 flights over the last year and thinks nothing of flying overnight from Boston to London to catch a match before returning the following evening.
“I think if you are organised, you can get most things done,” he adds.
“Two things wreck my life. One is Leyton Orient losing and two is if we have bad numbers here.”
‘Two things wreck my life. One is Leyton Orient losing and two is if we have bad numbers here’
Nigel Travis, chairman and chief executive of Dunkin’ Brands, believes the smart use of technology will keep the firm one step ahead of the competition
Leyton Orient players celebrate a goal. Travis has supported the club since childhood
Breakfast is the key battleground for Dunkin’ Donuts, says its chairman