Monday, January 10, 2011

Junior Bridgeman works the same way he played basketball back in the day-teamwork. No wonder his three children want to join his team.

Former NBA star Junior Bridgeman didn’t expect his children to follow him onto the basketball court or into the family business. All he expected was whatever they chose to do they gave it their all - starting at the bottom and working their way up.

After a celebrated career with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, Junior Bridgeman was working the line at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant in Milwaukee. “My job was to make sure what you ordered was on your tray and to thank you for coming,” he told an assembled group of active and retired professional athletes hosted by the Allied Athletes Group earlier this year in Atlanta. “A woman came in and looked at me like she recognized me.” He didn’t think anything about it until the next day, when he heard a woman call into a local talk show and say, “I think it’s a shame. I was at the Wendy’s and I saw Junior Bridgeman working behind the counter … if that’s the best these ex-athletes can do…”

Eden and Justin Bridgeman are following in the famous footsteps of their father, Junior. They know that while his name can get them in the door, it doesn’t mean it will keep them there.
A few of the athletes shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and it’s pretty easy to visualize the reaction of today’s pampered NBA stars like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James if that sentiment was broadcast on their turf.

But Bridgeman just laughed. Perhaps, it’s because the last laugh really is his. He owned that particular Wendy’s plus several others. Today his company runs 162 Wendy’s and 121 Chili’s and is No. 3 on the Restaurant Finance Monitor’s Top 200 franchisee-owned companies, with $507 million in revenue. In addition, he has other restaurant deals in the works.

And while nothing beats the high of winning a game at the very top competitive level, he says giving jobs to people and watching them develop is heart-warming, if not exactly heart-thumping.

“He’d always say each day, each opportunity was like a brand-new game,” his wife of 34 years, Doris Bridgeman, says about the restaurant business. “I knew his heart wasn’t in staying in athletics. I knew he wanted to be his own boss.”

Always practical, Bridgeman took the entry exams for law school his senior year, in case he wasn’t drafted into the NBA. He became interested in business when he served as the players association’s treasurer. He bought into three Wendy’s when he was still playing and at the end of the year, his manager came to him and told him, they’d made $1 million. “I said, ‘Great,’” and he said, “We broke even.” “Oh,” was his only response.

Bridgeman is not flashy. The 6’5” former small forward/shooting guard is more comfortable out of the limelight than in it. Perhaps because there wasn’t 24/7 media attention when he played from 1975 to 1987, Bridgeman was a hard-won cover story for Franchise Times (Notice who’s on the cover - it’s not him).

“He’s one of those E.F. Hutton types,” his wife says. “He’s relatively quiet so when words of wisdom come out of his mouth, people listen.”
Modesty, hard work and paying your dues are traits the Bridgemans passed on to their children - both through their DNA and parenting.

“They’ve all worked hard,” Paul Thompson, president of Bridgeman Foods, says about the second generation. “They know if you don’t have the passion for the restaurant business, you can’t wake up one morning and decide to get involved.”
While they had more opportunities than most kids - “We are blessed,” all three admit - they also had to work for it. They may have received a car when they turned 16, but they were “used cars, with lots of miles,” Doris stresses.
And just because two of them work for the family business doesn’t mean, they were allowed to just show up for the party. They all worked shifts at the restaurants, and the younger two even cleaned the restrooms at Bridgeman Foods’ office as teens.

Junior Bridgeman dunks over the Celtics’ Larry Byrd, before he traded the NBA for the fast-food fast track.
Starting out
Justin Bridgeman remembers watching his dad on the basketball court, and playing with the other team members’ kids in the neighborhood. He laughs as he describes the “Billy Madison-style” birthday parties with giraffes and break dancers he attended in L.A. But this is not a name-dropping family, so don’t expect him to name names. “We realized that was their success,” he says about his parents. “We had nothing to do with it” - and therefore, nothing to gain by bragging about it.

Their parents weren’t impressed by L.A.’s siren call, either.

“We looked at our stay in L.A. as a long vacation,” Doris Bridgeman says.

Both Justin, 31, and his younger sister Eden, 24, describe their upbringing as “normal.”

“The chauffeur was my mom … the cook was my mom,” Eden says. “And we were the maids and butler,” Justin adds, laughing. None of the siblings were expected to play basketball - “The shorts were too long and the jerseys too baggy. I was a girly-girl,” Eden says, although she has the height which leads strangers to speculate about her innate ability to dunk. As the oldest, Justin says, he felt pressure about following in his dad’s footsteps in sports, but it came from himself or well-meaning acquaintances, never from his dad.
The middle child, Ryan, 28, did play basketball, but when we talked on the phone - he’s currently in Los Angeles with a yearlong internship with Taco Bells’ finance department - Ryan didn’t notice any of the boys or fathers on his team being particularly impressed that a professional athlete was helping coach.

While most kids are enamored with pro athletes, for Justin and Ryan, Junior Bridgeman was ... well, Dad. “When I was young, I didn’t think about Dad (what he did for a living),” Justin says, nonplussed. “It’s not like he was an astronaut or a fighter pilot.” (Somewhere an astronaut’s kid is telling a reporter, “It’s not like Dad was a professional basketball player or anything.”)
When the two brothers collected trading cards, Ryan always looked for their father’s cards in the packs of basketball cards, while Justin went after the more lucrative baseball stars with a high face value. “He collected for love, I collected for profits,” Justin says, grinning. Ironically, it’s Ryan who went into the finance side of the business. Ryan defends himself, saying it’s pretty unique to have your father’s trading card.
The second generation of a business is often criticized for expecting to waltz into the corner office before the ink is dry on their college diploma. Not so here.
Justin is a general manager for a Chili’s in Chicago and Eden is a marketing manager for 49 Chili’s. Ryan has an internship in order to learn the business, before moving back to Louisville and getting involved in the family business. Both Ryan and Justin have MBAs, and Eden is looking into getting hers.
“I wouldn’t want to start at the top without experience, because this is an experience-driven business,” Justin says.

“The boys wanted to prove themselves elsewhere first,” Doris says. It was only because of the economy and the timing of the job opening in marketing that led Eden to take the job straight out of college, she adds.

“Your name may get you in the door,” Eden says, “but it won’t keep you there.”

Which is why Justin and Eden headed to Chicago and Ryan is learning the ropes at Taco Bell.

The Bridgeman family: Ryan; Eden; Parents, Junior and Doris; and Justin.

It’s Chili’s in Chicago
One nugget of advice Bridgeman gave his fellow athletes was that being a franchisee isn’t like sitting on the bench and collecting a paycheck. He admitted that when he first got into Wendy’s, he didn’t realize how much your success depended on being hands on. Just because your franchisor trains you on how to run the restaurant, doesn’t mean it will also teach you how to run a business, he cautions.

“In order to be successful, you’ve got to know what you’re doing and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I went back for training.” He also started putting in 12- to 14-hour days.
Fast food can be a challenge. “In Louisville, we had eight cameras in our restaurant to see what people are doing,” Bridgeman says. “One on the register, one of the drive-thru, one on the entry, one on the back door. We tell them, ‘Look, we have cameras, we don’t want to catch you doing anything wrong so we’re telling you we’re watching you.’ The first week, we fired eight people.”

But while people can be the greatest challenge, they also can be the greatest reward. It’s the people - employees and customers - who make the entire family want to be in the business.

“It’s about the people, not money,” Eden says. “He (her father) could take the money and invest it in something a lot less stressful.”

So why would the siblings want to follow their father into such a stressful business?
Justin and Ryan started working at Wendy’s in high school. Justin was the only one of the three who both opened and closed the restaurant, he says. Because he had friends who also worked at the same Wendy’s, it was fun, but the only perk he received was that his schedule was designed around all his other activities. By the time Eden was old enough to work, Chili’s had been added to the portfolio and she filled in as hostess and ran food orders.

All three were exposed to sports and music lessons and in Eden’s case, dance. Justin excelled at music and art. “He’s our Renaissance man,” Eden says, teasing, but also proud. Ryan was the athlete, who, apparently, didn’t appreciate the musical training.
“If Ryan ever touches a piano...” Eden begins, “it would be to move it,” Justin finishes. They both laugh. (Note to future interviewees: Try not to be in California when your siblings are being interviewed in Chicago.)
Justin originally wanted to work in the music business, but halfway into his schooling he discovered “the music industry isn’t for people who love music,” he says.

Y kids join the organization
The second generation brings a fresh perspective to successful family-owned businesses. In most cases the kids didn’t grow up worrying about money, enough food to eat or whether they’d be able to go to college.
But their challenge is to be seen as a contributor, not a legacy. And as Eden points out, they put more pressure on themselves to earn their spot in the business than their parents or coworkers do. “It’s all about family pride,” she says.

Although operations may not seem as creative as marketing, Justin says he enjoys the problem-solving aspect of it - such as, “What’s going to drive our age group into a Chili’s?” As someone who thrives on the nightlife, Chicago was a good landing spot for Justin, who appreciates trendy restaurants that stay open after his job ends for the day.

“I like the experience of people coming together around food (and drink). That’s what makes life,” he says.

And while the two of them have no control over the menu at Chili’s, they can alter the atmosphere. Justin is concerned with repeat visits and creating a spot where people like to hang out more than just occasionally.

That means friendly, efficient staff who make people feel welcome.

“I would rather have a busy day, stress with things constantly moving around, than when we can count the number of people (sitting at tables),” Justin says.“Every day’s a new day at the restaurant,” Eden echoes. “It’s fast-paced and you’re constantly having to come up with new things.”

The three siblings are interested in someday taking over the company, although their father plays the details of his business close to his vest, Ryan says.

“What dad has created - his time and effort - I don’t want that to go away,” Ryan says. And for Eden, the decision is easy: “We’re the owner’s children. We’re a team ... and we have the ear of the top man,” she says.

And like an orchestra, they all play a different instrument. And they play nicely. Justin and Eden both majored in marketing, but he chose operations, and never blinked when the position in marketing opened up.

“She’s better at it,” he says about his sister.

The winning secret at Bridgeman Foods and ERJ Dining, the Chili’s side of the business, is that “Junior’s allowed people to work with him, not for him,” Thompson says. Thompson has been with Bridgeman since the first day the company started in May of 1988. He was working for Wendy’s International, when Bridgeman needed an operator after buying his first Wendy’s. Neither of them thought the business would ever grow to its current size, he says.

The reason Bridgeman has been so successful at business, Thompson says, is the same reason he was successful on the court - teamwork. “He tries to instill that we’re all in this together,” he says. “You hire good people and give them a vision.”

It’s not about the money or the glory, it’s about giving people jobs and opportunities so their kids can go to college and they can afford a decent home and lifestyle.

“Every Christmas, every manager with a kid 12 and under, we buy the kids a present,” Bridgeman says. The tradition is because as a child he remembers getting a present from the steel mill that employed his father. It’s all about: “Who have you helped?” Bridgeman says.

Having a deep bench

No formal succession plan has been put in place - mostly because their father is having too much fun right now running the plays.

If Junior Bridgeman ever does decide to retire, perhaps a good third career would be running a day care. He and his wife - “the backbone of the family,” as his daughter puts it - seem to have a pretty good track record raising the next generation of hard-working siblings who get along famously.

“I am the most blessed person in the room,” Bridgeman said at the AAG Summit. “And for those who are given the most, the most is expected.”

Let’s hope his fellow athletes, like his children, follow in his footsteps.

By Nancy Weingartner
As published in: Franchise Times - November-December 2010

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