Taste of Success

Note: This story originally was featured in the spring 2017 issue of Berry magazine.

Jim Aaron speaking with an associateJim Aaron (84C) wasn’t looking for a career when he took his first job at McDonald’s at the age of 16 – he just hoped to earn enough money to buy a car. Today, he has four McDonald’s restaurants of his own, one just a mile north of the Gate of Opportunity.

Not bad for a guy who almost didn’t survive his first week on the job.

The orders were coming fast and furious on Aaron’s first Friday night at the West Rome McDonald’s in September 1977. Just days into his tenure working in the shadow of the famed “Golden Arches,” the new kid was struggling to keep pace with his task of assembling Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and other menu items when the shift manager delivered an ultimatum: “If you mess up another sandwich, you’re done!”

“That struck me,” laughed Aaron, now 56. “Apparently, I didn’t mess up another one because they didn’t fire me, and I’m still here 40 years later.”

No one, least of all Aaron himself, would have believed he was bound for franchise ownership the day he applied for that first job. Back then, the Rome native’s sole focus was a Datsun B210 and the $150 he needed to buy it. He eventually got the car – towing it home and rebuilding the engine with help from his father just to get it roadworthy – but that was only the beginning.

In the years that followed, McDonald’s became the means by which Aaron helped pay his way through Berry, met his wife and built a reputation as a hardworking, detail-oriented company executive destined for even greater success. Now he’s dedicating himself to providing similar opportunities for others, particularly the 200 employees working in his four McDonald’s restaurants in Georgia and Tennessee.

“I never thought that it would turn into what it is,” Aaron said of his career journey. “But oh my gosh, what a joy! What a ride!”

Owning the opportunity

As he approaches his fifth decade in the fast-food industry, Aaron is proud to be both a company man and an entrepreneur. He is fiercely loyal to the brand he’s represented his entire career but not afraid to change the status quo when he sees an opportunity to improve the product or better meet the needs of his customers and employees.

“I view myself as an entrepreneur,” he stated. “I’m a leader who’s charged with driving the business. I can’t change how the Big Mac is built, obviously, but within the operating platform of how products are made, I’ve got a lot of latitude to figure out how to do that the best way possible and how to inspire my people to perform at the highest level.”

His ingenuity in using that “latitude” – from resurrecting an old company recipe for scratch-made biscuits that have fast become a customer favorite in his restaurants to offering competitive benefits meant to motivate and empower employees – is reflected in the bottom line. In the three years since he purchased his first two franchises in the Tennessee towns of Vonore and Charleston, business has jumped 50 percent at breakfast and 25 percent overall. Similarly, sales at the Mount Berry location increased 23 percent in the months after he assumed ownership in fall 2016.

Other owners, many of whom worked with Aaron during his years as a corporate executive, are taking notice.

“People I’ve known forever call me and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ How are you doing that?’” Aaron related. “And that excites me, because one of my passions as a franchisee is to make a difference in many ways, including the brand.”

Willing to work

Jim Aaron holding a sausage biscuitAaron’s success is anchored in the work ethic he inherited from his father, Doug, who earned his engineering degree from Georgia Tech before beginning a long career with General Electric in Rome. The example he set continues to provide inspiration for Aaron, who lost his mother at the age of 6.

“I bust my tail every day,” Aaron said. “I don’t know any other way.”

That willingness to work hard not only helped him overcome his rocky start building sandwiches, but also paved the way for his first big break – an offer to serve as night-shift manager in West Rome that came just as he was starting college. He sought advice from his father, who quickly responded, “That’ll look great on a resume. It’s a great development opportunity for you.”

With his father’s blessing, Aaron poured himself into the new job, routinely clocking 40 or more hours a week to help pay for his education, first at a local junior college and then at Berry. On weeknights, that often meant working until closing – there were no 24-hour McDonald’s in those days – and then heading across town to study with friends.

“If I needed to cram, we’d go to Sambo’s, Krystal or Waffle House – the only places that were open overnight,” Aaron said. “And that was very often where we’d find ourselves until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, studying and doing what we needed to do to get ready for a test. We didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

Learning by doing

Though the hours could be exhausting, Aaron saw his busy schedule as “fun and a challenge,” and he steadily accepted new responsibilities at work while still finding time to enjoy life as a college student.

“They had me doing scheduling, statistical variances, food costs – lots of functions that maybe assistant managers and above would be doing,” he noted. “But they knew I could do it, and I enjoyed it.”

Aaron’s work experience dovetailed perfectly with the business education he was receiving at Berry, so much so that professors sought his insight in class.

“My business professors valued what I did off campus,” he said. “They knew I was an hourly shift-running manager at McDonald’s, so they would call on me and say, ‘What does McDonald’s think about that? What is McDonald’s point of view?’ It was very, very cool to be in those case-study kinds of scenarios.”

Despite his growing knowledge and experience, Aaron saw McDonald’s more as a stepping stone than a final destination until his supervisor encouraged him to consider the possibility of a career with the company. It didn’t take long for the soon-to-be graduating business major and accounting minor to recognize the value proposition before him.

“I guess that’s when I started realizing that I was working for one of the biggest and most iconic brands in the entire world and knew it like the back of my hand already – and at a young age,” he expressed. “Somebody’s got to run this thing, right? So I’m like, ‘Hey, why not me?’ And that set a great career in motion.”

Finding his niche

At the same time Aaron was beginning his climb up the corporate ladder, he also found success at home by marrying Terri Beam (84c), a one-time co-worker at the West Rome McDonald’s. They were granted permission to date as long as their relationship didn’t interfere with work, and romance bloomed. Terri – a longtime nurse – now serves as vice president of quality at Redmond Regional Medical Center. The couple has two grown children, Christa and Matt.

While serving as a husband and father at home, Aaron was gaining an ever-broadening perspective on all aspects of business operations at McDonald’s. He worked in a variety of roles, beginning with in-store management and later progressing to corporate oversight of multiple restaurants, leadership of a team of franchisee consultants, and, as deployment manager, coordination of new menu items across the Southeast. As his sphere of influence grew, so did his opportunity and desire to make a difference in the lives of others, ultimately motivating him to apply for franchisee status. His long track record of success ensured swift approval.

Three years after taking the ownership plunge, Aaron is a man who absolutely has found his niche. An unabashed cheerleader for his employees and his product, he is quick to name members of his management team in whom he sees future ownership potential and is pleased to offer such competitive benefits as paid vacation, health insurance, dollar-for-dollar 401K matches and college tuition assistance, among others.

A strong believer in rewarding outstanding performance, Aaron also stresses employee accountability. Using a computer dashboard monitoring on-site electronic sensors, he and Director of Operations Jess Brown can check speed-of-service at any of his four locations in real-time. He’s also known to drop by his restaurants regularly, sometimes in the middle of the night. Any visit begins with a trip through the drive-through so he can get a firsthand look at the customer-service experience.

Aaron’s hope is that employees will take inspiration from his story and work hard like he did to make the most of their opportunity.

“The idea that I can help their dreams come true and make a difference in their lives is in great measure what drives me,” he said.

Making it

Experience has taught Aaron that “everything in life is what you make it,” and he still has dreams of his own, including acquiring more McDonald’s restaurants; his immediate goal is 10 to 15. He also wants to take on an increasing leadership role among the approximately 3,000 McDonald’s franchisees nationwide. Recently, he was voted into a national body of owners responsible for providing advertising direction.

Within his restaurants, Aaron will continue to seek new ways to build on McDonald’s already considerable brand, such as serving those scratch-made biscuits each morning while many other locations offer what he describes as a “good-quality” frozen biscuit.

“I talk to my fellow owners, who I’m great friends with, and say, ‘Come on now, we’re in the South. You’ve got to serve biscuits from scratch!’” he chuckled.

It all adds up to a very busy work life at a time when others might be tempted to consider retirement. Aaron comes from a serious golfing family – first-cousin Tommy Aaron was the 1973 Masters champion – but he’s much more likely to be found staying up late to complete paperwork or check on his restaurants than setting aside time for an afternoon on the links.

“I’m good with staying up ’til 1 in the morning,” he laughed, reflecting back on all those late nights working his way through Berry. “I’m just not studying at Krystal now.”

Ringing endorsement

You can always look for one of two rings on Jim Aaron’s right hand – one a gift from McDonald’s commemorating his 30th anniversary with the company and the other his Berry class ring. He’s equally proud of both.

“When I started moving up through my corporate career and overseeing broader areas of the business and having greater responsibility, oh my gosh the knowledge from Berry that I was able to apply!” he exclaimed. “I believe it gave me an advantage, quite honestly. I value my education from Berry tremendously. It helped me so much.”