Valerie Daniels-Carter, the ultimate do-good franchisee
One might believe Valerie Daniels-Carter is in the fast-food business—after all she has 114 units of several major franchises. But get to know her and you’ll realize that while she and her team run an award-winning company, she personally is helping God in his business.
If there had been an opening in our cover story line-up earlier than November, I would have been the one to break the news that Valerie Daniels-Carter is the coolest woman in Wisconsin. As it was, e-magazine PureWow chose Daniels-Carter back in September to represent Wisconsin in its state-by-state listing of cool women doing impressive things.
Granted PureWow’s author wasn’t given as much space as I have to make her case, but to select Daniels-Carter based solely on the fact that she owns 100-plus restaurants throughout the country, is short-shifting her quite a bit. The closing comment was meant to be lighthearted—“Hey, can we get some free fries?”—but with Daniels-Carter, the ability to hand over free fries doesn’t begin to sum up all her parts, nor her generosity.
Who is Valerie Daniels Carter? Depends, says her brother the Bishop Sedgwick Daniels. “Are you talking about Mrs. Carter, the evangelist?” he asks, rhetorically.
“Daniels-Carter, the entrepreneur?” Or are you referring to the matriarch who takes turns cooking dinner for the entire family plus friends every Sunday, a tradition the Daniels family has enjoyed for more than 100 years? Or is it the college basketball star who turned down an offer to play professional ball with the Milwaukee Does in order to work in finance? Or perhaps, you’re addressing the woman who travels to Kenya for ministry and Austria for a corporate board meeting?
In the franchise world, Daniels-Carter is considered cool because she’s part of that coveted club of successful multi-unit, multi-concept, multi-state franchisees—and the largest female-owned franchisee. V & J Holdings, the company she started with her brother, John Daniels Jr., is a franchisee of Burger King, Pizza Hut, Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon, Coffee Beanery, Haagen-Dazs and most recently, Captain D’s. She also invested in Nino’s Southern Sides as the administrative arm of the company, as well as with MyYoMy Frozen Yogurt. Investing in others’ vision, she says, “allows me the opportunity to offer opportunity.” Her current restaurant count stands at 114. She declined to give sales numbers. Brother John Daniels Jr. serves as chairman of the board, and although he’s an investor and strategist for the company, he practices law full time at the national firm of Quarles & Brady.
Step into V & J’s headquarters in Milwaukee and you’ll feel at home—an old-fashioned home decorated in gold, forest green and mauve. Flowered wallpaper and tapestry pillows greet visitors in the reception area and the wallpaper follows you down the hall. Their logo, an elegant swirl of letters, is etched in glass on the front doors. The décor in Daniels-Carter’s spacious office with its own bathroom is a contest for dominance between numerous stacks of documents and a variety of awards, both vying to fill the most space. The chair behind her desk is gold and for a less modest woman it might be referred to as a throne.
There’s a street in Milwaukee called Mother Daniels Way, but it’s also symbolic of the way the Daniels family lives.
Daniels-Carter is open about how deep her Christian religion runs. You don’t have to be of her faith to work at her company, but most likely you’ll be on the receiving end of her prayers. I have been trying for years to sit down with Daniels-Carter, so I was prepared for her to be too busy and too no-nonsense to enjoy a stranger asking her personal questions. Instead, the photo shoot, which took place early in the session, set the tone for my time there.
It’s hard not to be charmed by a young woman pantomiming facial expressions from the landing stoop through the glass-etched logo’d door. That woman wasn’t me, it was photographer Jessica Kaminski and her playfulness was contagious. After a half-hour or more of laughing and coached smiling, Daniels-Carter was ready to forgive my trespasses on her time. And we talked until I ran out of questions.
There’s a regalness to the way Daniels-Carter carries herself, but she’s also comfortable to be around. A spark lights a smile that radiates through her eyes, but I’m guessing she doesn’t suffer fools well, which is why I tried to keep on topic. She was meeting with two missionaries from Kenya later in the day, who were in town to see the impressive complex Daniels-Carter is helping fund in the African-American community in Milwaukee, a city in the news lately for its racial tension.
Daniels-Carter may be a standout in her industry and community, but she’s not a rarity in her family. Her parents instilled religious principles and the value of community service in their five children. All are highly educated. Their oldest brother, now deceased, had a Ph.D. and served 40 years in education in Atlanta; a sister with a master’s degree was a social worker; John Daniels, an attorney; Sedgwick Daniels, a bishop in a socially active church; and Daniels-Carter is the quintessential entrepreneur.
“Mother spent her life feeding and clothing (people); she trained women,” Bishop Daniels said, showering the ultimate compliment on his sister: “She’s the daughter of Mother Daniels.” And her reach goes globally, he adds.
The Daniels, along with extended family and friends, get together every Sunday after church, a 100-year tradition in their family. Bishop Daniels describes the dynamics of different viewpoints and lifestyles as producing lively—”never shallow”—conversations. Daniels-Carter is a bit more blunt: “We let our hair down, so leave your feelings at the door, cause they may get hurt.”
V&J Foods’ logo was designed to be a stamp of excellence and to make a statement: “V&J is not just a company, we’re an organization that cares about people”—here and abroad.
Daniels-Carter has one son, who works for an investment firm. Her husband, who she describes as her life partner and biggest supporter, died a few years ago.
While she was still grieving for her husband, she lost her mother, a year later. Her staff and family helped her grieve losing her greatest support systems so close together.
If there is such a thing as a born entrepreneur, Daniels-Carter is the prototype. Bishop Daniels remembers as kids, his sister “instituted” the lemonade stand for him and John to man. “She got all the money and we did all the work,” he says, still a little miffed, or perhaps in awe of her business acumen, as evident by him saying under his breath, “She probably still has all those nickels.”
Her brothers weren’t her only means to a paycheck, she walked neighbor girls only slightly younger than she to school, he says. For $1.25 a week. She also was the front man for her brothers’ lawn-mowing services. She’d knock on doors to set up the appointments, while they stood behind her with their lawn mower at the ready.
Most likely if she still does have all the proceeds from the lemonade stand, 10 percent or more has gone to the church. Tithing is a nonnegotiable. “You can’t afford not to tithe,” she says, quoting a tenet of the church: When you lend to the poor, you borrow from the lord. “And you can’t get a better return on investment,” she says.
There’s no such thing as free fries
Getting her start in franchising was on a wing and a prayer. Although in her case, she was prepared, it was franchising that wasn’t. “At that time (early 1980s) there was a clear definition of what franchisee owners looked like,” she says, and as a black woman, even a woman with a background in banking, she wasn’t the ideal.
“There was not a welcoming mat for females and minorities.”
However, Burger King had started a push for minority recruitment, and at the urging of her brother John, she made an appointment with the regional manager in the Minneapolis office. She flew in from Milwaukee for the interview, and after arriving early, sat in the Midwest office for four hours waiting for him to see her. When she questioned his assistant after her lunch break about the man’s availability, Daniels-Carter was told the manager had other appointments that afternoon, and was asked to reschedule. She said she’d wait.
When she finally saw the regional VP, he was rushing out to join some buddies for a hunting trip. Imagine his surprise, when she asked if she could ride along. He couldn’t find a quick way to refuse, so on a snowy evening in a strange town, she got in the executive’s truck heading for a remote hunting lodge. She had a small window of time to ask about the company and talk about her vision, but the manager spent most of his time talking to his fellow hunter, who was also along for the ride. After ignoring her all evening as she sat next to the fireplace trying to get warm, he told her he wasn’t going to drive her back to town, there was no public transportation for her to use, but she could bunk at the lodge.
She told him, she’d return to Minneapolis, but would be back in the morning. He clearly doubted she’d return.
Valerie Daniels-Carter has created a culture where employees feel comfortably challenged.
Daniels-Carter talked a cab company into sending a driver, slept in her hotel room and then at 3 a.m. hired a cab to take her back to the lodge, even though it was no easy feat to find. When she knocked on the door the next morning, the surprised VP once again told her to wait and they’d talk when he returned from hunting.
She noticed the men grabbing orange jackets and guns, so she did the same, following them out the door.
As she writes in her book, Your Business is His Business, it took awhile, but the franchisor rep finally realized she had more tenacity than he did and agreed to approve her as a franchisee. But not until she told him she wasn’t leaving until she got an interview. His revelation may have been helped along by her announcement that she was a novice with guns and then pointing her gun toward the open space and asking, “Now tell me … what am I supposed to be shooting?”
Daniels-Carter admits she may have bullied him a bit, but she didn’t name the man nor the system in her book. A testament in the old saw: Turn the other cheek.
All these years later, Daniels-Carter doesn’t feel any outrage when asked about the story. “No anger,” she says. “I felt like I had moved to the next point of establishing what I want to do. I used a strategy then that may have been … let’s call it more forceful than most.”
From that frigid introduction to franchising, the business model has proven to be a good fit. A good franchisee has to be people oriented, she says, “you can learn everything else.”
To ensure her employees at both headquarters and in the restaurants have a game plan to follow, Daniels-Carter instituted ICEPOP, which stands for Integrity, Communication, Excellence, People, Operations, Profits. From there, she coined the mantra, YATSE: You Are The Standard of Excellence. She says in her book that this was akin to giving employees a target at which to aim.
“We promote excellence,” she tells me, “and drive you to where your level of success should be.” Any time an employer allows its employees to “operate by their expertise and not their gender or race, they’ll excel,” she points out.
She has an open-door policy for the 30-or so at headquarters, but also for employees when she visits restaurants.
Constantly aiming for a target has been a goal Daniels-Carter set for herself as well. And sometimes, those targets are moving ones. Tall and athletic, Daniels-Carter played basketball from grade school through college. She was offered a spot on the Milwaukee Does, a fledgling women’s basketball team after college. While that was every young basketball-playing girl’s dream, Daniels-Carter believes “before you step into an arena, you have to know yourself.” What she knew about herself at the time, she says, is that there are short windows and long windows. In 1978, women’s basketball was still struggling to find an audience. At the same time as the Does’ offer, she had the opportunity to work for a national bank—the long window—which she took.
I might call it ironic that the short window was revisited years late, but Daniels-Carter would explain it this way: “Because I believe God innately knows what your desires are, a couple of years ago I was offered the opportunity … to not only play with the ball, but I own the ball.” Her role in the ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks is another glass-ceiling poke, along with her appointment to the Green Bay Packers board. Black owners, and especially women, are in short supply in the NBA and even more so in the NFL. Her worlds further aligned when the NFL asked her to help plan a gospel music event, featuring players, for a Super Bowl’s opening festivities.
Former basketball great Shaquille O’Neal is her business partner in eight Auntie Anne’s pretzel stores. Two of his strengths as a partner are that he is a great personality, and doesn’t interfere. “He allows you to run the business,” she says.
Her latest venture is Captain D’s, the fast-food seafood chain that has gone through a rebranding. She’s signed a six-unit deal, starting with units in Milwaukee, and is currently negotiating deals on sites.
Captain D’s actively recruited Daniels-Carter, according to Michael Arrowsmith, chief development officer for the chain. While they like prospects who are leaders in their communities and have success with other brands, what they also want are operators who are bold, he says. Captain D’s is a midsize brand and Milwaukee is a new market for them, Arrowsmith explains, and developing it right takes someone who is not timid in their development plans, nor complacent. “She’s an outstanding person,” he says, and her team and operations style reflect the values and corporate culture they want to partner with.
The franchise relationship is a long one, he reiterates, and you want partners you don’t mind being in touch with frequently.
While a brand’s execution starts at the top, it’s the employees who actually deliver the services, and Daniels-Carter freely admits she couldn’t do what she does without the team she’s built. In an industry know for job-hopping, many of her hires have been with her for years.
Building businesses, building lives
After our interview concluded, I had lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant and then decided to check out the building named for Daniels-Carter’s mother and the gym that bears her late-husband’s name. All are part of her church’s campus, headed up by her brother, the bishop.
As I stepped out of the car to take a picture of the center, I heard a car horn beeping. Daniels-Carter rolled down her window and called out, “If you want the tour, you might as well come with us.” I slid into the backseat next to one of two missionaries visiting from Kenya.
Daniels-Carter then proceeded to give us the tour of an impressive campus dedicated to improving the lives of African-Americans in Milwaukee. “In the heart of the city, we’ve created an oasis,” she told us. They started with dilapidated buildings, and now there are plans or buildings for an institute for the preservation of African-American music; a conference center; a gym; the “largest Boys & Girls Club in the city,” named after her mother; and senior housing where adult children and their parent live in side-by-side apartments so they can both have privacy, but close proximity.
“Michael Jordan shot the first hoop in the youth center,” she says, a feat she engineered nine years ago when it opened.
In addition, says the Bishop Daniels, the complex includes a credit union, five schools from kindergarten through a master’s program. Next year, they’ll be adding a Ph.D. program. There’s also an alternative high school where students who have dropped out of traditional schools can earn their GED.
Daniels-Carter’s reach also follows the two missionaries from Kenya back to their home country, where she has built an orphanage and a school for children whose parents have AIDS. She’s also helping build schools and wells in Ghana. She helps African women raise chickens, among other sustainable businesses.
Her view is that people need to think about what they’re doing with what they’ve been given—tangibles and nontangibles. If you hoard your talents, you end up with just a lot of stuff with no sustainability, she points out.
“Part of my business plan is to give back,” she says. “It’s not a separate line item,” it’s woven into the cost of doing business. Or in her mind, the cost of not doing God’s business.