As the third-generation chairman of his family's McDonald's Corp. franchise, Blake Casper literally knows the operations of the business inside and out.
He started behind the counter as a teenager and moved up to various management and supervisory roles before going to school to earn a degree from the London School of Economics. For a few years, he even held a franchise of his own in the Florida Panhandle before selling it in 2007.
Now at age 38, Casper is leading the 50 Tampa Bay area McDonald's locations of Tampa-based Caspers Co. in a new direction, with enhanced amenities and expanded menu items geared toward the health-conscious and indulgent alike. He maintains strong ties to the Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain with 32,500 restaurants worldwide.
Rather than go against the grain of the McDonald's operating plan, like finding a different way to prepare a Big Mac, Casper says his company simply executes those fundamentals with the goal of operating at a higher level than other franchisees across the country.
“We try to run our restaurants in a manner that wows our customers,” he says. “It comes down to that individual experience every time. We focus on all the big things and try to get those right, but we don't stop there.”
Synonymous with brand
With 3,200 full- and part-time employees, the Caspers name is synonymous with McDonald's in Tampa and St. Petersburg, with some observers saying it represents the gold standard for the Golden Arches locally. Casper humbly doubts most McDonald's customers can tell one of its sites apart from that of any other franchisee, though they may be familiar with the family's history.
His grandfather, Fritz Casper, opened the first local McDonald's in 1958 on South Dale Mabry Highway near MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and was familiar with Ray Kroc, the company executive widely credited with expanding the chain nationally. His father, Joe Casper, took over in 1976 and expanded beyond the 14 locations the family was already overseeing.
Fritz Casper died in 1995, and the following year Blake Casper entered the operator training program with his sister, Allison Casper Adams, and brother-in-law, Robby Adams. Upon Joe Casper's death in 2005, Blake Casper was put in charge.
Blake Casper credits his father with teaching him principles of business and community service, and with moving their company forward. Although Caspers Co. closely follows McDonald's overall operating plan for its restaurants, he says his company does try to take the lead on those initiatives.
“We think we execute better than average and our sales volumes are higher than the national average,” Casper says. “Our customers see that difference and they come back to us more often.”
Responding to recession
Caspers posted revenue of $150 million last year at its restaurants and achieved year-over-year growth despite the recession, which forced many customers to eat at home rather than go to restaurants. McDonald's responded to national economic conditions by expanding its $1 menu to include several popular items and reducing the price of its hamburger to 49 cents.
While sales remain strong following the downturn, Casper says, there are still a lot of customers who do not eat out as much as they used to.
“The restaurant pie is shrinking, but our share of that pie is growing,” says Casper. “We're certainly doing better than most, and it has a lot to do with doing things right. It's not about being the cheapest, but it's about getting our product mix right.”
Value and convenience are the keys to bring customers through McDonald's, he adds, with other extra touches ordered by the chain such as widescreen televisions, free wireless Internet access and a McCafe coffee bar that now rivals Starbucks. Oatmeal was added to the breakfast menu and has proven to be popular, he says.
Caspers is also adding a new look to many of its restaurants, renovating a dozen locations and rebuilding five this year alone to give McDonald's a contemporary facade. “It allows us to be that much more relevant and maybe offer a wider variety of items,” Casper says, noting that his franchise is on the forefront of the national reimaging campaign.
Not always golden
While McDonald's stock has traded at or below the $80 mark over the last six months, Casper recalls a time a decade ago when things weren't going so well for the chain. The stock fell to $12 a share and customers were angry because they expected better.
“We couldn't get anything right, our marketing was awful, people were frustrated with our delivery,” he says. “It was interesting to have something people feel that strongly about, so it almost puts the emphasis on us getting it right.”
It is interesting, Casper says, to be associated with a fast-food brand that is simultaneously revered and reviled. Casper says he doesn't even bother trying to defend the brand against its detractors. “At least it's not being ignored,” he muses. “It's an iconic brand and it still resonates very strongly with people who grew up with us.”
He points out that McDonald's is the most widely recognized brand in France, for example, indicating the chain's international appeal. and its opportunities to continue growing in foreign markets. It isn't likely that the chain would expand further in the Tampa Bay market, he says, though “we're certainly open to it.”
Beyond the restaurants, Casper says he spends his leisure time fishing, golfing and collecting books. He built an opulent home valued at nearly $5.2 million on Davis Islands five years ago and invested in two small office buildings along West Kennedy Boulevard for $1.1 million earlier this year.