Whether he’s learning the secret of franchising from The Body Shop’s founder or calling his own restaurants’ cooking disgusting on national TV, Andrew Withers isn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers to improve Southern Fried Chicken’s franchise offering
Andrew Withers is all about great food. Come summertime and you’ll no doubt find him outside prepping the grill for the evening barbecue. “But I’m not allowed in the house,” he laughs. “My wife does all the in-house cuisine.” Fortunately, as the chairman and owner of Fast Food Systems, the company that owns the restaurant franchises AJ’s Piri Piri, Piccolo Pizza and, most importantly, Southern Fried Chicken, he’s never at risk of running out of flavours and ingredients to experiment with. In fact, mixing up his professional and personal lives has proven a hit in the past. “My wife once said our sauces were like ketchup, that they were tasteless,” Withers remembers. When he took this insight to the company and asked to add some spice, it didn’t take long before the sales heated up too.
However, no one should be surprised about how closely the two spheres of Withers’ life are entwined. Not only has he spearheaded the growth of the company for over 30 years but being the founder’s son meant he acquired a taste for the food industry at an early age. “My father was very hard-working and taught us that if you want to do well you have to work hard,” he says. Long before Arthur Withers came up with the concept that would develop into Southern Fried Chicken, Withers Sr worked for a long string of food companies. And during the weekends his son helped out baking doughnuts, frying up hot dogs and learned the basics of the industry he would dedicate his life to. “Catering is definitely in my blood,” he shrugs.
By working for one of these companies the older Withers had the chance to go to America and it was there he had the light-bulb moment that would change his family’s lives forever. The pivotal experience was when he was served a plate of fried chicken in a South Carolina hotel restaurant. “He loved it,” Withers says. During the same trip he also had a chance to see a Mississippi steamboat with the sun rising behind it. The scene made a huge impression – it was the first thing that popped into his mind years later when asked what he remembered from tasting the delicious dish. “And that became the logo with the name as we see it today,” his son says.
Nevertheless, this success was still years into the future. To begin with Withers Sr had no intentions of opening a chain of fast-food restaurants. “Initially, we were just mixing spices in a garage,” his son remembers. The aim was to replicate the flavour Arthur Withers had tasted on his US trip and to sell it to traditional fish and chip shops eager to expand their menu in order to compete with quick service restaurants like McDonald’s that were slowly spreading at the time. “There was no name to the brand,” Withers says. “There was just a recipe we sold and that was the beginnings of the business.”
One of the key moments came when Withers’ mum asked him to join the company in 1980. “At the time I was in a music studio recording punk rock,” he says. While he loved the music industry and had no intentions of leaving it, his mother eventually convinced him to change his tune. There was just one slight snag: Arthur Withers had no idea about his wife’s plans. “He was a bit shocked,” Withers says. “He didn’t want me to join to be honest. He wanted me to go out and find my own future and career.” Even though his father was less than thrilled, having his son onboard would prove pivotal for the business evolution into an international franchise.
By 1986, the younger Withers began to hear about the term franchising. “I didn’t know what the word meant,” he says. At the time the company supplied ingredients to roughly 500 restaurants all using the Southern Fried Chicken brand. Unfortunately, not all of them kept the same high standard. Recognising franchising the business could solve the issue, Withers set out to transform the chain. Although, that would prove more difficult than expected. “There is no school to go to and learn how to build a global brand and there is no school where you can learn how to franchise,” he says. “You can pay for advice but when you’re a small company, you don’t have the money to pay for it. You can’t afford to pay for it. So little by little we learned from other people.”
While hiring a lawyer helped him put the franchise agreement together, Withers learned a crucial lesson in franchising at a dinner where he was sat next to Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. “She said, ‘the problem with you guys is that you are salesmen that like to sell to anybody,’” Withers remembers. “‘But you can’t sell this to anybody. You have to be selective as the right people will grow your brand and the wrong ones will damage your brand.’”
Even though he took her words to heart, being selective in the first years of franchising was a challenge. For one, he struggled to convince the independent business owners using the brand to join the franchise. It seemed as if restaurateurs willing to do so were rarer than hen teeth. “They didn’t want change,” says Withers. Despite his prompts they just couldn’t understand the benefit of it. Still, while unable to force anyone to become a franchisee if they didn’t want to, the budding franchisor could control that they sold the right food. Realising this, the Withers set out to audit every restaurant. “And the ones who weren’t using the genuine product but who were using our name, we took necessary actions to remove signage,” he says. “We stopped supplying many restaurants and removed the branding because it was damaging us.” In the end, 200 stores were forced to stop using the company’s brand. The ones that didn’t opt to franchise were allowed to remain as licensees but without the opportunity to transfer their contracts.
Another obstacle to overcome was that his father was initially against the idea of franchising the business. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Arthur Withers changed his mind when his son hired a Russian member of staff to help expand into Russia, which the founder wasn’t too happy about either. “Although, he didn’t say it that politely,” says Withers. Still, believing the recently collapsed Soviet Bloc presented massive business opportunities for the franchise, his son pressed on. And it didn’t take long before these efforts paid off with Southern Fried Chicken opening the first of what would eventually grow into 70 Russian restaurants. “That convinced my father that having a franchise and a brand that were protected was a benefit and he started to respect what I was trying to do,” Withers says.
Key to the success was that this was the first time they’d made an effort to be more selective in picking franchisees. “The first international place we went to was actually the United Arab Emirates and it was purely because somebody visited and demanded it,” he says. “At that stage if somebody came in and said I want to open, we’d say, ‘great, whereabouts?’” A similar pattern had emerged over the years as the company expanded into different European markets. But because the future success of the company was in the balance Southern Fried Chicken was adamant to find the right franchisees during the Russian expansion. And contrary to the franchisor’s UK experience, the Russians saw the benefit. “They understood that if you look after the brand, the brand will look after you back,” he says. “It was easy.”
That being said, growing into the Eastern Bloc was far from easy. “Legislation there was very different,” he says. “Getting goods inside the country was quite difficult. Communication was very bad back then, roadwise. Air travel was a nightmare. You’d get on a plane internally in Russia and there would be no safety belts. There were broken windows and all sorts of things.” Moreover, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country was in turmoil. People weren’t getting paid and the Russian oligarchy was busy grabbing every piece of wealth that wasn’t nailed down. If it was, they brought a crowbar. Still, Southern Fried Chicken’s gamble paid off when the country stabilised. “Because we were there early on the business grew from strength to strength,” he says.
Not only did the success finally prove the virtues of franchising to Arthur Withers but the international triumph left budding franchisees peckish for further global expansions. “One country led to another,” says Withers. “There’s a mushrooming effect.” Focusing on global growth came with some side-effects though, particularly given Withers had kids of his own. “I didn’t get to see them very much because I spent the last 30 years on an aeroplane,” he says. “But that was life. You know, living at hotels and travelling was needed. We were a small business and we needed to sell franchises and open restaurants in order to survive.”
Despite these efforts, Fast Food Systems wasn’t doing too well. “We were losing money,” says Withers. And a lot of it was due to Arthur Withers’ reluctance to evolve the business and because of his declining health. By the early noughties he’d started to suffer from a series of mini-strokes but was still unwilling to give up control of the business. “It was his baby he didn’t want to let go of it but physically he was no longer able to lead it,” his son says. Moreover, with both father and son in the business, the company’s pecking order wasn’t clear. “They could either go to me or they could go to my father,” he says. “So it was a bit of a conflict at the time. It wasn’t easy for him and it wasn’t easy for me.
Recognising something had to change if the business was to survive the father and son agreed to sell the company in 2006. Luckily, fate – or rather a certain spouse – intervened. “My wife persuaded me that it was a mistake,” Withers says. She convinced him to loan money from the bank and bet their house and everything they owned in order to match the market value of the company. “My dad accepted it and it helped us tremendously,” Withers says. “He made it easy for us.”
Having organised his father’s comfortable retirement, Withers set about turning the business around. “I didn’t want to lose everything I had built up” he says. “It was a difficult time but I think that pushes you and drives you even harder.” Not resting on his laurels, he quickly implemented new management structures to help the business evolve into the 21st century, which included computerising the business – something his father’s aversion for technology had previously prevented. Looking at the business as a whole he also realised that the business needed to slim down its workforce. Sad as this last part was, the combined efforts meant Withers was able to pay off the loan within 18 months. “And ever since then we’ve been profitable,” he says.
This triumph also did wonders for his self-esteem. “I’m not the most confident person but it gave me confidence to grow the brand even further and my father was really pleased with the outcome,” Withers says. As a matter of fact, he set up an office for Arthur Withers and hired him as a diplomat for the brand. “I gained his respect because the company had turned around, got out of a difficult stage and it was profitable, so he was very happy.”
While the business was flourishing thanks to its international efforts, things were far from hunky-dory in Britain. This became obvious for everyone to see when Withers took part in the Channel 4 show Undercover Boss in 2011. “I had watched the programme and realised it could highlight the faults in our brand,” he says. And it clearly did with the programme including a scene where Withers tasted some foul food and declared it to be “greasy, horrible shit.” But it proved his point that many UK stores had because they weren’t part of the franchise network. There was no consistency when it came to standards of the food and hygiene. “It was shocking and upsetting to see the conditions that they were working in,” he says.
Following the show, Withers personally went to the roughly 390 UK shops over a 12-month period. “Some of the faces just dropped as I walked into the shops,” he laughs. Some of them bent over backwards to show that they’d cleaned up their act. Others chose to join the franchise network and some wanted to keep being licensed, aware of the fact that their contracts couldn’t be transferred to another person unless it was turned into a franchise. “We also legally removed many, many dozens who were illegally using the brand but not our products,” he says.
Still, despite this clean-up, Southern Fried Chicken isn’t focusing on expanding in Blighty anytime soon. “I’m not overly actively pushing the UK,” he says. It’s hardly a secret why he isn’t: the rise of delivery services like UberEats, Just Eat and Deliveroo has meant traditional quick service restaurants face massive problems in more developed markets. “Obviously, convenience being number one where you can have everything home delivered,” he says. “It’s killing off the bricks and mortar business.”
Instead, he’s now actively encouraging the franchise’s growth in developing countries. “I am very actively pushing Mongolia, Africa, Russia, China and other places where there’s still a gap in the market,” he says. Unlike Britain, these countries are far from full, providing Southern Fried Chicken with more opportunities to be successful. “People are still going out to eat because it’s about entertainment,” Withers says. “It’s more about meeting their friends than about the convenience of eating.”
But no matter if the next generation of franchisees are coming from Britain or are growing their business abroad, Southern Fried Chicken looks for the same qualities across the board. “Individuals are very critical,” he says. “We’re looking, really, for developers.” Particularly, the franchisor looks for people who already run their own business to ensure budding franchisees have the right managerial skills and those who have some restaurant experience. These skills are crucial to ensure the franchisees can develop the number of restaurants needed to make the business profitable. “It doesn’t just work with anybody,” he says.
Today Southern Fried Chicken has about 700 restaurants in over 70 countries. But looking five years down the line, Withers is bullish about the prospect of growing this number. “We will be in the thousands,” he says. Although, having learned from his past mistakes, the franchisor is adamant that only the cream of the crop will be awarded a franchise. “I’m holding back growth a bit because if they aren’t going to look after our brand then I’m not going to work with them,” he says.
Almost four decades have past since Withers first surprised his father by abandoning his music career to join the company. But it seems as if his own early endeavours have struck a chord in the next generation. “My children have both become quite musical and I let them enjoy the music business,” he concludes.