Alex Fernandez thought he had retired. After almost 30 years with AIG, the international insurance and financial services firm, Fernandez was ready to try a life of golf and relaxation.
Then a family crisis intervened and Fernandez found himself back in the world of work, in a different country and a different business entirely. And he was happy to be there.
“Family is the most important part of my life,” says Fernandez. “And I still have too much energy for me to go play golf.”
Along with his two sons, Fernandez now owns five Dunkin’ Donuts stores and is building a sixth one in Polk County, Florida, an area smack in the middle of the state. They also recently purchased five more stores in Jacksonville, on the state’s east coast border with Georgia.
In the five years since they became franchise owners, Fernandez and his sons Alex (who is also called Junior) and Randy have doubled the size of their business. By all accounts, this has been a successful next phase for Fernandez.
But why Dunkin’ Donuts?
“A Dunkin’ Donuts business is really a family business,” says Fernandez. “It’s a business where my sons and I can work together.” Because, while Fernandez’ path to becoming a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee was far from a straight line, his family has always been at the heart of it.
A little more than five years ago, Fernandez and his wife, Gloria, were in Chile, where they had been living for 25 years. Though retired, he was far from idle, doing consulting work and serving on boards. Junior and Randy, who were born in the United States, were living in Tampa, Florida, so that Junior’s wife could get the medical care she needed. When she passed away, Fernandez realized his son would need him, so he and Gloria pulled up stakes and relocated to Tampa.
He bought a house big enough for everyone to live in, so Gloria could take care of the grandchildren, four boys aged 13 to 18. Fernandez jumped into the business his sons had already begun, as Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners. In Chile, the boys had had separate McDonald’s franchises; here, they found that Dunkin’ Donuts would allow them to work together. Dad was a welcome member of the team.
They divide responsibilities based on their strengths: Fernandez oversees the strategy and financial part of the business, while Junior and Randy take care of the operations and management end of things. Fernandez likes the fact that the breakfast sector is growing – an important part of his strategy for growth – and that Dunkin’ Brands is not a competitor of theirs. “They’re not in the real estate business,” he says, unlike some other fast food franchises. “They’re here to support the franchisees. Their primary focus is getting sales higher to increase their royalty income. They give you a lot of support to achieve that.”
This past year has been their most successful yet, with double-digit growth. And while Fernandez acknowledges he and his sons do well on the operations side of things, he also credits the economy with fueling their success. “We’re in a blue collar county,” he says. “Between people getting back to work and gas prices going down, customers are coming back.” The substantial growth in his stores fueled his commitment to expand into Jacksonville.
The long and winding road
Originally from Cuba, Fernandez first came to the United States as an 11-year-old boy, through Operation Pedro Pan. It was the early 1960’s, Fidel Castro was in power, and there were rumors of children being sent to the Soviet Union to be indoctrinated into communism. The Pedro Pan program brought more than 14,000 children from Cuba into the U.S. over a 20-month period. Fernandez and his sister landed in Miami and were sent to live with a family in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“They were wonderful to us,” Fernandez says of the family, who had nine children of their own. He and his sister lived there for two years, until his father and mother could get visas and join them. They settled in New Jersey, where Fernandez met his wife – they went to senior prom together. He attended Rutgers University before beginning his career with AIG, a career that took him to Paris, Venezuela and Mexico, in addition to Chile.
It also prepared him for his second career as a franchisee. While Dunkin’ Donuts and AIG are clearly different types of businesses, they require a lot of the same skills. “Most people are waiting for someone to mentor them, to show them the way,” says Fernandez. “I’m a passionate person, both here and at AIG. I show [employees] passion and they feel it and can be as passionate as me.”
That passion translates into better customer service, something Fernandez says differentiates their Dunkin’ from its competition. “People will pay more but they have to get something for that,” he says. “When I hire somebody, first thing I ask them is, ‘What is your number one responsibility? Customer service. What does that mean?’ When someone opens the door, they have to see a pleasant place: clean, with music on. They need to be greeted at the counter, and be offered good products, products they want. Then we have to thank them on their way out the door. What should they be saying? ‘This is a place I want to come back to.’”
He admits this isn’t easy to do: his employees have a lot to do, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by little things. So he tells his managers to keep giving that message to their employees, over and over and over until they truly believe it. When they make their store a place people want to come back to, he tells them, “We’re busy, we sell more. They get more hours and more money.” It’s a win-win for everyone.
A man for all seasons
Fernandez has embraced his new career so fully that he has immersed himself in the franchisee community at large. Last October he was elected by his fellow franchisees to represent them at the regional level. At the national level, he participates on the profitability and marketing committees. And for the last two years, he has sat on the advertising committee, to help determine how to spend local advertising dollars.
There’s one other committee he considers important: the sustainability committee. The last store he built was a DD Green store, which according to Dunkin’ Brands, “provides a framework for our franchisees to build restaurants that are more energy- and water-efficient, healthier and reduce landfill waste.”
For each item complied with, a store earns a point, sometimes two. It takes 12 points to receive the DD Green designation, 20 points for Green Elite. Fernandez’s store received the Green Elite designation; there are only a handful in the entire state of Florida.
“We wanted to do that, to show customers we’re sensitive to the issue of the environment,” he explained. “We should get the money back through savings and energy costs. We can save by investing a little more upfront.”
An enduring legacy
They live together; they work together; they even vacation together. But Fernandez acknowledges that, as much as he loves it, working with family can be challenging. “At the end of the day, they’re your sons; they’re not like you. They are their own selves,” he says. “But we’ve done very well. The boys work very hard, and we play hard, too.”
And while his oldest grandchild is off to college in the fall with plans to study business, Fernandez doesn’t want him joining the family business just yet. “He should go work somewhere else first, then come work here,” he says, perhaps reflecting on his own work experience.
Alex Fernandez had a chance to retire before and chose to keep on working. So, is he planning a retirement from the Dunkin’ Donuts business any time soon? “I hope so, ask my wife!” he says with a laugh. “I just have too much energy for right now. I don’t see that horizon yet.”