After tasting every treat on the Dairy Queen menu, John Gainor can tell when the Double Fudge Cookie Dough Blizzard needs a half pump more of fudge or the Brownie EarthQuake is lacking Oreo crumbles.
As much as the CEO and president can spot a missing layer of Spanish peanuts in the Peanut Buster Parfait, he can pick out a reliable employee and build an efficient team.
"Teamwork is critical," says the 10-year Dairy Queen veteran. "Everybody that's working a shift has a job, and if someone falters, someone else needs to step in and help or the night probably won't go so well."
Gainor, 56, started at International Dairy Queen, Inc. as the chief supply chain officer and became the CEO five years ago. He now oversees more than 6,300 restaurants worldwide, with more than 4,500 in the United States. Since Dairy Queen is a wholly owned subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the company isn't directly in charge of the several hundred thousand employees. But that doesn't mean Gainor misses an opportunity to converse with the Blizzard techs pumping soft serve behind the counter.
The Minneapolis-area resident spoke with U.S. News about how to find productive employees and divulged which Blizzard is his all-time favorite. His responses have been edited.
If a teen is looking for a summer job, but doesn't have prior work experience, what should he or she put on his or her résumé?
If it's a teenager looking to be employed at a local DQ, the things that would be important would be to stress their performance in high school, their grades and any activities they might be involved in. Managers tend to look for leadership skills, so anything they can pull out of their high school education. Also, being responsible is one of the key elements that a store operator would look for in a potential employee because, let's face it, we are dealing with the public and we are serving food items.
Customers can get impatient when forced to wait in long lines – especially when it's hot outside and they're waiting for ice cream. Do you have any tips for companies that want to speed up the efficiency of customer service?
First and foremost, we all need to remember that we exist because of our customers, and our customers are the most important component of our business. At Dairy Queen, we have many initiatives to focus on speed of service. Many of our stores are not ice cream only; many are full quick-service restaurants similar to McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, and a large percent of our business is done through the drive-thru. So having the proper technology at the restaurant – be it headsets, reader boards, coin counters, the list goes on and on – can speed up speed of service, but it's being staffed adequately for the peak period that really is one of the key components.
How do you know if someone will be a productive employee?
Whenever you're interviewing people, it doesn't matter if it's at a store level or a corporate level, you try to get a good judge of people's experience and their character. Normally people who want to be leaders will take accountability for the customer, the service, the quality, and if you can find those individuals you can normally build a successful team.
In full disclosure, I worked at a DQ in high school and we put a lot of effort into making sure the white walls were free of ice cream splatter and there were no stray sprinkles on the floor. How much time should employees really spend on maintaining a store's appearance?
One of the priorities we have at DQ, and other quick service restaurants as well, is cleanliness and food safety. And like anything in life, it's easier to clean up as you go along versus wait to the end. When you get into a very busy period, it can get a little messy. It falls on the responsibility of the employees because they're the ones actually doing the work. So it really has to be a priority.
DQ always features a Blizzard of the Month. People come in the store, see the poster on the wall and it sometimes inspires them to order it. Do you recommend a similar strategy for other businesses that want to draw attention to different products?
This month is Lemon Meringue Pie. It's really awesome, but this summer we launched our S'mores Blizzard. It's as good as making S'mores out over the campfire.
And we broke the rules. Rather than keep it around for one month, we launched it in June, and it's available all summer. To be honest with you, it's been at the demand of our fans. Our fans love to have new products, and occasionally we bring back the fan favorites.
So Blizzard of the Month has been a good strategy for Dairy Queen. It's about giving your fans, your customers, what they crave – that could be applied to other businesses.
For businesses affected by the weather, like yours, what should managers and employees do on rainy days to buffer dips in revenue?
Social media is so huge, and there are ways to use social media to drive people into restaurants. Because the name Blizzard happens to be blizzard, we have some stores in the winter time that when it snows, they'll run a promotion tied to the snow: "Come in, and get out of the blizzard." We have nearly 6 million fans in our Blizzard Fan Club, and that's a great way to quickly communicate. And we also use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. More and more marketing is being done through social media, and it can be more immediate.
What's the best career advice that you've ever received?
It's two things. One is you have to find something that you enjoy. I think it's very important that you don't want work to be work. It has to be something that you can enjoy. And if you find that, you can build a great career and enjoy what you're doing.
But I think the other thing is equally as important, and that is you need to treat every employee no different than how you want to be treated. Every person in an organization or in a store, their job is critical. It doesn't matter if it's me, the CEO, or someone working the counter making ice cream or our maintenance guy. Everybody has a role, and you've got to recognize the importance of each of those roles.
Before we end, I have to ask, have you tried every Blizzard on the menu?
In the past 10 years, I have tried every Blizzard that we have offered.
Which one's your favorite?
My new favorite is the S'mores Blizzard, but my all-time favorite Blizzard would be the Brownie Batter Blizzard. It's one we roll out and bring back periodically.
That one's my all-time favorite as well.
Well, you and I need to work on our marketing people to bring it back.
Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.