Rick Silva, the president and CEO of Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, had a vivid way to describe his company’s bombshell announcement on Thursday. The 844-unit brand, which operates under the Checkers and Rally’s banners in 29 states and the District of Columbia, entered into a definitive agreement to be acquired by Oak Hill Capital Partners for around $525 million.
“We’re not taking a different direction,” Silva says. “What we’re really doing is throwing gasoline on a fire here.”
Checkers, which debuted as Rally’s Hamburgers in 1985 and opened the first Checkers a year later, was a public company until 2006 when Wellspring Capital purchased the fast food chain for an estimated $188 million. Silva was brought into the fold the following February in hopes of turning around stagnant sales. Wellspring then sold Checkers to Sentinel Capital in March 2014 for an undisclosed amount.
What’s different this time around, Silva says, is that Oak Hill is strapping into the co-pilot seat of a rocket ship. Checkers has enjoyed six consecutive years of system-wide same-store sales growth. Over the last eight years, restaurant profitability has improved by more than 700 basis points, and overall profitability has increased around 20 percent per year over the past seven.
“We’ve already got that momentum and Oak Hill is coming on to help us get there better, get there faster, and help us with scaling growth, which is really where we are now,” Silva says.
Checkers’ “20-20” vision, as the company refers to it, sees 1,200 restaurants in the system by 2020—a goal Silva believes is clearly in reach. The company has built more than 100 restaurants in the last three years and currently has a pipeline of 250 new stores. Of those 250, Silva says 130 are already approved and the franchisee is in the process of trying to build the restaurant. Checkers also wants to bring its system-wide average to $1.2 million up from $1 million, although Silva says the more recent stores have reported those top-line sales already.
What’s more, he adds, is that Checkers doesn’t believe the ceiling is anywhere in sight. An outside analysis conducted by Buxton showed that the brand’s current markets (this isn’t including expanding to new ones) could support 3,000 more units if Checkers saw fit to do so.
“We’ve got so much exciting growth ahead of us,” says Silva, who spent 13 years at Burger King before joining the company. “It is kind of crazy if you think about it.”
The transaction, which is subject to HSR approval and other customer closing conditions, is expected to close in the second quarter of 2017.
“Checkers is a unique concept that is outpacing the growing [quick-service restaurant] industry. The company has been able to win share in this large, stable industry through its differentiated value proposition and attractive franchised business model,” says Oak Hill partner Kevin Mailender, in a statement. “With a proven brand, a loyal customer following, and strong unit-level economics, we are confident that the business will capitalize on its large whitespace opportunity for new units. We are excited to partner with CEO Rick Silva and his talented management team to support the company through its next phase of accelerated growth."
Oak Hill has more than $10 billion of initial capital commitments since its inception 30 years ago. They are also the company credited with propelling Dave & Buster’s, a brand they purchased for $570 million in 2010.
Silva says the partnership with Checkers was driven by Oak Hill’s reputation as a growth engine.
“They are a private equity firm that actually specializes in buying companies that are on a growth trajectory,” he says.
Oak Hill will be the driver behind Checkers’ ability to fund its rapid growth with responsible capital that proves a great return on investment. Silva says they typically target—and exceed—30 percent. Oak Hill will also help develop the infrastructure Checkers needs to support the boon.
“Obviously it’s up to me and the management team to do the work. But to have a partner and a board that is championing your growth and helping you achieve that growth is crucial. They’ve got experience growing businesses,” he says. “ … That’s the partnership we were looking for and we think they’re the perfect partner to help us do just that.”