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Talking with Creative Leaders: The Art of Keeping it Simple (and Unexpected)

An Interview with Pino Di Ioia, CEO of Beavertails

Pino Di Ioia was a speaker at this year's Dx3 conference in Toronto this year and aside from all of the valuable business insights he shared on the stage, it was his passion for his work and his panache for storytelling that captivated us. We reached out to have a conversation about how he went from entry-level employee at Beavertails to CEO of the iconic Canadian pastry brand. We also chatted about how businesses and employees are feeling overloaded and how it may be possible to overdo creativity.

Tell me a little bit about you and your role.

I started working for Beavertails when I was 17. I originally did not get the job that I wanted, so I applied and did get the Beavertails job - because anybody could get a job in fast food! When I was 11, I lived next to a golf course and started selling soft drinks to the golfers that passed by, so I think I always had that entrepreneurial spirit and natural inclination for the hospitality industry.

I started off as an employee at Beavertails in university and then continued working there as I finished my MBA. This was a summer time gig at the local Six Flags amusement park location. I stuck around after my graduate degree and did every job at Beavertails until the founder eventually sold me the company.

How do you feel that marketing has changed in the past few years and what are some of the biggest challenges?

There’s been so much change in the last three years. I’m a big proponent of change and learning. We used to have a 20-foot banner at our old office that said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,” with an attribution to Darwin. That was until someone smarter than me said, “That's actually not Darwin. Everyone says it's him but it was Leon C. Megginson,” who very anti-climatically was a management and marketing professor at Louisiana University.

As much as we talk about a return to normal, I think we are on a very new, uncharted course today. I feel the biggest change as of late has been that marketing is now a conversation. And it's a conversation with a friend because if your client is not your friend, then it’s just transactional. Nowadays it’s normal to expect witty comments from brands on social media, even if that comment has nothing to do with sales. Maybe it doesn’t even have to do with the brand, but more so the personality and character of the brand.

It also means that now brands really need people on their team that really identify with their brand’s character. It’s not something that you can pay people to do unless they really genuinely buy-in. We all need people sitting next to us that really buy into what brands stand for, so that is a big shift.

What are some of the ways that Beavertails is engaging in conversations with consumers?

The first thing we did during the pandemic was create the Beaver Bible, which is not just our brand book, but still does have our brand integrated throughout. It has recipes for Caesars, maple syrup pancakes, etc. It’s really more of our Brand-Culture Book. Now our new employees get this book when they're hired. Some even get it during the interview process as a peek into what Beavertails actually stands for.

The number one thing we're doing is literally just defining our values, which is the first step to celebrating them. We're really about happiness (as cliche as it is). Some franchisees may be here only because they never chose to be somewhere else. Some are here because they bought a franchise for what they saw was a money-making opportunity, which is great, but you've got to buy-in at a higher level. Sometimes that means asking franchisees to consider if their happiness is truly with Beavertails.

How are you ensuring collaboration and connection amongst team members?

We believe it's about coming together. Every year our conference has become a bigger affair where we take franchisees to mystery locations for surprise tours. During this year’s event we did a whole Canadian Sugar shack experience where we literally had a sugar shack that was opened outside of the season for us and had a lumberjack meal with the team.

As for our head office, we actually just switched to a 4-day workweek in-office. It felt really important for the team to be together in-office, so we looked for another way to give the team more flexibility with their work. 60 percent of our team has to be present because restaurant operations can’t be virtual, so we thought it wasn't fair that the management and those store-focused team members were in-office while the rest of head office worked virtually.

We’re experimenting with this 4-day workweek, but we'll settle on whatever everybody prefers to do long-term. I can’t say I’ve seen a huge increase in productivity, but not all positive changes have a number or ROI chart attached to them. It may deliver better wellness, which is more important than ROI in the greater scheme of things.

What do you feel like many organizations are struggling with today?

So much has been said about execution, but I think one of the major challenges facing all businesses today has to do with overload. We had a young psychologist who was studying in University who worked at Beavertails as her first summer job. I still remember, even though this was 25 years ago, when she said, “Guys, we have to reduce the menu. Have you heard of the paradox of choice?” We have so many options and choices everyday, it becomes fundamentally important to simplify. She taught us that!

Today we look through the lens of highlighting that Beavertails is a fun food and we're unexpected. The whole team was involved when we came up with the idea that we're going to release a new flavour every two weeks. It seems out there, but it's not for longevity, it’s just to be fun and unexpected. We coached the team to not get hung up on the flavours and to go wacky – we did a mac and cheese Beavertail last year for example. We have let people know not to worry about the ROI or the sales, just keep it simple because we’re just trying to spread the message that we're unexpected. We don't try to accomplish more than that.

I think sometimes you could take a product or a campaign like that and say, “We’re going to release 20 new products permanently on the menu.” All of a sudden, it’s going to take half a year, we have to show ROI and you need a whole team just to do that. So keeping it simple with our classic menu and then rotating unexpected flavours is what has helped us connect with our customers.

I learned a great lesson on this from a guy I met who worked for McDonald's. I asked him why they got rid of their pizza and if it didn’t sell well. I also made a comment that their coffee sales must be a focus now since they sell so much. He gave me the most logical response: “We actually don’t sell a lot of coffee and the pizza was a mistake.” I asked him to explain as we all know McDonald’s sells a lot of coffee. He replied, “McDonald’s is all about the sandwich. We are specialists in things that go between two pieces of bread. Except in a Big Mac (it’s three pieces of bread). Pizza isn’t between two pieces of bread, so we had no credibility to do that.”

He went on to say how they popularized a sandwich for breakfast (the Egg McMuffin) and said that, “We don't get recognized for selling a lot of french fries or a lot of Coke. Nobody goes to McDonald's for french fries or Coke, but nobody leaves without them. Similarly, we actually don't sell a lot of coffee. We sell a lot of Egg McMuffins and the coffees are just the natural beverage choice for that product.”

What are 3 tips you have for having a successful brainstorming session?

1. You have to have food. We have a serious coffee machine in the office for only 20 people and our sound system is better than any cafe. We actually theme our lunch and learns around the lunch that we bring in.

2. Don't involve your people. That may sound counterintuitive, but we have a woman named Regan who runs our lunch and learns and she has convinced me that if you get everybody to come up with the theme or topic of your brainstorm, you'll dilute it to the lowest common denominator and it will not be as useful. It'll be a little bit useful for everyone. She says the best ones, in her opinion, are the ones where she's thrown a theme that she's kind of connected dots on and people had no idea what was coming. The unexpected theme then helps them get more out of it.

3. Focus on wellness. I hate to overplay the wellness thing, but our Montreal winters are horrible and people need a mental break. We do a lot of lunch and learns with activities or to a pub together or rent paddle boards or canoes to get out and do something different.

How important do you feel like creativity is as a soft skill?

North America has celebrated creativity a lot. The reason why some European countries dislike North Americans is that they have built up companies like Airbus – the most advanced airplane in the world, but then Americans come along and make a bunch of money selling people on things that aren’t innovative at all – just fluff. So yes, creativity is important, but maybe we’ve overdone it and taught ourselves to sell and to innovate our marketing as opposed to our products and services too much.

One of my hero companies is Ben and Jerry's because they stand for something. They’ve been that way since the beginning. It’s not just fluff.

What are you most excited for in the coming year?

Although we lost some great people, we seemed to have landed on our feet. Sales exploded on us so our 2021 was spectacular. Our 2022 doubled our 2021. What I’m most excited about for the future from a business perspective is seeing Beavertails in more grocery stores and US stores.

From a brand perspective, I’m most excited about how we’ve come through the pandemic with flying colours and all of the projects we’re working on. We're on fire!


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