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You're Working With Family: Now What?

Davide Uccello

Age: 28

Job: President and CFO, Flo’s Collection

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Davide and I were connected through Steve, my interview from a few months ago, also in Grand Rapids. I loved hearing about Davide's successful family business that has gone far beyond Michigan. If you think he is joking when he mentions the United States Pizza Team, he's not.

Give us a little background and tell us how you ended up in Michigan.

I was actually born in Sicily, Italy, and came over to the States when I was eight years old. We basically grew up in restaurants here in the U.S. my whole life, but I never really enjoyed them. I never actually thought that I would be going into this field, and all throughout high school and my first year of college, I had a completely different game plan. I went to Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and got my B.A. in Business with an emphasis in International Business and Supply Chain Management. My main goal in those five years of school was to start up an import-export company. However, when I was a sophomore at the age of 19, my 24-year-old brother came to me and said he wanted to start a restaurant. He didn’t have the education that I had, but he knew restaurants and how to make really good food, so he asked if I wanted to join in with him. I said yes as long as he was okay with me finishing up school. From there, we opened a full-service restaurant sports bar that fit 200 people. I was still taking 18 credits at the time and it was successful right off the bat. Within the initial six months, we expanded that first restaurant to fit 300 people and opened an outside patio as well. That is our oldest standing restaurant, known as Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante & Sports Bar, short for Florentine, and it is going on eight years now.

In 2014, we acquired a pizzeria at the same time that we started Catering Concepts, both in the same location. In the first six months, it grew out of that location, so we bought a company in Holland, Michigan and merged the two. As the CFO, it was a huge learning experience for me from an acquisition standpoint. After that, we opened our second Catering Concepts in Greenville, Michigan, and just a few months ago, we opened Flo’s Woodfired Pizzeria. It’s a joint concept with St. Julian Winery, the largest and oldest winery in Michigan. They are the most awarded winery in the state and found us online because of our awards. We have received Best Pizza in Michigan twice and Best Pizza in the Midwest twice. Most recently, we won the Best Pizza in America. We no longer compete for these awards, but my brother is a coach and chef of the USA Pizza Team, so he goes out to these competitions and mentors other pizzeria owners.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned since starting your business?

For me, it's how much you learn throughout the process of growing your company. You learn something every single day, you make many mistakes, and it is how you rebound and learn from those mistakes that determine how successful you are. When I went into business, I realized business school teaches you valuable information, but it is not really what happens in the real world at all. You sit there and try to make a decision based on what you made in college, but the reality of it is that business school teaches you to run corporations; not small businesses. That right there is something I have actually been working on with Grand Valley State University over the last year. I talk to their business classes about the difference between what they are learning (i.e., how to run corporations) and what running a family business looks like. It’s an unwritten class and uneducated area at many universities, so two professors and I are actually designing a class on the topic and writing a book on the transition from family-owned business to corporations. The class is 301: Family to Corporate Companies and as far as the book title, we’ll decide that when it is fully written. We are going on a year now, and we are about 30% complete. It is a textbook, so we are making case studies based on what has happened in my business.

How many people do you manage and what is it like being a manager?

Our company currently employs 250 individuals. Personally, being the CFO, I manage them in a roundabout way, but not on a daily basis. Since my role switched in 2018, I really don’t have too much interaction with the servers, bartenders, and cooks anymore. Before that, I was doing front-house operations and my brother was doing back-of-the-house operations. After a few mistakes, we realized we needed to split the pie in different ways. We realized both of us could not be taking on operational roles and one of us had to take the back seat and be in the office instead of potentially paying managers to do office work. Being a manager is one of the hardest things to do on a daily basis. When I started day one at 19 years old, I was managing people directly. You are either going to get it, or you won't. A lot of times I think this comes from thinking too analytically or being too black and white. That’s where I was, which is why it makes sense to me now that I struggled during those years I was managing people directly. The first year of business, we started with 80 employees. After the first year of business, I had fired 70 out of those 80. I was 19 years old, it was black and white for me. My mentality was “if I can do it, why can’t the 30-year-old cook who has been cooking for ten years do it?”. But I quickly realized that was not the way to manage at all. People are what make up your business, so you have to cherish and value them, and work with them. You have to be patient and so on. I realized that those were not the traits I was strong in, so I knew this was something I needed to work on. This was a skill my brother always had over me, so we made the decision that he would be in charge of all of the operations and I would be responsible for all of the administration.

What does your average day look like?

Any dollar in or out is managed by me in the business, as well as all of the administrative functions. Financials, marketing and human resources (HR) are the three main areas I focus on. When we are designing a new concept, my brother will tell me what he’s thinking, I’ll go in and design a business plan, find a location, and typically negotiate everything and do all of the work up until we have financing, an architectural plan, and accepted bids for contractors. I’ll usually be involved up until that point and I don’t come back into the picture until about a month before we open that concept. Then I come in from a financial standpoint, and my brother will handle everything after that. We have a pretty good system going.

What is it like working with family?

It is a learning curve no matter what. It is always going to be that way for anyone running a business, but the biggest area that needs to be figured out prior to going into business together is who is responsible for what. You need to draw that division, draw that line, and then you need to respect what your partner or family member does. If you believe that he or she has made a bad decision, it is your responsibility as a partner to let them know, but that’s where it stops. My brother and I had our fights in the first few years, but we figured out how strong family is and business should never come between that. It just comes down to trusting your partner, even if it is not a family member, and trusting them to do the right thing. Let them do their thing that is in their area of expertise, but make sure you set those standards early on. If you keep that in the back of your mind, you will feel better about not having everything go your way. If you’re an entrepreneur, you want to design and build your company from the ground up. When you have a partner, you can only do 50% of that. You have to trust that the other 50% is getting the job done to the fullest extent.

What is your favorite dish at your restaurant?

I absolutely love food. I do not get in the kitchen very much, but as far as my favorite Italian dish, it’s gotta be traditional homemade pasta noodles with homemade tomato sauce. My second favorite plate is Sicilian Spiedini.

This interview made me hungry…

The YoPro Know's Takeaways:

– Business school teaches you valuable information, but it is not really what happens in the real world at all

– You are either going to "get" being a manager, or you won't

– The biggest area that needs to be figured out prior to going into business together is who is responsible for what

– Working with someone else just comes down to trusting your partner, even if it is not a family member, to do the right thing

Check it out: Flo’s Collection, United States Pizza Team, Grand Valley State University, Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante & Sports Bar, Catering Concepts, Flo’s Woodfired Pizzeria, St. Julian Winery, Sicilian Spiedini

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