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The Long Road to Success, From Delivery Boy to CEO

Steve Jackson, CEO of Hungry Howie's

I got into the pizza business working from the ground up, starting with a common position for many teenagers: delivery boy. I worked for a pizza shop in Michigan owned by Jim Hearn while I was a high school student in the early 1970s. My friends and I really looked up to Jim; he owned two pizza shops and a hamburger joint, which made him the richest guy we'd ever met.

We nicknamed him Howie, a reference to Howard Hughes, who was one of the most financially successful business men in the world at the time. We got close, and I learned as much as I could about running the pizza shop while I was still in high school.

I don't think I realized it at the time, but I was doing what many entrepreneurs do – finding established business leaders and absorbing as much as we can about how they do things and what makes them so successful. Jim became a mentor to me, and we stayed in touch even after he sold his pizza shops. As I went off to college in the fall of 1972 to study teaching, Jim was running his burger joint, but toying with the idea of getting back in the pizza business. I was busy with school and the job I used to pay my way through college, working on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company. Jim and I found time to talk regularly, and began discussing potential names for his new pizza place. I suggested he make use of his nickname and, in February of 1973, Jim opened the first Hungry Howie's in Taylor, Michigan.

A few years later, I married my high school sweetheart just before my senior year of college. Her father, a school principal, cautioned me against going into teaching, where the job opportunities were very limited at the time. After a long conversation with Jim, I left school and quit my job on the assembly line to open a second Hungry Howie's location. It was a big risk for Jim and me, but we both had faith in my ability to follow his lead and make my location as successful as the original. Through a lot of hard work on both our parts, it worked out.

By the late '70s, we were looking to expand to even more locations. We enlisted friends and family to lead the new restaurants, and soon we had nearly a dozen locations throughout Michigan. We began to discuss the idea of continuing to grow Hungry Howie's through the franchise model. Jim was apprehensive, but our success with the existing locations made me confident we could succeed through franchising. I brought him around, but it took us a few years to work through the details and legal issues of franchising while we were both running separate locations.

Discovering our process and fueling growth

We awarded our first franchise in 1983, but were still far from having the right structure in place to truly thrive as a franchise. Because our growth had been largely organic to this point, we didn't have the standardized, systematic approach that successful franchises employ. We took the mom and pop approach that helped us expand from one location to our first dozen and just applied it across our first franchised locations through a lot of hard work. We basically gauged our success by checking the accounts at the end of the month – if there was money left after we paid our bills, we were doing OK!

We knew we needed to change this if we were going to continue to thrive as we grew, so we began a process of examining our business to learn what we could from our most successful locations. We learned a valuable lesson about the importance of self-examination and continuous improvement, and we still apply that practice today, more than 30 years later. We used what we learned to develop franchise-wide standards for training, managing our costs and where we get our ingredients. We also began testing in our home market to develop flavored crusts, which would become a core concept for our brand.

By 1986, we had more than 60 locations throughout Michigan and Florida, where Jim moved with his family to keep Hungry Howie's growing. We kept our costs under control by opening centralized distribution centers in the suburbs of Detroit and Central Florida. We took what we learned through our early success in Michigan to grow at a steady, sustainable pace, reaching the 100-location milestone in the '80s and passing 200 and 300 locations during the '90s.

By 2000, we had more than 500 locations. By diversifying regionally, we survived through the economic difficulties that hit Michigan when the auto industry crashed in the recession. We expanded our executive team to bring in leaders with diverse backgrounds to help us continue to adapt and thrive, refining our business model and embracing technology to enable online ordering and gather immediate feedback to help us continue to improve our service.

Our dedication to learning from our successes continues to pay off. Today, we have nearly 550 locations across 21 states, we've seen seven consecutive years of same-store sales growth, and we're well positioned to maintain our success in the future. I never became that teacher I planned to be in 1972, but I do think leading a major franchise has allowed me to become an educator of sorts, working with our corporate team and franchisees partners to teach them how to run a thriving business.

About the author: In 1973, Steve Jackson began working at a carry-out and delivery pizzeria as a delivery driver. This pizzeria would become Hungry Howie's Pizza. Steve's hard work and determination led him to become President of Hungry Howie's Pizza in 1981. He has been an officer and director of Hungry Howie's Distributing since its incorporation in 1986. Additionally, Steve owns and operates 12 pizza franchise locations in the metro Detroit area.

Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Fallon. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Email your pitch to Shannon Gausepohl at

Image Credit: Hungry Howie's