Mediaplanet spoke with Boston Pizza Chairman and Dragons' Den star Jim Treliving about the early days of Boston Pizza and his thoughts on the evolution of the franchising landscape.

Mediaplanet: What led you to start Boston Pizza?

Jim Treliving: It all started in Edmonton, AB, where I was an RCMP officer. My partner and I went to grab a bite one night after working late. My partner said, “We’re going to a place called Boston Pizza and Spaghetti House,” and I said, “What is that?” I had no clue and had never eaten pizza before in my life. That was my first experience — I was blown away. A year or so after that, I approached the current owners about becoming their first-ever franchisee. From that point forward, I never looked back. I left a stable job with a great pension to pursue entrepreneurship and at that time a lot of people thought I was crazy. Today, Boston Pizza has over 430 restaurants throughout Canada, the US, and Mexico with exciting growth projections in all three countries. 

What challenges did you face in the early days of the business?

"I left a stable job with a great pension to pursue entrepreneurship and at that time a lot of people thought I was crazy."

When I was operating my first restaurant in Penticton, BC, I was so focused on running the day to day of my business. I would often work 12- to 14-hour days and at times it felt like nothing was getting accomplished. I was working so hard on the business, I wasn’t taking the time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I’ll never forget how at the end of my first year of business, I thought I was doing really well. Then I visited my accountant and discovered I was barely making any money. That was a big eye-opener for me.

What were some of the other challenges you faced with Boston Pizza?

Boston Pizza was developing rapidly in Western Canada, so naturally, we started to look at expansion opportunities in Eastern Canada. We pushed forward very quickly but immediately faced challenges trying to manage the business from across the country. We also didn’t understand the intricacies and differences between the western and eastern markets. Ultimately, our initial expansion into Eastern Canada failed as we learned the very difficult lesson about the importance of having boots on the ground.

Jim Treliving

How did you overcome those challenges?

When we re-entered the Ontario market several years later, we were much better prepared. We had done our research, we had a strategic plan, and I ended up moving to Ontario and opening an office to oversee the expansion of our operations. Slight changes to our approach and oversight on the ground made all the difference in the world. I learned the importance of having face time and in-person meetings with franchisees, employees, and suppliers which is still very important to me to this day. I spend a lot of time travelling between all five of our offices throughout North America to meet with the people in our system.

Who helped you the most throughout your journey?

The name of the accountant I visited in the early days was George Melville and he eventually became my business partner. George helped me take a step back from the day-to-day of the business and look at the big picture, which was critical when we planned our expansion. Throughout our journey in growing Boston Pizza, George and I were always able to communicate and openly debate and discuss business decisions. Although we didn’t always necessarily agree with each other’s opinion, we ultimately made decisions together. I think that’s why our partnership was so successful.

How has the franchising industry changed over the years?

"It’s inspiring to see youth contribute ideas to how we can improve our business and build our brand. This shows a strong future for the industry."

The increase in new franchise concepts has been fantastic to see for the industry. Entrepreneurs and business people now understand that joining a franchise system is a great avenue to pursue business ownership. Franchising provides all the benefits of owning your own business combined with the infrastructure, training, systems, processes, and marketing support needed to build a successful business. A great franchise system is one that provides the franchisee with all the tools and resources they need to be successful in running their business.

What excites you about the future of the franchising industry?

The number of youth beginning a career in franchising is very exciting. At Boston Pizza, which has been around for over 50 years, we’re now starting to see third- and fourth-generation family members taking over the family business. It’s inspiring to see youth contribute ideas to how we can improve our business and build our brand. This shows a strong future for the industry.