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King of the Hill

BK franchisee Ben Jarratt takes charge to keep franchisees politically active


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Benjamin Franklin Jarratt II has worked for presidents and the King.

Ben Jarratt started his career in the white house. A stint with the U.S. Small Business Administration convinced him business ownership is yet another way to be patriotic.

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, the birthplace of the United States, Jarratt was reminded daily of the role history plays in our lives. He not only has a family name that's been passed down from generation to generation, but the name of one of our most famous and inventive founding fathers.

Jarratt attended Washington & Lee University, graduating in 1982 with a degree in journalism. "Journalism is writing today's news which will become tomorrow's history," he says.

A year or so later, he became a political appointee to the White House, where he worked in the Office of the Press Secretary for both the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.

As a junior staffer, he says, he wasn't in the inner circle of the president, who was known as "the great communicator," but being a spokesman for the president - mostly after hours - was this journalism major's dream job.

"We saw him (Reagan) every day, but as a junior staffer, you'd stay out of the way," he says. The president knew everyone who worked in the White House by face, if not name, but Jarratt's boss, Marlin Fitzwater, was the "face" for much of Jarratt's tenure.

 

Ben Jarratt visits with staff at one of his 10 Burger King restaurants in the D.C. metropolitan area. The D.C. area has a dearth of teenagers who want to work fast food, but Jarratt is fortunate to find 20- to 30-somethings who want the job, many of whom will work their way up to more responsibility.

The press office was in the West Wing, which as we know from at least one television show is an action-packed part of the White House. "It was an exciting time," he says. The world was changing at a rapid pace and the economy was shaky - something today's assistant press secretaries are all too familiar with.

While much of the job was routine - managing the press office, ensuring reporters' questions were answered and that information and the President's statements were disseminated in a timely fashion - there were some moments when he says he felt a part of history in the making. One instance was when he was manning the press office after hours and they started receiving phone calls about a possible "situation" in the Philippines. Former President Ferdinand Marcos didn't want to go quietly from power. President Reagan issued a stern statement that the United States supported a "peaceful transition" of power. Jarratt read the statement to reporters and the news was broadcast all over the world. In the end, Marcos and his wife fled the Philippines, and an "incident" was avoided.

"It was a small victory - albeit a behind-the-scenes victory - that had huge international impact," he says. Although he was just the conduit of the message, it nonetheless felt like he had shared in a moment of history.

Another, more personally gratifying moment, was when he helped arrange a Make-a-Wish Foundation visit with the President. A 6-year-old boy with leukemia wished to meet the president. Reagan put the affairs of the country aside to devote 15 minutes to the terminally ill boy, his parents and his twin sisters.

"Here was the most powerful man in America spending time with this family," he says. After the visit, the president was escorted out to his helicopter by secret service.

Jarratt stayed in touch with the family for several years - long enough to find out the story has an even happier ending, because the child later went into remission.

During the Bush administration, Jarratt moved over to serve as press secretary to the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. And even though it was through his work with small business owners that made him look at owning a business in a different light, Jarratt credits Reagan for the reason he became a Burger King franchisee.

"I saw Ronald Reagan praise entrepreneurs for creating jobs," he says. Reagan governed during a recession, and yet he was able to inspire people to grow their companies, instilling a renewed sense of national pride and the entrepreneurial spirit, Jarratt says.

 

Ben Jarratt speaking at an NFA annual meeting. Photo courtesy of NFA/Isabell Triemer

After being part of the White House staff and seeing what you're working on making headlines in the Washington Post, moving over to Capitol Hill or working for a trade association didn't have as much cache as being a small businessman, he admits.

The D.C. area was a difficult market for fast food operators, because the real estate was expensive - which meant the territory was wide open. Jarratt interviewed with Burger King, liked the concept and the challenge. He partnered with a Burger King franchisee out of California who invested in his company. He opened 10 restaurants in seven years - from 1993 to 2000 - all in the D.C. metropolitan area. "We hit a good growth period, just when we needed to grow," he says.

Unlike other markets, such as California, the D.C. suburbs aren't oversaturated with fast food concepts. For the most part they have the big three: McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, he says.

Mondays through Fridays for four months Jarratt traveled to Philadelphia to be trained to operate a Burger King restaurant. The transition from political appointee to franchisee was easier than one might imagine. "My personality is to roll up my sleeves," he says.

He had to hit the ground running. "They teach you how to do it while you're breaking ground (on your first restaurant)," he says, pointing out in the early years, he was working 24-7, switching his building-permit hat for a construction engineer's hat, then donning an opening manager's hat.

He learned the somewhat lonely life of a restaurant owner on his first New Year's Eve as a franchisee. He decided to close early so he and his staff could welcome in the new year in a more festive setting. However, the two teens he had counted on closing walked out to go to a party, and the new operator found himself doing the job with just one employee to help.

The politics of fast food

Jarratt now has around 225 on the payroll, and a significantly lower turnover rate - about 65 percent - than most fast-food establishments. His style is to delegate and follow-up. "I empower them," he says. "They make the decisions, but they have to justify them."

Dorothy Prime, his district manager who handles operations for his 10 units, attributes employees' longevity, especially management, to Jarratt's leadership style. "(Employees are) made to feel like they're somebody, people are respected. What you say or do matters," she says. "He's there for people and he listens."

Jarratt is a frequent visitor to the restaurants, where he rolls up his sleeves and helps when needed. Employees can call him directly if there's a problem they can't solve themselves.

Prime has worked with him since 1994. The first half of her career, she worked for five or six bosses; the last half, she's worked for one. That says it all, she says.

 

"I found the local town councils and inspectors are more powerful and relevant to a businessman’s day-to-day life."

—Ben Jarratt

Much of what Jarratt learned on Capitol Hill applies to running a business. While his customers at the White House were journalists, his customers now are consumers. "Dealing with customers is more difficult than the White House press," he says. "The press you know will come back (they need your news), but you have to keep customers coming back."

The issues he heard when he worked for the Small Business Administration are the same ones he faces today as a business owner: health insurance; pay; local fees.

He also learned that for small businesspeople, local sometimes trumps national.

"I found the local town councils and inspectors are more powerful and relevant to a businessman's day-to-day life (than the federal government)," he says. "I went from a federal level to a local level."

Even though Jarratt is officially out of politics, he still plays an active role in seeing that franchisees' rights are front and center in politicians' agendas. He's president of the BK Mid-Atlantic Franchisee Association, and since 2006 has served as secretary and government relations chairman of the National Franchisee Association, an independent association representing more than 1,200 BK franchisees. In addition, he organizes Burger King's Day on the Hill, where corporate executives are joined by franchisees and suppliers to jointly lobby their representatives. About 150 attend the summit every fall, he says, where he serves as host and chairman.

When NFA became a member of the Coalition of Franchisee Associations - the two share staff, including CFA chairman Frank Capaldo - Jarratt helped the association put on its first public affairs day for the leaders of the franchisee associations.

During the CFA meeting, Jarratt's presentation got to the meat of the matter. Politics is not the domain of the elected officials and the paid lobbyists. What goes on at the federal, state and local level affects a business's bottom line. "If a franchisee is not managing his P&Ls to reflect state, local and federal mandates," Jarratt says, he or she will be in for a surprise. For instance, if your state is discussing passing higher minimum wage laws, plug that figure into your P&L to see what the hit will mean to your business. Do the same with other fees and taxes, as well as health insurance and mandatory paid sick leave. Some mandates will have a positive effect on your bottom line, others a negative, but none of them should be a surprise, he cautions.

"Join your local chamber and restaurant association so you can see what's going on," he suggests. Just as the NFA monitors the national level, chambers monitor the local landscape.

While NFA and BK have had some strained relations in the past, Jarratt is bullish on the new administration at headquarters. "As far as I'm concerned the relationship is fine; it's great," he says. Corporate is now focused on the brand, something that was missing when it was owned by Grand Metropolitan and Diageo, he adds.

And while his job today is a lot less political than in years past, there's no such thing as being apolitical in Washington, D.C.

OK, so there is, but it's not a high statistic.

Jarratt and his family - wife Mary and four children - live across the street from Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who Mary sometimes jogs with. But, that's not unusual for D.C., Jarratt explains. Unlike celebrity sightings in L.A., politicians aren't viewed as "celebrities" in D.C., he says. "We take ourselves more seriously here," he points out. "Our local news is on the front page of the Washington Post." Jarratt quips he no longer has that "inside the Beltway mentality" - he lives one-mile outside the Beltway. But it's still close enough to remain a political junkie for fast food.

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