No bad Thanksgivings for Flis family
From left, Karen Smith and Christopher and Dominic Flis are sibling owners of the biggest Burger King franchise in Arkansas. “We still enjoy each other’s company,” says Dominic, who is CEO of the firm their father started in 1979.
Dominic Flis cannot pinpoint one particular day that was the best ever for his family’s Little Rock, Arkansas-based Burger King operation. But naming the worst day ever is painfully easy: There are two. “The day my Mom passed away and the day my Dad passed away,” he says, in 2007 and 2009, respectively.
“Those were hard days, personally, but I’ve had the same kind of senior team around me that was put together before I got there,” says the oldest of three siblings who is CEO of Flis Enterprises, the largest Burger King operator in Arkansas with 21 stores, now expanding with five Blaze Pizza stores as well.
A pilot in the U.S. Navy and then a commercial pilot for American Airlines who endured a number of furloughs, Dominic Flis came back to his parents’ restaurant business with the idea of replacing his mother one day as CFO. Instead, he found himself taking over the entire operation in February 2009.
“From then on, the company has been mine and my siblings’,” Dominic says, referring to Karen Smith, the middle child, and Christopher Flis, the youngest and five years Dominic’s junior. “We are roughly equal partners in the business,” Dominic says, but “my dad was very adamant of having one person have enough control to make decisions.”
Dominic is the majority owner in the restaurant operating company, with the real estate arm split in thirds. Sister Karen is a stay-at-home mother with three kids in Memphis who provides the voice of caution and wisdom when she believes her older brother may be taking on too much.
For example, Dominic says, when he wanted to get into a second brand beyond Burger King, she thought it would be too much for the operation at the time, so Dominic held off for a bit and then went into business to develop Blaze with a non-sibling business partner to spread the risk. “She ended up being right,” Dominic says, and laughs when he is asked, “Don’t you hate it when your little sister is right?” “It happens,” he jokes.
Brother Chris recently retired from the U.S. Navy, and lives in Colorado Springs where he operates a wealth management business. Formerly, Chris says he was “a backseat driver kind of thing” in Flis Enterprises, giving his take to Dominic when Dominic would ask. “I already had an eye for numbers, so I took over that kind of thing. When things came up—refinancings, purchases, stuff like that, it’s a good idea to have another set of eyeballs and ears on.”
More recently, Chris is taking a more active role, especially in analyzing and pushing for sale-leasebacks in certain instances, something that runs counter to Dominic’s and their parents’ point of view, that owning real estate was absolutely where it was at.
“For years and years, our parents drilled into our heads that your properties were your annuity stream, and that’s true if you have a good operator in there,” he says. After speaking to sale-leaseback experts, “we changed our perception a little bit, that real estate could be useful for expansion, and you can categorize your real estate in different buckets: hold forever, or tradeable.”
Meanwhile, he’s pleased with how well he and his siblings get along. “It’s great because none of us are particularly greedy. You hear about squabbling a lot from other businesses,” Chris says. “We’ve never been to a point where it’s soured our relationships.”
Dominic says there are a few reasons for the smooth operation of the business. First, he is adamant about being transparent with his siblings, with detailed information sent to them regularly. He emphasized “making sure they knew the dollars involved, and making sure that was planned for,” when remodelings were mandated by Burger King.
Second, he employs his Navy training when he empowers his operations staff to make the best decisions they can and be held accountable. “Give them enough leash that they’re in control, and then I’d more manage by negation, which is a Navy term,” he explains. When he was a Navy pilot, after training you take out the plane without your commanding officer. “He’s not there with you. He expects you to make the good decisions, and when you make the bad decision, then he has to step in and tell you.”
Third and perhaps most important to good family relations, “We haven’t had to do an operational capital call in the seven years I’ve been the head of this company,” he says proudly, even with the significant capital requirements of the franchisor.
He might be proudest of all of the strong sibling bonds that remain intact at Flis Enterprises. “I like to say since 2007 until the present day, we still enjoy each other’s company,” he says, “and we haven’t had a bad Thanksgiving yet.”