As the familiar story goes, when he was just 17 and working behind the counter at an unknown little sub shop in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Peter Cancro approached his football coach and said, "Hey, coach, Mike's Sub shop is for sale, and I'm interested in buying it. Can you help me out?"

His coach, also a banker at the time, agreed and backed his $125,000 loan to buy Mike's Subs. Cancro walked the hallways of his high school as a 17-year-old business owner.

After adding more shops and expanding the cult-like phenomenon of Mike's Subs, Cancro's leadership instincts started to kick in. He began to teach his crew his passion for interacting and really getting to know the customer.

In 1987, he began franchising and changed the business name to Jersey Mike's Subs to capture the authenticity of where the sub sandwich was born.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Cancro is CEO of Jersey Mike's Franchise Systems, overseeing more than 1,500 locations in 45 states. Even as the top dog of a billion-dollar company, some things never change. Cancro still shows the same passion he had in his teens, often jumping behind the counter to test his skills and demonstrate superior customer service.

I got a chance to tap into what makes his leadership so effective in driving a billion-dollar empire. Here are four qualities he shared with me that leaders must possess around hiring, promoting, customer service, and developing the right company culture.  

Use your intuition when interviewing and hiring

Cancro is known for having an eye for career potential, with a history of recruiting waiters, cashiers, receptionists, caddies, busboys, etc., typically after one encounter, and making them successful senior-level executives for his company -- with zero corporate experience.

That got my curiosity, so I asked him what he looks for and how he knows someone will    be a fit after one encounter. Here's his response:

Look for energy, enthusiasm, and try to discern if they understand and are compatible with our giving culture as a company. Our mission statement "Giving ... Making a difference in someone's life"  is most important to us. The interaction of questions and general talking one-on-one with the prospective franchisee or employee helps us make the decision using our intuition.

This intuitive skill has links to high emotional intelligence. Research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Iowa College of Medicine found that "hunches" provide extremely valuable information, and how emotional Intelligence helps enhance this ability.

Cancro says, "You can line up 15 people in a room, I'd look at the group, and I'd say that one and that one. It's difficult to describe what I'm looking for. I've seen what works and what doesn't; it's a gut feeling I have.

Cancro says he can tell right away if someone's a good match just by the way they walk and how they slice meat and cheese. 

Find people's potential and coach them to become leaders

Cancro has a very servant leadership style of managing, which is evident by his approach to making the employee first. Here's Cancro emphasizing a servant leadership approach to turning his people into leaders:

I like to work with every person individually and spend time alongside each other, so that their potential abilities and talent can be recognized. It is important [for my leaders] to learn how to put others first before themselves. This is what develops the greatest leaders -- learning how to be a subservient leader. "What do you think?" or "What would you do?" is what I like to ask them to foster their independence and their own leadership style.

This "pull" method of coaching others to success and enabling them to achieve their own leadership skills is what Cancro says is the mark of a strong leader. 

Be yourself when serving your customers 

I asked Cancro his definition of customer service and how it translates into a clear competitive advantage. Here's what he said:

I have been working behind the counter, serving the public since I was 14 years old. I've always believed that the key to true customer service is by simply being yourself. Customers can tell right away if you are genuine and real. And if everyone on your team understands that and acts on it, you will have the best competitive advantage over others.

Give people a voice

I wanted specifically to know how Jersey Mike's is able to keep its turnover so low, for employees and franchisees alike, and I found much of it has to do with the company's inclusive culture. Here's Cancro:

When I first started working at Jersey Mike's, my voice mattered! It was clear to me right away that it was a family culture, that everyone raised each other up together. This is the most critical thing preached to all owners and employees, that they must commit to their people and treat them with respect in order to establish the family culture that is critical to our growth. Once people feel they are truly part of something, they will always stay with you.

Published on: Jun 21, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.