One slice at a time

Kathleen Mundy has never lost sight of what drives value in any business, including her string of Little Caesars stores

Walk into any Little Caesars store in the Sarnia-Lambton area and look around.

It may not be immediately obvious, but what you’re seeing is the impact Kathleen Mundy has had on a business that at least in this area, was at one point on life support.

So much so that the owner at the time, although she was presented with the one-store financial records ahead of an offer to purchase, wouldn’t let her visit for fear people would realize he was planning to sell.

But we’re getting a little ahead of this story.

Mundy grew up in Petrolia, in a family with at least a little entrepreneurial spirit at its core (one of her grandfathers ran the company contracted to operate school buses in the area).

An only child, she may have had the freedom to choose what she would do in the life, but admittedly not much resources to draw on.

“Mom and Dad didn’t have much money so that wasn’t on the horizon and I honestly didn’t know what my options were at that time,” she says. “In hindsight, I could have done a lot of things but there just wasn’t a plan at that point.”

What she did do to start things off was to start a bridal shop business—wedding planning—that she says now was very much ahead of its time.

“We made every mistake possible,” she says of the venture she and a partner undertook.

What was something of a legacy to that business was the “entrepreneurial bug” that she discovered along the way.

“My grandfather, who died quite young, held onto the notion that you get paid what you’re worth,” she said. “It stuck with me.”

Mundy, like many before her and after, headed to Toronto to find her sweet spot, which happened at the time to be real estate.

It was the early 80s and Mundy had a son who at the time had a reputation for, let’s say, not sticking to one thing for very long.

“He wasn’t interested in going to university, but he was 18 and he had the idea that he’d get his real estate license and go that route,” she recalls. “What I did was tell him: if you’re going to do this, you don’t quit. And I told him I was going to take the course too.”

While her son, perhaps predictably, did not do well in the business—“he was young and age was a disadvantage for what was a tough business”—he did go on to university, a move that Mundy says now was one of the nicest things that could have happened out of that situation.

For Mundy personally, real estate turned out to be something she very much succeeded in.

She had returned to the Sarnia-Lambton area, where she had a daughter (who now happens to be in the real estate industry herself—more on that later).

But then life for her changed, somewhat dramatically it would seem.

“He got the company. I got the kid,” Mundy says. But what she also had was the determination to make sure both of them had everything they would need to succeed in life.

It started with a typical 9-5 job, something Mundy may have intuitively seen as important to provide a sense of stability, but which didn’t pay the bills.

She did, however, have that real estate license and worked two jobs for the next six years.

Even then, Mundy came to the realization that this was not the future she knew she was capable of creating for herself.

Nor was a short-lived foray into the banking industry.

What did come knocking from an opportunity standpoint was Little Caesars, the American franchise founded in the Detroit suburb of Garden City in 1959.

The owner of the lone store at the time in the area was looking to sell and when Mundy took a look at its numbers, she saw one thing: opportunity to do more.

“I saw that this cash flow was exactly what I needed,” she recalls. “I could have a home and pay my daughter’s tuition. I was in.”

She also realized she was not exactly equipped to take this on.

“Quite frankly, I’d never eaten the product,” she said. “But you do the best you can. The cashflow was great.”

And while Mundy was able to come up with the funding to buy that one store, she’s already done the numbers for what she really was out to do with the business.

“I had to scale and I said to myself: what I need to do is to have five stores in five years. And I kept saying that to everyone around me.”

One problem was that the bank—the same one she had worked for briefly but which we won’t name here—turned her down for a loan on a second store.

So Mundy did what any scrappy entrepreneur would do in similar circumstances. She bootstrapped.

“I went into warehouses, bought old equipment, used this and that and pulled it together.”

Mundy will admit today that it’s not an approach she’d recommend under similar circumstances, telling one particular “oven story” to make her point.

“Some of these ovens were $60,000 and I didn’t have that kind of money. But I did find a used one in Winnipeg for $25,000 and I extended every credit I had to ship it to Sarnia. I’ll tell you, I probably spent $100,000 in repairs that first year on the oven. But it got me open.”

By the time Mundy was ready to open her third Little Caesars, the same bank that had turned her down on store two started calling and offering her help.

Mundy’s response: “No thanks.”

Don’t misinterpret that as anything but her sense of motivation coupled with the understanding of what it would really take to succeed.

“I really believe that if you don’t look after your numbers, you don’t have a business,” she said. And in this particular case, taking care of the pizza business was something she knew—banker or no banker—was possible.

She’d also become something of a fanatic when it came to reading the numbers, a skill she’s passed on at some level to clients of the coaching business she subsequently started, maybe when things got a little less crazy at Little Caesars.

“People wouldn’t look at their profit and loss statement until the end of the year, which is crazy,” she says. “It may be intimidating at some level, but it’s really a simple document and knowing the state of the business is critical.”

Mundy, not unexpectedly for anyone who already knows her well, explains the importance of “checking the numbers” in another way.

“If you were going to drive from here to New York and took a wrong turn, you could end up in Atlanta if you didn’t check the map.”

Let’s revisit the situation with Mundy’s daughter Madison, now a successful real estate agent herself.

“When Madison had graduated from university, she called me to tell me she’d been offered full-time work for a retail company in the GTA. I loved that and I hung up the phone but then I thought ‘I need her in my company.’ I called her back, arranged to meet, which we did in Cambridge. I took off the ‘Mom hat’ and slid across an offer to work for me in Sarnia, but I also said this offer is good for seven days.”

Apparently, and Mundy would know this, Madison’s siblings all told her “don’t take the job.”

“She did accept the offer,” said Mundy. “And it was a good learning curve for her. She moved here and we got a little house for her. There’s no way we could live together and work together. I gave her the down payment for the house and that was that.”

Today, Madison (now Madison Twose) is doing what her mother once did, having gone from pizza to real estate, a point Mundy finds ironic given that she went in the opposite direction, from real estate to pizza.

But her mother is also convinced, and with good reason, that the pizza experience remains a good learning ground for other things in life, especially that unexpected things will happen.

“It’s 24/7. Floods happen. Alarms go off. Coolers and ovens break. You have to react.”

Mundy admits there are still challenges to the business. “Just yesterday, a digital menu board in one of the stores went down. You’d think, just get it fixed. But apparently there was a change with the company that does the service. We found about that by accident. So, there’s a few hiccups but we live with it. You do the best you can, but research is important, being able to stand at least one step ahead.”

She’s also a board member (currently third vice chair) at the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce, an opportunity she sees as another vehicle to help entrepreneurs, particularly women.

“There’s a lot coming down, opportunities for teaching, learning and sharing ideas.”

For Mundy personally, what hasn’t changed is the commitment and the sense of family that she says continues to drive her business.

“We want them to know that it’s our pizza family,” she says. “It’s the language we use, the mindset we have, sometimes you have a crazy uncle in the family, but these are family.”

Which also means that Mundy isn’t afraid to ask the same questions she feels will drive value in her adopted family of some 70 employees.

“I always ask them what their five-year plan is and then ‘how can we get you there? What do you need?’”

What is clear is that Kathleen Mundy will do whatever she can to help turn those plans into reality.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Lambton Shield magazine. The entire issue (in digital form) can be seen by clicking HERE.

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