Jim Treliving on how to get along with your business partner

CBC’s longest-serving Dragon talks about Boston Pizza, cracking new markets and why he’ll never, ever wear jeans on the job

Boston Pizza chairman and Dragons’ Den panelist Jim Treliving

Boston Pizza chairman and Dragons’ Den panelist Jim Treliving. (Portrait by Liam Sharp)

When Dragons’ Den returns to CBC for its 10th season this fall, Jim Treliving will be the lone original cast member. But it’s the deals he’s made outside the Den—and his knack for operations—that’s truly impressive. He started with a single Boston Pizza franchise in 1968 and bought the entire company 15 years later, alongside George Melville. Their franchising acumen has seen the company nearly quadruple in size, with 365 locations in Canada, and an additional 40 in the U.S. and Mexico. He’s also a co-owner of Mr. Lube and has interests in 70 other businesses, including real estate, development and food-manufacturing companies.

Most people know you as the CBC Dragon who built the Canadian restaurant chain Boston Pizza. Now, you’re headed to Mexico, where Boston Pizza has six restaurants and is building two more. After 12 years of having a small presence down there, why did you decide this was the right time to go big in Mexico?

Mexico has become very middle class in a way we’ve never seen before. There are more and more middle-class families coming through the doors. So we were looking at it and asking: Can we get our system working down there? We needed to make sure we could get our food and our look to be the same as it is in Canada and the U.S. And it all worked better than we expected.

Have you made any changes?

A little bit. In the middle of our Mexico stores, we’ve installed a glassed-in area for kids. There are two nannies on each shift, and they have fingerpainting, movies, books and videos. It’s worked really well.

Where did that idea come from?

Well, when a family shows up at one of our restaurants in Canada, they have one or two kids. But a Mexican family can have five, so we were ending up with restaurants full of kids with nothing to do. You can give them crayons, or you can do what McDonald’s has done with the play area. But because of the labour situation in Mexico, the easiest thing for us to do was to put some nannies in there and see what happens. We tried it in one and, my God, we couldn’t get them in fast enough for the others. Now we have them in all of them.

The go-slow approach you’ve taken with moving into Mexico—is that something you learned from expanding into Eastern Canada and the States?

The biggest thing we learned is that you need people on the ground. It doesn’t matter if you’re going west, east, north or south, you need to actually be there. The first time we tried to expand to Toronto, it didn’t work because we were trying to run it from Vancouver. You’ve got to remember that even in Canada there’s a three-hour time change. So the second time we expanded into Eastern Canada, I moved. My business partner, George, stayed in Vancouver because his kids were in school. And then we were in a whole new world—because we hadn’t realized the differences in the market. In Vancouver, families don’t show up at a restaurant before 6 p.m. It can sometimes be as late as seven or eight. But in Toronto, particularly in the suburban areas, shift workers will finish at three, pick up their kids, and the first thing they do is go and eat. We also weren’t prepared for the lunch rush. Out west, we did a bit of business at lunch, but now we were dealing with cities with triple and quadruple the population. And they’d all come to eat at once. So we had to change our whole system, from deck ovens where you can cook one pizza at a time to conveyor ovens.

Speaking of pizza, you’ve expanded the menu in all sorts of different ways, from pastas to kale salads. How do you decide what’s a smart addition and what goes too far beyond your core strengths?

If we change something, it has to fit our food cost and it has to fit our system. All of our food is fresh—we make our dough fresh at every location—but we don’t have chefs in every restaurant; we have people that assemble the food. So it has to be simple. It can’t be a chateaubriand—something an average person like you or me couldn’t cook. But many of the changes come from listening to customers who have been coming to the restaurant for years and years. They’ll say, “Can we get this?” And then we look at it. Kale is a big thing now. We didn’t have it on the menu; now we’re bringing it out.

So what doesn’t work for you?

Well, in Eastern Canada, they don’t look to us as being the greatest place to go for a steak. We carry a steak sandwich, but it’s not as big a seller as it is in the West. Whereas, in Alberta, steak is a staple. You’ve got to have it, no matter what else is on your menu. But the best way to get feedback is to stand outside the door and talk to customers as they’re coming out. That’s better than any survey in the world. You grab somebody who’s walking out at 1:15 p.m. and say, “How was lunch there?” And they’ll tell you, “They have a great this, this was good and that was great.” I can’t do it anymore because I get recognized, but somebody else does. You’ve always got to be asking those questions.

How do you make sure customers get a consistent level of service, regardless of where they are?

We’ve introduced online resources that ensure people are receiving constant training. First, you train the franchisee, and then you train down the chain. We also have more people in operations than any other chain in the country. So they’re constantly checking on things. One prime example: I was sent a tweet from a woman in Grand Falls, Nfld. I was sitting in Alberta at the time. She said her family had ordered a Smoky Mountain, which is pasta and meatballs, and it was cold. So I phoned the operations guy. And then he phoned the general manager, and we had the plate changed. She was stunned. Now, if I hadn’t looked at my BlackBerry, I wouldn’t have seen it until the next day. But any complaints we get, we get an operations person to investigate.

What do you do when you realize you’ve got a franchisee who’s just not working out?

It’s about curing the problem. You need to sit them down and say, “Your volume is dropping; you’re going to start losing money, then you won’t be able to pay your landlord, and there’s going to be trouble. Why don’t you try to sell your store?” There are instances where that happens. One of our locations was being run by two partners who were great guys. They were neighbours. They got along, went biking together and did family things together. Then they went into business, and within three months they were just a disaster. When we sold the store to somebody else—surprise, surprise—the new owner did really well. By sitting and talking when there’s a problem, in 99% of the cases you can find a solution. I think it’s better to work with people to get out of the problem than trying to fire them. I really do.

You’ve been operating a charity, the Boston Pizza Foundation, for 25 years. It’s laudable for the good work it does, but does it have a benefit for the business as well?

We didn’t start doing it to benefit the company. We were doing golf tournaments, so the benefit was that George and I were having a lot of fun. But all of a sudden, we were also raising a lot of money, so it was sort of a sideline to becoming a full-blown charity where you can actually make a difference. And then the side benefit is that our customers say, “I love coming here for the food and I love the business, but I also love that you’re giving back.” That wasn’t a benefit that we realized existed until we started hearing it from our customers.

Beyond Boston Pizza, you’re also part owner of Mr. Lube and have a diverse portfolio of other businesses. How do you decide what’s a good fit for you?

I go by the people. I’m really a people person. I want to look you in the eye and ask myself, ‘Do I really want to be in business with this person?’ And I also look at how you operate as a business, how you are with people. Lots of times I take a prospective partner to play golf. You get to see their temperament. If the guy’s winging a club or he pummels the ground because he made a bad shot, what’s he going to be like in business? Does he have a tantrum or sort out his problems? Because it’s you hitting the ball, nobody else.

You’re trying to see what they’re like under pressure.

You don’t want to jump in just because it seems like a great deal. I leaped into a couple of things earlier in my career where it looked like a hell of a business. And then you go, “Whoa, whoa, this is not what I expected.” It’s like trying to pick a hockey player when he’s in the junior leagues. He looks like a great player; he acts like one. That’s what he’s been like in the juniors. And then he’s fluffed when he gets to the next level. So what I try to see is: How do you react when you have a problem? That’s what I worry about if I’m going into business with someone. I try to sit back and listen to people talk, to really get a feel for them. I think that’s what really worked for me in the past.

Do you need that same kind of gut instinct about someone when you’re assessing a deal on Dragons’ Den?

Exactly. I did a deal with David Chilton three years ago with a company called Steeped Tea. A lady came on—she was nine months pregnant; her husband and business partner’s Egyptian. They live in Hamilton. Their sales were about $600,000 to $700,000 a year by working out of a basement. And the first thing she said to me was, “Jim, I know what you’re thinking: I’m nine months pregnant.” And I said, “Yeah, I think you should be at the hospital, not here today.” I thought I’d be investing in something where she was going to be away from the business for a year. And she said, “I’ll be gone three weeks—max.” She was gone for two. She said, “I’ve got a nanny. I’ve got this.” She had all the answers. How do you not invest with somebody like that?

What has 10 years in the Den taught you about business?

I think it teaches you a lot about people more than about business. I started my career in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In that job, you dealt with bad people all the time. You get jaded. And when I started in the pizza business, a very good friend of mine said, “Jim, these are not suspects—they’re customers coming through the doors. So start smiling.” And that’s something the Den has taught me. There are some great people and some great businesses out there.

You’ve mentioned George Melville a couple of times now. He’s been your business partner for 45 years. What’s the secret?

We speak as a “we”; it’s not “I.” I didn’t build this business—we did it together. And the one thing you learn is that you have to listen to somebody else. I have a very strong personality, but my dad told me long time ago that if you hire a person, you have to listen to him. George worked for me for a year before we became partners and we’ve always had great communication, along with trust. When I first moved to Toronto, George called me and said, “You haven’t phoned me in three days—what’s going on down there?” And I said, “George, I’m busy.” But he said it didn’t matter how busy we were, we had to talk. So he jumped on a plane. It’s just keeping each other posted.

What do you do when there’s a disagreement?

We’ve never had an argument. We make sure to always leave personalities out of it. So we’ll have a discussion and make sure we give legitimate reasons, not some BS stuff. We’re so open with each other. One of the things George and I did is we didn’t put doors on our offices. We have a policy that we can walk into each other’s office at any time.

Are there other things you’ve done to define your corporate culture?

You have to wear a shirt and tie. We don’t have a jeans day. If you come to our corporate offices to buy a franchise, that’s going to cost more than a million dollars. So we feel we need to dress professionally. And we need to act professionally. When our operations people visit a store, they need to remember that it belongs to the franchisee. So they ask permission before they walk into the kitchen. I’m the same when I go to one of the restaurants. I don’t just walk in the kitchen like I own the whole place; I don’t believe in that.