Zaxby’s CEO McLeroy Drums Up Decades of Growth

John Tabellione

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

As a youngster, Zaxby’s CEO, Zach McLeroy, dreamed of playing the drums as a rock star, or playing basketball as an all-star, but never could he have imagined becoming a superstar in the chicken business.

In the relatively short span of a little over two decades, McLeroy and his grade school buddy and co-founder, Tony Townley, have taken their original Zaxby’s location in Statesboro, Georgia and replicated it more than 640 times—far exceeding their original long-term objective of 10 stores. The majority (80%) operate as franchises and the remainder are corporate-owned. 

And the beat goes on. Eight new stores opened on a single day recently, 54 restaurants opened so far this year (around 70 total are scheduled to be open by the end of 2014 — a company record). Zaxby’s operates in 17 states as westernmost as Utah, which recently opened its fifth store with more to open in the near future. “Our goal is to become a national brand,” says McLeroy, “and we have the right partners to make it happen.” 

McLeroy attributes much of Zaxby’s success to the thorough, sophisticated training that goes into becoming a franchisee, a store manager/employee or a corporate executive. For example, a licensee has to spend eight weeks in formalized training, totally immersed in all aspects of working in one of the restaurants from opening through closing. A battery of online tests completes the training. 

Once the store is opened, an operations team descends on the location to help facilitate the grand opening, including staff training. “Making that first impression is critically important,” notes McLeroy. “It’s the first chance we get to live our mission statement: to consistently create encore experiences that enrich lives one person at a time.”

After they’ve learned the management systems, the franchisees and their managers receive ongoing training. Sometimes this includes a surprise visit: When McLeroy happens to be near a Zaxby’s location, he may stop by to appreciate the customer experience without receiving any special treatment.

Over the past five years, Zaxby’s corporate campus office has been voted one of the best places to work in Athens, Georgia. “That means a lot to me,” says McLeroy. “It means people feel good about coming to work here in a pleasant environment where good morale is appreciated.” In fact, recently before a big showdown game between his alma mater, the University of Georgia, and the University of South Carolina, the company held a tailgate party with interactive games, giveaways and of course, food. Other team-building events are planned every few months. 

Zaxby’s not only gives back to employees, they give back to the community as well. McLeroy says, “Zaxby’s has been a big supporter of children’s causes, especially ‘Make-a-Wish’, for the past four years.” Another way of enriching the community is to build tomorrow’s leaders. That’s why Zaxby’s teaches employees work skills, teamwork, responsibility and the importance of a good value system, all of which will serve them well throughout their lives.

The program reflects McLeroy’s own value system. He calls his parents “the best in the world” for having taught him about self-reliance, character, morals and ethics. He also expressed high regard for the Truett family (founders of Chick-Fil-A), and reiterated McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc’s motto: “Nothing beats persistence.” McLeroy addd, “Determination can overcome weaknesses. Success has never been easy. It takes a lot of guts to invest in yourself.”

When asked if he’s ever considered tinkering with the Zaxby’s menu the way competitors have added chicken offerings to theirs, McLeroy responded that he has, at times. However, he’d rather not make plans for any drastic moves, instead choosing to focus on the food chain’s expertise: chicken. Besides, he says he’s kept awake at night not worrying about new products, but the supply of chicken tenders and how to continue to meet demand.

McLeroy still has the music in him from his youth, however. He plays recreationally a couple of nights a week on a recently-acquired set of drums (he sold his old ones years ago to raise capital to start his business). Now, nearly 25 years later, he’d agree that this was a wise investment.

About John Tabellione

John Tabellione is an award-winning, professional business writer, complemented by over twenty-five years of strategic communication responsibilities as a Marketing, New Business Development and National Account Sales Executive in consumer goods and commercial industries. 

Experience with Fortune 500 companies, as well as with smaller firms and non-profits, encompassing a variety of products, including those of Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark and Stanley Works. 

John has a B.A. in English from Fairfield University and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hartford. In addition, he has studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute at Syracuse University, and Italian language and culture at Kennesaw State University.