Don Fox announced Thursday in a social post he’s stepping down as CEO of Firehouse Subs. Fox has been with the sandwich chain for two decades, the past 13 as chief executive. He’ll shift into a role as chairman. Mike Hancock, the brand’s COO who previously held the same title at Tim Hortons, was named Fox's successor and will be president of Firehouse.
In in his new title, Fox wrote, “he’ll inspire to add value as needed while gaining the luxury of time to pursue additional interests.”
“As I told the Firehouse team this morning, it has been a privilege to serve them and the brand. I could not have asked for a greater team of people to lead,” Fox said.
Under Fox’s leadership, the brand grew to more than 1,200 restaurants across 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and nontraditional locations. It had about 400 stores when he took over as CEO.
Fox has been in the business for 50 years. He spent 23 at Burger King, from 1980 to 2003. That shared history came into focus in November 2021 when BK parent company Restaurant Brands International agreed to purchase Firehouse for $1 billion in an all-cash transaction. Firehouse, founded in 1994 in Jacksonville, Florida, when brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen financed shop No. 1 with loans from family and friends, came into the deal having tripled its unit count since 2010. For 2021, U.S. comps lifted 21 percent and 20.6 percent across two years. The company’s same-store sales and record-high $900,000-plus AUV drove systemwide figures of roughly $1.1 billion, compared to $872 million in 2020. More than 27 percent of those sales flowed through digital channels.
Firehouse closed fiscal 2022 with 1,242 stores and AUVs of nearly $925,000 on a trailing 12-month basis, up about 25 percent versus 2020 levels. During Q4, Firehouse saw net unit growth of 2.4 percent and relatively flat comparable sales, resulting in a 3.9 percent year-over-year increase in system-wide sales. A third of sales now came through digital.
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Fox led that transformation at Firehouse as it navigated COVID. Through the first four weeks of the pandemic, Firehouse’s sales were down 45 percent, year-over-year. The first Monday of COVID’s “official” landing (March 16), the chain stopped collecting royalties. A day later, it did the same for ad fees. In fact, it would be months before Firehouse asked operators for either, and even then, it came as deferred payments.
Fox, at the time, said Firehouse wanted to keep cash in the wallets of franchisees. The brand’s sales returned to prior-year levels after just 10 weeks. By summer, Firehouse forgave deferred royalties and began to post record figures. In 2021, 2 to 2.5X more dollars came via off-premises channels than pre-COVID. That October, 14 percent of sales owed to delivery alone. Rewards grew at a clip of 50,000 users per month and reached 10 percent of Firehouse’s total transactions. “It’s so energizing when you know you’ve got these great, great assets that consumers love,” Fox told QSR then. “And know it’s more like fine tuning, with the technical side of the business to really unleash it.”
“I will always be thankful for the opportunity that Robin Sorensen and Chris Sorensen provided, and for the trust they placed in me,” Fox said in the post. “I leave my role as CEO with abundant confidence in the team and the future of the brand.”
When Hancock, a 6-foot-7 former defensive end who played in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts, joined as COO, it marked the first new C-suite member for Firehouse in 11 years (the position sat vacant since 2009 when Fox was promoted to CEO). The 10-year RBI vet also clocked five years at Burger King directing operations across North America, Southern Europe, Turkey, and Africa.
“Throughout his 10 years with RBI, Mike Hancock has established himself as a leader who builds strong teams, drives great business results and develops trust with franchisees and restaurant owners,” Josh Kobza, RBI CEO, said in a statement. “I also want to thank Don Fox who has been an excellent partner and has such an impressive career in [quick service] over the last 40 years. Don will become Chairman of Firehouse Subs and continue to be involved in the brand’s Public Safety Foundation.”
“I am very excited to take on this new opportunity. Firehouse Subs has a unique combination of an incredibly strong brand, exceptional sandwiches, passionate franchisees, and an unparalleled foundation that supports fire fighters and first responders across North America,” Hancock added. “There is tremendous opportunity to grow the brand and our mission across North America, and I’m looking forward to working closely with our franchisees to make that happen.”
Fox is an avid writer (both for QSR and books he pens on history) and trumpet player.
“I hope you’ll join me in savoring the highs and drawing lessons from the lows,” he said in a message to employees. “Because of our mutual commitment and passion for the brand, there were far more of the former. I am so proud of everything we achieved … especially the work in supporting the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. In the end, that is where we all made [and will continue to make] the biggest difference.” The Foundation recently surpassed $73 million of grants awarded since inception.
RBI has undergone a host of changes of late, including CEO Jose Cil departing in February and Kobza assuming the post. In November, it was announced that Patrick Doyle, a former Domino's CEO, would take over as RBI's executive chairman. As part of the move, the industry veteran is investing $30 million in the company.