Church’s Chicken’s largest franchisee Aslam Khan has come a long way from the poverty of Pakistan. When he left home at 14, he vowed never to return. Now, a quarter of a century later, he’s found you really can go home again—if you’ve reinvented your life.
There are just two kinds of poverty: the poverty that happens to other people and the poverty that happens to you.
“If you haven’t experienced poverty firsthand, you can’t understand it,” Aslam Khan states matter-of-factly as he pilots his spotless black Lexus down a tree-lined street in Westlake, Texas. He has just left the offices where he runs Falcon Holdings, a 153-unit Church’s Chicken franchisee company with sales north of $100 million, and is headed back to his palatial stone-and-brick, 15,000-plus square-foot house, tucked serenely in an exclusive neighborhood a couple of miles from his office.
About 18 months ago, Khan moved his offices from Oak Brook, Illinois, to Dallas after a multi-year search for the perfect place. Atlanta, Church’s headquarters, was also on his shortlist of places to relocate. “Atlanta is beautiful,” he says, “but I can create my own beauty, so I picked Dallas.” Not to mention it was centrally located. He’s come a long way—much further than from Chicago to Dallas.
When Khan left his rural village in Pakistan at 14, he never planned to go home again. With all he’s accomplished in his 55 years, Khan still vividly remembers growing up poor. His parents were farmers and often all they had to eat was a pumpkin, flavored with just salt and pepper. He remembers his mother pretending she had a meal cooking in a crock-pot so he and his siblings could fall asleep with the comforting belief they would eat in the morning. But perhaps the worst humiliation was owning just one pair of pants and one shirt and having to run around naked while his mother washed them.
Equally humiliating was that his father didn’t see any reason to spend the equivalent of a couple of pennies for Khan to go to school. “I could read and write and my parents thought that should be enough,” he says in accented English. “I was always the last to pay my (school) bill and I was embarrassed as a kid.”
Although he was barely in his teens, Khan knew the power of education. And he instinctively knew if he wasn’t educated, he wasn’t going anywhere. He headed for the “big city” where he found a job working nights at a bakery for $4 a week. He slept in the back of the shop with the other boys who made up the baker’s workforce—“child labor is not considered bad there,” he explains—and attended school during the day.
“When you are poor, you mature more quickly,” he says. “You invent your own thing when necessary.”
Khan’s “thing” turned out to be food service. He graduated from college in Pakistan and worked his way up to managing the club at the American Embassy there. That’s when he decided to come to America—“the best country in the world,” he enthuses.
When he landed in Southern California, he had no references, so he started as a dishwasher at a Church’s Chicken for $3.25 an hour. He was the assistant manager within a month and then the district manager, moving his way up to marketing director.
His business life changed when he helped the new franchisee of a 48-unit Church’s that was in bankruptcy turn it around in less than a year. “I made a name there,” he says.
For his next turnaround he borrowed $8 million and “five years later gave them $27 million back.”
“It’s all about people,” he says. “You take care of people and they’ll take care of business.”About 18 months ago, Khan moved his offices from Oak Brook, Illinois, to Dallas after a multi-year search for the perfect place. Atlanta, Church’s headquarters, was also on his shortlist of places to relocate. “Atlanta is beautiful,” he says, “but I can create my own beauty, so I picked Dallas.” Not to mention it was centrally located. He’s come a long way—much further than from Chicago to Dallas. Although Khan refers to himself as the “chicken man,” he’s quick to point out that he is not the one frying the chicken. “I’m in the people business, not the chicken business,” he’s fond of saying.
Khan likes to surround himself with a variety of people. He has a steady stream of visitors and loves to entertain at home, which means his wife Hilda has adjusted to cooking elaborate meals at the drop of a hat. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, as well as the Governor of Texas, has been a guest at his home, and just an hour after meeting the photographer for this story, Dennis Clark, Khan invited him to his annual Christmas party.At home, he may ask Hilda to serve a croissant with butter and jam for his guests or a cup of tea, but during a lunch meeting at Which Wich, he was the one who made several trips to refill his guests’ glasses or get more napkins. On the road, visiting his restaurants in various states or attending committee meetings for the International Franchise Association, Khan says he always knows someone in town to have dinner with. “I hate to eat alone,” he adds.
When he moved to Dallas, Khan introduced himself to the local politicians and asked how he could be of help to them. He’s connected to the Pakistani community, which he says is made up of doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen. When asked if he knew Joyce Mazero, a prominent franchise attorney in Dallas, he said, “No, can you give me her number?”
Khan also has some unorthodox ideas on how to treat people at work.
“I give too many chances to people,” he admits. “But if they’re 70 percent good, it’s better to work them than someone (new) who may be 30 percent (competent),” he points out.
To elaborate on this point, he tells the story about how he dealt with a thief in one of his restaurants in California (he has since sold those restaurants back to Church’s). He asked the district manager who he thought might be responsible for the missing money. When he had the name, instead of firing the suspect, Khan promoted him.
“I gave him a cell phone, a pager and a car allowance and told him, ‘I want you to catch thieves. I heard you were the smartest guy here, and I want you to audit the cash register, and report to me directly,’” Khan says. “He thought he had a new position.”
It turned out to be a good move, because the employee no longer was in charge of cash, and he was playing to his strong suit—catching cashiers with sticky fingers.
“Don’t concentrate on their weaknesses. We all have them,” Khan says, “Cash in on their strengths.”
He credits Jon Luther, now executive chairman with Dunkin’ Brands, as being one of his mentors. Khan was a franchisee with Church’s when Luther was president of Popeyes, both part of AFC at the time. “I got to know Aslam when we created a mutual co-op,” Luther says. “He’s clearly an amazing gentleman.”
After the co-op meetings, Luther says the two of them often headed out to the airport at the same time, and would spend time talking as they waited for their different flights.
“We talked about leadership and how to treat people,” Luther says. “He was such an amazing listener.”
Luther credits Khan’s success to being a strong operator. “He hasn’t diverged from Church’s, he’s doing what he knows,” he says.
“He’s cracked the code” to running successful restaurants and built a team that understands what they’re doing.
And by buying distressed restaurants, Luther says Khan can pay less, so when he implements his disciplines and management style into the company, his ROI is strong. Khan may be diverting from that recipe. He hinted that he’s looking at a second chain to invest in. With his track record and finances—he mostly pays cash for the units he adds to his portfolio—one can imagine his dance card is never empty at franchisor-attended events—or franchisee events, for that matter.
Buying distressed restaurants is an art. Before he commits, Khan says he meets with the managers of the company. “We call it “dipstick” (meetings),” he says, “to see how much oil is in the tank.” There are reasons why companies are distressed, he explains, which doesn’t mean the previous operators weren’t talented. “Sometimes the resources aren’t there, or machines break or training (is weak),” he says. Rarely is it because the people don’t want to do well.
Khan isn’t the only one on his team who started at an entry-level job and worked his way up. Khaled Habash, president of Falcon Holdings, started at an entry-level job at Church’s also. “Every executive has been through the ranks,” he says. “It gives you perspective, having lived it.”
Habash, who is from Jordan, is especially grateful for Khan’s management style because he was an executive with one of the franchisee companies Khan purchased. Khan scooped it up an inch before it toppled into bankruptcy, Habash says. Employees didn’t know if they had jobs or not. “I had never met him before. I thought as much as he’s putting into it (the company), he may have a Plan B,” Habash says (meaning bringing in his own people). “With Aslam, Plan A was Plan B.” In other words, he gives the employees of the failed company a chance to succeed in a new company with checks and balances and accountability.
After five years, Habash was promoted to president. “I am obsessed with making money for the company. That’s my niche,” he says. “I may speak English with an accent, but I speak money very fluently.”
Ironically, Khan goes into an acquired company with a rare announcement: “I tell them, “give me a chance—hire me for six months.’ That disarms them.”
A few days before last Thanksgiving, Khan returned home. The trip back to Pakistan after 26 years wasn’t a happy occasion. He was there to bury his father.
His father became dehydrated from diarrhea and died before he could be transported to a hospital. Khan shakes his head in sorrow. It is something he can’t imagine ever happening in his adopted country.
While he was there, Khan met an old woman from his village who had wrapped her head in scarves to try to contain the headache she had suffered with for days. Khan gave her three Motrin pills he had in his pocket and when he saw her a few hours later, she was smiling and pain free.
That’s when it struck him. “Even though I come from it, it was unbelievable,” he says of the poverty. When he had left home, he had told himself, “God, one day I’m going to turn around and look.’ But I got busy.” That day finally came—and true to his word, he turned around and looked back.
Khan returned to the U.S. with a plan to fund rural health clinics in his native country. He pictures his clinics flying the Pakistani and U.S. flags, and showing the world that peace is possible when people’s needs are fulfilled. “I can afford it,” he says of funding free-health care clinics. It’s not an affectation, nor bragging, but simply a fact.
Once poverty gets ingrained, it’s hard to shed it. Khan admits that he’ll never stop growing his company—never stop making money. His goal is 500 restaurants in five years.
The difference between Khan and thousands of others who have grown up in similar situations is that he never let circumstances stop him. He turned his fear of failure into a dream job.
“We all have dreams, (but) we have to value dreams with extreme discipline,” he states.
Operating Tips from a Turnaround Guy
Falcon Holdings’ Aslam Khan seems to have all the cards when it comes to turning around failed businesses. And he doesn’t mind sharing the information, either with his employees or with the competition. Here’s his take, along with his executive team’s, on how to win at the chicken business—or any other business.
Share information with managers
“Sharing is growing,” Khan says. “When people start guessing, you’re in trouble ... We know daily how much we’re up or down, and every manager knows where they stand daily ... no gossip, no rumors—then they can concentrate on the job.”
IT director Mahmood Ahmed, CEO Alsam Khan and president Khaled Habash
Thanks to the “business intelligence monster” that Mahmood Ahmed, director of informational technology, helped create, Falcon Holdings can generate 400 different reports. However, only two reports go out a day. Zone managers are required to be on a daily phone call—seven days a week—to explain any negative trends in their numbers. “The calls are designed for accountability, not ‘gotcha,’” Ahmed explains. Praise and instruction outnumber criticisms, and employees are empowered and given the skills—and the technology—to succeed at the job.
Understand the information
“Aslam used to say he has Peter Jennings and Dan Rather reporting the news, he needs someone to analyze the news,” Ahmed says. In other words, it accomplishes little to have information at your fingertips if you don’t know how to use it.
An organized manager is a productive manager (not to mention worry-free)
“I’m a cleaning freak,” Khan says. That’s reflected at the office—no piles of paper on anyone’s desk, no ringing phones. “Be proactive,” he says. “It’s time-wasting to have them (managers) have to call you to ask for what they need. In our business, everything is predictable. If that’s true, why not get it organized?” Plus, “if you don’t have time to fix it right the first time, when are you going to have time to come back and fix it again?”
Don’t leave anything in the gray
Give people clear expectations, in writing, and then monitor their progress.
Hire right the first time
“If I hire a less-qualified person, then that’s my problem,” says Khan, who adds he’s never met anyone who didn’t want to do well in their job. A problem employee most likely needs more training. In order to “hire right,” Khan advises third, even fourth interviews, and to break the Coke machine: “Then ask them to put it back together.” Good managers can “phone-fix,” Khan says. Solving an equipment problem over the phone, as opposed to the technician coming out to the store saves money in service calls.
Most problems are in the “controls”—costs, inventory, etc. Employees need a sense of ownership, Khan says, or “the losses are yours, and they (continue to) pick up their paycheck.” At Falcon, there’s no ceiling on what managers can earn, and there are clear directives on how they can earn the money.
Promote from within
Not only does this incentivise employees, it ensures that future bosses understand all the job functions. “If you fly into a job, you have no idea (how to do it),” Khan contends.