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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 23, 2017 2 years ago

Ice Cream for a Cause

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A Dairy Queen franchisee answers to a higher calling, beyond customers and employees.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Tra Williams hesitated in 2012 when he got a call from his former Georgetown professor, who asked if Williams would consider being an employee again. A franchise executive and former president of Planet Smoothie for Petrus Brands, Williams was now working from home as a consultant — and he enjoyed the entrepreneurial lifestyle.

But the former professor and head of franchisewell.com convinced Williams this was a unique opportunity. A 60-year-old nonprofit in Pensacola was looking for ways to diversify its investments, and thought franchising might help its mission.

When Williams went to visit the nonprofit, Lakeview Center, it only took two hours and a short tour of the facility, seeing the people that it helps, to know this would be his next move. Lakeview Center provides services for people with behavioral health or addiction disorders and child protective services in 14 states and Colombia.

The opportunity led to a dramatic career shift for Williams. Instead of working from home, he now oversees a unique, and fast-growing, Dairy Queen empire — where profits go back to Lakeview.

Williams, under Lakeview Associated Enterprises, a wholly owned Lakeview Center subsidiary, opened the first Dairy Queen in Riverview in April 2015 and the second in Lutz in August 2015. He opened a third location in Lakewood Ranch, in east Manatee County, in February. He was attracted to growth potential in all three areas. “I don't mind going in markets that are a little green if they will open over time,” he says.

Williams seeks to open five more Dairy Queens in the region in the next two years, and his longer-term goal is to open 12 to 15 DQs from Naples to Tampa. The company is already making progress on two more locations in Manatee County, two in Sarasota County and one more in Hillsborough. Williams declines to disclose specific revenue figures, or what he and Lakeview paid for the Dairy Queen franchise rights.

The first location is up 6% in year-over-year sales volume, he says, and his second location is up 4%. The locations have above average customer satisfaction scores, with the highest number of customer feedback responses in the market area, adds Williams. “100% of profits go back to the organization,” Williams says. “We sell guilt-free ice cream.”

Williams got into the market at a good time, according to QSR magazine, which recently listed the greater Tampa area as the No. 2 top development market in the nation for quick service franchises, due to its population growth.

Williams bought the local franchise rights to Dairy Queen after evaluating thousands of franchise options. In the early going, most of the challenges were Dairy Queen-centric, given the company has more than 300 SKUs and customizable products. Williams, 43, says affordable real estate was one of the first things that attracted him to start in the Tampa area, along with growth potential. But real estate is also what has limited his growth, though it is a self-induced issue, he admits. Says Williams: “I pass on really good sites in lieu of great sites.”

With some of those challenges behind him and his team, the next goal, says Williams, is to build some revenue to help mitigate Lakeview Center's dependence on federal and state funding. With the for-profit subsidiary, the company can funnel funds into the organization as returns from its investments. Franchising was the obvious choice, Williams says, because of its “predictable outcomes.”

“It's just like if a church opens a daycare, or a shelter for domestic violence opens a snow cone shop,” he says. “We're doing that to a massive scale.”

It has been a new, but good, experience to report to a nonprofit, Williams says. It can also be tough trying to instill the culture of the Lakeview Center in remote Dairy Queen locations that are 500 miles away, Williams says. It's one of the reasons why he's added history of volunteering and philanthropy to the interviewing process for job candidates. It's also why he's set up a program to fly the best performers from the crew and managers to participate in strategy sessions at the Lakeview Center headquarters four times a year.

“All of our strategy sessions are mission driven. It's not about lining someone's pockets or squeezing the most of our people,” he adds. “It's fundamentally changed the way I see the world.”

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