When Steve Cole started as a Marco’s Pizza delivery driver more than two decades ago, he worked two other jobs simultaneously to support his growing family. Cole didn’t think he’d have a career in foodservice, but that changed when he was laid off from his primary job at a window-installation store.

Cole worked his way up through several positions at Marco’s until he became a general manager of an Ohio location. Three years later, he was selected as the first participant in Marco’s Dream Big apprenticeship program, which mentors and trains company employees on the path toward store ownership. After a development opportunity came through in Lansing, Michigan, Cole became an owner-operator. Today he has plans to continue developing new units in the market.

Cole shares how he inspires employees with his own origin story, and how two of his five children have now joined him in the family business.

1. Get a foot in the door

I’ve been with Marco’s for 22 years. I worked at another company as my primary job. I started delivering for a bit of extra money, but didn’t think I was going to make a career out of it. I loved it; I was young and it was easy money. Then there was a big economy change and my primary employer came to us on a Friday and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re letting everyone go. Today’s the last day, and we’re closing the distribution center.” So we were all stuck.

I went to my manager at Marco’s, because I had a family of seven and couldn’t support them on just Marco’s money alone. I took a manager position, and it ended up being perfect for me. I started as a manager and worked my way up the ladder when multiunit owner [and brand vice president of sales and product integrity] Mike Jaynes came to me with an opportunity called the Dream Big program.

I was the first person to be selected for the Dream Big program. I think Mike saw my passion for the company and my integrity for the brand, and that’s why I was selected. He saw what I could do when I took over a location as the general manager. The restaurant was making about $12,000 per week, and I left it at $25,000 per week. It took seven months before we found my first location in Lansing, Michigan, and we’re still here and thriving. We just opened our second store, and we’re doing pretty well.

I definitely have growth plans for this market. The ultimate goal would be five stores in the next five years. The stores may not be in Lansing, but there are all kinds of different suburbs that don’t have Marco’s but have great potential. It may be my stores or it may be another Dream Big candidate who we promote from within.

2. Remember where you came from

A manager is only as good as his crew. A lot of people would say the reverse of that, but I truly believe I wouldn’t have been as successful as I am if I didn’t have a good staff. Having a good staff is having a well-trained staff, too, so the training comes from you, but the retaining side comes from your staff.

I tell crewmembers about how I came to be where I am and that it’s possible for them to do the same—and we all want to do the same thing. Obviously, it takes time to open stores and find locations and find people who actually want to move to those locations. The Michigan market is a hard one. It’s not an easy market like Toledo, Ohio, where everyone knows Marco’s [because it’s the headquarters].

Finding people who actually believe the whole story is a little harder. You can tell employees where you started from and where you are now, but some still believe they can’t do it. I try to explain where I’m from and what I did throughout my career to get here. It’s a teaching method. I tell them it is possible; you just have to believe in yourself, and you have to have the drive to actually succeed.

3. Put family first

Integrity and compassion for the brand are the biggest things I look for in employees. You meet a lot of different people and you can see right through some people, but you have to train. You have to train integrity and compassion when it comes to the store itself.

Not everybody knows exactly what to do and not everybody comes in wanting to be there. They think it’s just a job and a way to make money, so I help guide them to think it’s more of a family. It’s more of a long-term thing.

I not only treat my family the best I can, but I also treat my employees like they’re family. Family is always first in my book. Franchising is definitely a possibility for my children. One of the Dream Big candidates is my eldest daughter. When you have your own kids and you bring them to work with you, they tend to learn. They decide what they want to do. There’s no pushing involved. If they want to be at Marco’s, they can be at Marco’s.

My daughters work for Marco’s Pizza, although one of them doesn’t live locally anymore. She works in the Toledo market at the store where I started; we’re from Toledo and she moved back there. My eldest daughter runs my Cedar Street location in Lansing as the general manager.

Franchising, Story, Marco's Pizza