As he joined Belk College of Business Interim Dean Dolly King on stage for a C-Suite Speaker Series chat at UNC Charlotte, Bojangles President and CEO Jose Armario asked the student audience what time it was.
“It’s Bo Time!” students called back with the familiar Bojangles slogan, setting the mood for a candid, wide-ranging conversation on Oct. 3. The speaker series, in its eighth year, offers the opportunity for Belk College students to connect with influential business leaders.
Armario revealed lessons that have guided him throughout his 40-year career in leadership roles with companies including Bojangles, Burger King, LensCrafters and McDonald’s. One important learning came from his earliest experiences as a teenager working at fast food restaurants.
“If you want to move ahead, you have to first do your job really well,” he told the students. “Then you have permission to talk about how to keep moving forward. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, your boss is likely going to tell you they don’t see (advancement) in the cards for you yet.”
Armario realized early-on that he needed to think one step ahead and to seek tasks and jobs that others might not want to do. “I always try to think to myself, what do I need to do to be ready for the next role,” he said.
Find the right fit
Armario encouraged students to pursue careers that motivate them.
“I think that matters,” he said. “Even in its hardest moments — and trust me, running a restaurant is not easy, it is very, very difficult — but I loved it, and I didn't feel like I was going to work.”
A good match between employees and organizations is essential, he said.
"You typically know if you fit or not; you typically know if the culture is the right culture for you. And if it’s not, you probably want to continue to look for that right fit and that right culture (and) companies that align with your values, that align with your beliefs and that align with your inner self."
Collaborate with others
As his leadership roles expanded, he found he could not be successful on his own.
“I eventually was given many opportunities of responsibility, and I also learned you better surround yourself with really good people,” he said. “You learn quickly when you start getting responsibility that you can’t do it all by yourself.”
Focusing on people has proven essential at Bojangles, which Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas founded in Charlotte in 1977. As Armario describes it, the founders created a culture embedded in excellence and in what he now describes as “good food fast,” not fast food.
The current Bojangles' culture honors the founders' legacy, even as the company moves forward in today's world.
“We still believe that excellence comes from great people and a culture of hiring, training, developing and motivating great people, great franchisees, great suppliers that all believe in the same thing,” Armario said. “Our culture is about excellence.”
Face challenges with flexibility
Shortly after Armario was recruited in 2019 to build the Bojangles company into a national brand, COVID-19 changed the dynamics.
“Our biggest challenges centered around labor and just keeping our doors open during COVID,” he said. “But it turned out to be a good year for us. We were fortunate because almost all of our restaurants, with the exception of airports and universities, have drive-throughs.”
Pre-pandemic, they were already determined to improve three Ds: drive-throughs, dinner and delivery. As pandemic challenges first arose in March 2020, they realized that all three of their strategies could offer competitive advantages.
They had planned to launch delivery services in September 2020, but the emerging pandemic in March accelerated their plans. “We dropped everything because we knew that was going to be critical, and in April we launched delivery,” he said. “Literally in weeks we launched the platform.”
They have continued to advance their innovations, particularly through the use of data. “You have to have the right sort of flexibility in everything you do in today’s world to be nimble and innovative and quick, but listen to your customers,” he said.
Embrace your inner CEO
No matter the level of their jobs, people are responsible for themselves and influential on those around them, Armario said.
“In a lot of ways whether you’re running a small area of responsibility or are in a global role, you are kind of the CEO of those responsibilities,” he said. “You may not have the title, but you’re functioning in a lot of the same ways around building a team and organizing your time and going after results.”
Defining what success looks like, and figuring out how to attain those goals, is essential.
“The definition of success for us is to find ways to grow the brand outside of our current footprint, to become what we like to say is a national powerhouse brand,” he said of Bojangles. His greatest responsibilities are to build a strong team and a strategy to achieve the goals that will deliver shareholder value.
“Whether you’re a private or a public company, there are investors, and you have to help them get a return on their investment,” he said. “That’s the nature of business, at the end of the day.” The core leadership team also works hard to make sure franchisees have the tools, support and advice they need to grow successfully.
Armario, employees and franchisees are connected with their local communities, and the Bojangles Foundation Fund was established in July 2022, supporting areas including literacy efforts and military appreciation.
“For any business, customers give you a lot,” he said. “I think you have a responsibility to give back to the customers. They’re loyal to you. Everywhere we do business we believe that it’s part of our DNA that we should be part of the communities we serve.”
For Armario personally, he hopes his legacy will be seen as one of paying it forward. “I hope that people will say that Jose gave back as much as he received,” he said.