Building A Company Culture – One Case Study At A Time

By Inez Silva Reyes


It’s been 9 years since I left the corporate world to help Frank re-engineer, professionalize and grow the Reyes Barbecue business he created.

Today we are moving towards our 55th store, and I think that if you ask us the question  “how did you grow the business?, we can happily share some nuggets of wisdom.

For us, there is only one key lesson to share:

       “A business is not about the product, or the marketing campaigns, or the sales, or even the customers. For us, the business is about PEOPLE. The people in our organization.”

How did we learn this?

Here’s a thought. Businessmen typically say: “Hire good people and they will grow your business for you.” This was not true at all for us.

In my first three years of managing Reyes Barbecue, as Frank and I were building the organization, we would prioritize all applicants for the positions of store operation supervisors and managers if they had experience from the major fast food chains – Jollibee, Chowking, Greenwich. Because I had worked for Jollibee, I personally witnessed the high caliber of the organization and I expected that by hiring people from Jollibee and its sister companies, they would infect our organization with a strong performance culture.

Not only did this not happen, hiring people from the major fast food chains was a complete disaster for us. We aggressively opened new stores during this time, but the operations people we hired from the major fast food chains were ineffective: sales were low, standards were not being followed, morale declined, there were integrity problems, etc – eventually, these people we hired had to go, and we would start from zero again.

After 3 years of doing this, we concluded that people who came from big companies have great difficulty in adjusting to smaller companies and therefore will not be effective. So we changed our hiring strategy. We then hired from second level chains like Cravings, Congo Grill, Domino’s.

With this new crop of operations people from second level food chains, our sales and morale improved, but only temporarily, and still far from the levels we desired. After two years of this, our business situation became so bad we ended up closing a lot of stores.

Then suddenly, it was 2012 – the 10th anniversary of Frank’s founding and creating the Reyes Barbecue brand.

Realizing the significant occasion, plus the fact that with all our mistakes the business had actually reached ten years, Frank and I stopped, took a step back and started to think again. This time, we realized we needed to think about the FUTURE.

We recognized that while we had a business with a huge potential, we would not be here forever to manage it. So it dawned on us to ask ourselves two important questions:

  1. Who will manage our business 10 years from now?
  2. Who will manage our business 100 years from now?

It was these questions that forced us to think more deeply about PEOPLE – particularly, the next generation of Reyes Barbecue management. Our two sons were out of the question – ten years from now they would only be in their twenties, hardly qualified to manage an operation of our scale. Realizing this, more questions were now pouring into our minds:

  1. What are we doing wrong about hiring and deploying people? What do we need to change?
  2. What do we need to do to build a strong organization for the future?
  3. How do we build a strong organization for the future when today 90% of our people are only high school graduates?

We then decided that we needed to focus our attention and energies on ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT. So we took action on the basic organizational needs  : 1) immediately set up a Succession Planning Program; 2) re-organized and promoted the few good performers we had; and 3) re-engineered and improved our internal training programs. These moves were all well received by our people, and morale improved.

But so what if we had all these organizational programs? Is this it? Could we expect better performance from our people solely from these initiatives? Why do Starbucks employees perform so well, across the world, even when their bosses are not looking? Why do Uniqlo store staff across the world attend to their customers in the same energetic way without their bosses looking?

Then it hit us: we needed to do one more thing if we wanted to achieve the sales growth, organizational stability and consistency we aimed for: we needed to CREATE and BUILD a strong COMPANY CULTURE!

This realization in early 2013 that we needed to purposely create and build our own company culture gave us the “aha” breakthrough moment and pushed our minds to overdrive mode!

We were now very excited … So we asked ourselves another question: HOW do we create and build our own company culture? Facing a blank wall, the only thing we could do at this point was to research – by the way, we are avid readers so we enjoy research – we took a look at our library and reread the many books we had on building company cultures ; we went out and for weeks bought and read a lot of books on how organizations developed themselves or how entrepreneurs grew their businesses, hoping we would find some inspiration …

The more you read, the more ideas enter your mind, the more ideas in your mind, the more iterations happen in your mind, resulting to even more and better ideas … then slowly, but surely, the good ideas begin to get refined, enhanced, and suddenly, boom! The solutions just hit you.

Here are, what to us are, our GAME CHANGER IDEAS :

1st Big Idea : Stop Being Bosses. Instead, be TEACHERS.

We could not afford to hire topnotch executives to develop our people so we decided to stop being the bosses and instead take the role of TEACHERS in our organization.

But how would we “teach” culture? We remembered our MBA classes – the CASE METHOD was a more effective teaching method than pure lecture. So we decided to use CASE STUDIES as the method of teaching our people how to THINK, DECIDE AND ACT. We personally crafted our first case study and tried it out on our 6 operations heads. The response was very positive.

So in the first Monday of January 2014 we integrated a 3 hour Case Study Learning Module into our Monday Operations Review, during which all key operations people would be present. This was now a big group of 50 people – but again the response to the Case Study Learning Module was so positive that we made a personal commitment to create and teach a new case study to our key people every Monday of every week, January 1 to December 15 of every year without fail. (We are now on Year 4.)

The Case Studies we created were based on actual store issues – ex. anomalies, theft, insubordination, customer handling, leadership, etc. We spent time to carefully craft these so that our Case Studies were presented more as a story telling session, much like Jesus’ way of narrating the parables, but we packaged these in an “infotainment” style (ie “tele-serye” style), so that our people would be engaged and really listen as we discussed each case.

We would present the Case Study, then pose questions to the audience – the questions were actually an exercise for them in critical thinking and judgment – and we aimed to have the case solutions derived through the audience, through the discussions, through their own thinking  – NOT dictated on by the teacher-owners.

During these sessions we would have bowls with the names of everyone in attendance and draw these names randomly for each question. This way, everyone would have to be alert and listen – because you could be called to recite and think. Groups would be formed to meet and make on-the-spot presentations. Assignments were given and results shared in the following session. We would conduct our Case Study sessions in pretty much the same way teachers at universities would … Our aim was to create a culture within operations where leaders would think, decide and act correctly. To motivate our people, we would give tokens to recognize the best assignments and group presentations. Mondays then became our “Culture Building Day.”

From January 2014 up to the present we have created over 80 case studies, continuously conducted our Monday culture building sessions and we intend to do this in the company forever.

2nd Big Idea : Use Books As The Foundation Of The Company Culture. Their principles will be the company’s principles or “Commandments.”

Our thinking here was that rather than impose only our own personal values, beliefs and principles as the basis of our company culture, we decided to rely on selected books as our source of company “Commandments.”

We identified 5 books to be read by ALL leaders in Reyes   

Barbecue (from Operations, Head Office and Commissary):

  1. Good To Great by Stanford Professor Jim Collins
  2. Setting the Table by New York Restaurateur Danny Meyer
  3. Food Service for the Professional by David Mizer
  4. Rubies In The Orchard by Advertising Executive and Entrepreneur Lynda Resnick
  5. Man’s Search For Meaning by Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl

The working plan was for all RBnian leaders to read all 5 books.

  • One book a year
  • One chapter a month
  • Monthly workshop per chapter conducted by Owner –Teachers
  • Exams after every workshop – results included in the Performance Appraisal

I’m happy to tell you that as of this date (May 2017) we are now on the last few chapters of our third book (Mizer).

Aside from books, we summarized key principles from the selected academic and literary materials and included these as part of our “Commandments.”:

  1. Marks Of An Educated Man by Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Columbia University President Nicholas M. Butler
  2. Articles on Integrity by various authors
  3. Articles on Managing Up by various authors
  4. Articles on Total Quality Management by W. Edwards Deming, the leading world thinker on quality management

What is the connection or relationship between the Monday Case Studies and the reading of our 5 books and other articles ?

We establish this connection by strictly implementing this rule during the sessions : In solving the issues and answering the questions of the Monday Case Studies, ONLY the principles from the 5 books and the additional identified materials shall be used. No other opinions or principles are allowed.

Through the practice of this rule, we establish the mindset of “One Company. One Language. One Way of Doing Things.” Any new person in the organization is immediately advised to “Forget whatever you learned in your previous company culture as none of it will be applicable here.”

3rd Big Idea : Mentoring As A Key Metric For Performance

We believe that it is the company culture that binds the organization and sets it apart from other companies. The best way to ensure that the company culture is passed on from one generation to another is to institute the practice of mentoring down the line.

For us, “mentoring” means “teaching the person reporting to you, everything that you know about your job, and everything you learn from the Monday Case Study sessions.”

We promote people on the basis of how many and how well they mentor, and we discovered that with good mentoring, our internally developed high school graduates can be better store supervisors than college graduates with store experience learned from a different company culture. Our greatest satisfaction as Owner-Teachers is seeing our own students become teacher-mentors.

By persevering in our Monday culture-building sessions and constantly emphasizing the role of mentoring, , we have witnessed the steady transformation of the Operations organization into a smarter, more focused, more aggressive, more results driven one, whose members take pride in being a Reyes Barbecue “RBnian.”

We started our Monday culture building sessions in January 2014. That year we had a sales growth of 20%. For every year after that,  up to this year, 2017, we continue to have double digit sales growth rates.

Please note further that we achieved these sustained annual double-digit growth rates without tv advertising, without consumer promotions, without product discounts, without price increases, without offering unlimited rice or unlimited whatever, without increasing salaries across the board annually, without adding any benefits across the board. We achieved this by focusing on PEOPLE and CULTURE.

On the people side, anomalies like theft, absences and resignations were all significantly reduced, and company-wide morale has increased and has given the company stability.

While most companies like to claim that they treat and regard each other as part of a “Family,” we ask our people to see our company not as a family but as a “University” – where one needs to LOVE CONTINUOUS LEARNING, where one can pass or fail, graduate with honors or get kicked out – so to speak – depending on how much effort is put into studying and learning. For us it is critical to develop in the organization the attitude and mindset that loves continuous learning.

Because of the success of our culture building strategy, we now see the future for Reyes Barbecue as being very bright and exciting.

But beyond the business, we are even more pleased to see the improvement in our brand health, as monitored through our annual focus group discussion series among eat-out customers.

While we have always been noted for our good taste and quality, and are labeled as the “sosyal na barbecue,” for the first time in the 5 years we have been monitoring brand health, we now hear customers say two important things:

  1. “Kapag barbecue ang crave ko, sa Reyes ako.” 
    Meaning : we are the current standard for barbecue taste.
  2. “Consistent ang Reyes dahil may sistema sila. Pareho ang lasa at portion nila sa lahat ng stores – hindi gaya ng ibang brands.” 
    Meaning : we not only have high quality – our quality is reliable and consistent, which means we are a professionally run organization.

We consider this feedback as a positive acknowledgment of our taste and quality dependability, and we believe that our earning this reputation is a direct result of our consistent culture-building initiatives.

We are not saying that our culture is perfect, but we believe that it is strong. And we will continue to make it stronger.