• That Time in the Airport: Being Human Enough for Business

    That Time in the Airport: Being Human Enough for Business

    by Tracy Johnstone

    The lady in front of me today seemed dazed, unsure of where she was and what she was supposed to do next.

    For a split second I almost text my adult son this:

    “If I am ever ambling around unsure of where I am, staring into space, frail, with no hope of direction, please keep me home”

    I had those thoughts. Until. Until I realized just a few months ago that was me. Until I then realized some 28+ years ago that was also me.

    You do the same thing. We are only human.

    Or maybe not human enough.

    Twenty eight years ago I rambled through the Ontario, California airport to a flight back home to Panama City, Florida. I had completed my third egg harvest in Pasadena, California. I was weary and worried.

    It was the last call for me and my eggs.

    I knew my body had done the thing, been through the process, visited the artificial aging of medically induced menopause for the last time, all in an effort to harvest the eggs that would become the embryo that would become the person. The baby that this semi-barren woman would call Thomas.

    Mine was the narrative of a woman without a uterus who wanted to have a child, so I walked through the airport in the fog of hormones.

    If you had seen me that day, you would have thought I was perfectly fine. I was well dressed, fit, and filled with purpose.

    But my gait, posture, and countenance reflected a different state.

    I was spent, too thin, frail, worn down, and scared. It was not only written all over my face, it was written on my soul. It was all in my head and it was completely not in my head. It was real.

    The outcome of those thin, frail days was Thomas, now 28 years old. He is the baby that will forever be the baby. He is now part of the menfolk in my life – all four of them. I am grateful.

    Only a few months ago I walked this path of fragility again – weakness, uncertainty,. This time, it was not for the sake of bringing life into this world. It was for the sake of saving my own life.

    Breast cancer treatment bears down on you hard – really hard – and really fast. It was the same walk of disorientation, uncertainty, and confusion that I navigated the Houston airport many times. I needed far more help than I was willing to say.

    The anxiety, weakness, and mental shakiness was not of my own doing. It was a byproduct of trying to live.

    So today, when I watched the thin, blonde, blue-eyed woman about my age stare aimlessly into space in the Atlanta airport, I thought of those words I almost sent to Thomas. Then it hit me: Sister, you have been in those shoes.

    I don’t know her story, much like others did not know mine. But I know this – she has a story and, for the love of our good Lord, I need to give her grace and support so she can take the next step in life.

    I’ve hired and managed thousands of people in my entrepreneurial career. One of the hardest, but most meaningful, jobs I had was to pause a moment to understand why someone did (or didn’t do) what they did, said (or didn’t say) what they said. And then react.

    All the MBAs in the world can’t, won’t, teach you to empathize first and then react.

    I haven’t always succeeded in that, and I regret it. But when I have, I not only gained a better employee or colleague, I felt more human. And so did they.

    Business doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, make us less human. When we do it right, we all profit in so much more than dollars.

  • Why ‘Owner/Operator’ Was My Favorite Job Title

    Why ‘Owner/Operator’ Was My Favorite Job Title

    by Tracy Johnstone

    “Luck is the dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” – Ray Kroc

    The franchise model Ray Kroc developed with McDonald’s is one of the most successful business models in history. It has been copied thousands of times. And it works because Ray invented a title called Owner/Operator.

    I married a man who was a McDonald’s franchisee. What that means in McDonald’s land is that he wasn’t just an owner. He was required to also be an operator. He could literally operate every function of a McDonald’s restaurant.

    So when Tim and I made our family, I also joined the McDonald’s family. That meant I put on my crew uniform and started dropping fries, mopping floors, and cleaning bathrooms. I had to work my way up.

    In the process, I became a student of our business. Every facet of it. That is the genius of the owner/operator model. I knew the times and temperatures for food, I became a food cost analyst and a food safety expert. I learned how to grow in a penny profit business. And my lucky sweat was how I got it done.

    Ground Truth from the Dining Room

    Profitability is the key to unlocking the door of success and the key to taking care of our people. To build that profit, you can’t just read the reports. You must do the detail work of getting underneath the why and how. And that can’t be learned from a distant office. It happens on the restaurant floor.

    Eventually, we had seven McDonald’s locations. I considered myself a boutique operator, small enough to be in the restaurants, big enough to create wealth.

    By putting in the time, from the back door to the rooftop to the walk-in to the dining room, I knew my restaurants. I was not a spectator; I was in the game.

    Being in the game means knowing your people and teaching those folks to count the ketchup packets. Being profitable takes practice, putting systems and routines in place, and then constantly tweaking them to purr like a kitten. And make money.

    It is easy to think entrepreneurs who scale their businesses do so from a beach or yacht. Don’t believe it. They do it by being the leading expert in the world on their business.

    Being that student of your business enables you to read end-of-month reports with a knowledge of how those numbers came to be. You know when the numbers are off but, most importantly, why they are off. The CPA is only processing numbers you give them. You must become the subject matter expert to get the numbers you want.

    There is a phrase, “You need to work through your people,” and I could not agree more. But, don’t hide behind that sentence. If you’re in the weeds of your business and think you’re doing it wrong, you’re not.

    Nit-Pick Your Work, Not Others

    And I don’t mean micro-managing. That is nit-picking someone else’s work. I’m talking about your work. There is a time to delegate of course, but do not do so until you sling the mop yourself for a while.

    So, work a position in your business. Stand in those shoes. Over time, you will see what equipment needs attention, you will ask yourself why is this placed here, what if we change the set up, what is missing?

    The most meaningful compliment I received as an owner/operator was “Very nice, not many business owners know that.”

    So be a proud owner/operator. It’ll bring you the best kind of luck.


    P.S. – In Part II you will learn more about counting those ketchup packets.

  • There is a Hair On My Sweater

    There is a Hair On My Sweater

    Blonde hair and black sweaters have been a thing in my life. A blonde hair on a black sweater stands out like yellow pollen on a black car.

    Today, I found blonde hairs on my black sweater and it stopped me still for a moment. I reached into my closet in Houston, Texas, to grab a light sweater. It had my pre-chemo hair strewn about. It was like finding an artifact of my life before cancer.

    As of this writing, it has been nine weeks since I received my official MD Anderson breast cancer diagnosis. What began as a noticeable lymph node under my arm went from concern to a biopsy, then to the surgeon scooting his stool close to me, putting his hand on my knee, and telling me it tested positive for breast cancer cells. I went to the “get your results” appointment alone, totally unconcerned about the outcome. He said something about five years and that is the last thing I heard. Turns out the five year thing is good news but in that moment it felt like the start of a countdown.

    The hair loss began a few weeks after my first treatment despite “cold capping,” as they call it. By December 20 I decided my male pattern baldness was more than I wanted to manage so I went to a barber and had my head shaved. That was a moment unto itself as the woman who shaved my head had just completed her last radiation treatment. Poetic does not do the moment justice.

    There were blonde hairs on my black sweater today. For the last six weeks that blonde hair has clung to my black sweater in the closet. Those hairs have silently waited for me, stayed in place, and showed up today to remind me of the road I have already traveled to get to this moment with my goofy shaved head. For a minute I wanted to put them in a baggie like baby curls, never to be seen again.

    Instead, I removed them one by one, casting them to the side. There were no tears, no grieving for my head full of big hair. Just a deep sense of gratitude for the four drugs that drip into my body. The chemo can have my hair for now. If that is all this process costs me I will be the luckiest girl in the world.


  • Want to Succeed in Business? Count the Ketchup Packets.

    Want to Succeed in Business? Count the Ketchup Packets.

    Photo by Alena Shekhovtcova from Pexels

    I was a McDonald’s franchisee for 30 years. More specifically, my husband and I were McDonald’s owner/operators, which is a whole other thing. Ray Kroc believed if you owned a McDonald’s, you should know every aspect of how to operate a McDonald’s.

    We did well in the quick service restaurant (QSR) business. Really well. But that was not a given. Believe it or not, it is entirely possible to fail as a McDonald’s franchisee. The idea that you get your franchise and automatically become Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold coins is a myth.

    We made good money with McDonald’s because we knew how to fine tune that machine. And that came down to one simple precept – count the ketchup packets.

    Profits Are Made of Pennies

    McDonald’s is a penny profit business. A handful of ketchup packets to a customer will wipe out the margin of the hamburger and small fry they just purchased. If 20 people clock in 30 minutes early this week, you just added, on average, $130 to your labor line. If that becomes the norm, you just added $6,760 to your annual labor line.

    You make money in this industry by serving more guests more often, driving average checks, shifts in product mix, and labor line controls. All the other P&L line items matter but no amount of saving on those other lines will make up for out-of-control food and labor. Sales make up for a multitude of missteps but we don’t just want to pay the bills, we want to build cash. Systems and routines are the keys to the kingdom in the food service industry. And every ketchup counts.

    Building Profits Means Building People

    You can’t be everywhere all the time and wouldn’t want to be. To truly grow a business that hums and thrives, you have to inspire your people, teach them the value of those pennies, and reward them for tracking every cent. You must empower them to operate along with you and let them share in the profits they help you earn. In the end, the best entrepreneurs are the best and most detailed teachers.

    Developing people, giving them a roadmap to the next level, and shining a light on the path to success is what builds and sustains a team that can master those systems and routines, those keys to success. That is your job, business owner.

    When your team is equipped, appreciated, and rewarded for their good effort, they will count the ketchup packets too.


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