From Football to Franchising: Don Davey Scores With Firehouse Subs

There are few things that can prepare someone to become a successful franchisee. For Don Davey, franchisee of multiple Firehouse Sub locations, playing nine seasons of professional football in the National Football league was it.

Davey, former Defensive Tackle for the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars, has learned that hard work and well thought out game plans can help to achieve success in both football and the world of business. “Football is a great microcosm for life.  It teaches you how to handle both highs and lows, take coaching, be a good teammate, hold yourself accountable, be disciplined, and work hard,” he says.

Davey grew up in Manitowoc, WI, a 30-minute drive from Green Bay. In 1986 he headed to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin where he received a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering. During this time Davey was also a four-year starter for the University Badger football team, earning both All-Big Ten and All American honors as a defensive lineman. After graduating Davey, a self-proclaimed numbers geek, launched his own investment advisory firm. This endeavor taught him to read balance sheets and crunch numbers, a skill that would later be useful in analyzing business models. In 1991 Davey was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Rookie Draft, and in 1995 he was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Over the course of his NFL career Davey used his business skills to manage his own finances, and those of fellow athletes.

Davey’s introduction to Firehouse Subs happened while playing in a charity golf tournament organized by the Jaguars football team, Partnered with Robin Sorensen, co-founder of Firehouse Subs, the pair hit it off instantly, finding commonalities in marrying their high school sweethearts and their children. It wasn’t long before Robin shared the story and his vision of Firehouse Subs. Headquartered in Jacksonville where both Robin and co-founder/brother Chris grew up, the brothers opened their first location here in 1994.

Retiring from football in 1999, Davey turned his focus to Firehouse Subs. Through keeping in contact with the Sorensens Davey learned the company was beginning to franchise. “I started digging into the Firehouse business model I realized it was a great concept that I wanted to get involved in,” he says. Getting approval to bring the concept to Orlando, a franchise development agreement was set in motion and in 2003 Davey opened five restaurants.

Once Davey decided to join the franchise industry, he realized much like football, the key to success was having the right team in place. Fortunately for him, his friend Scott Anthony, former director of training for the Orlando Hospitality Institute, was also seeking a new opportunity. Bringing Anthony to Jacksonville, Davey introduced him to the Sorensens and their concept. Anthony quickly fell in love with the company and the pair formed a partnership. Today Anthony runs the full time operations in Orlando, while Davey manages the business office in Jacksonville.

Before opening his own locations Davey insisted on learning the nuts and bolts of how the business operated. Being a hands-on guy, he asked the Sorensens if he could work at a location near his daughter’s school. Agreeing to this, Davey spent six weeks working in a restaurant learning inventory, food handling, cash register management, and ordering. Feeling comfortable with the business model, Davey then attended the two-week training program Firehouse Subs requires franchisees to complete.

In 2003 he opened his first location in Mariner’s Village on the east side of Orlando; this year marks the tenth anniversary of the restaurant. Davey has since opened 13 Firehouse Subs in South Florida, and two in Wisconsin. He also has two grand openings set to take place in the next few weeks, one in Lake Buena Vista Orlando, FL, and the other in Madison, WI.

Of Davey’s Firehouse Sub locations, the smallest, an 800 sq ft space, is set in the Mall of Millenia with a shared dining space, while the largest, an area developer restaurant in Wisconsin, spans 3,400 sq ft. This location serves as a training restaurant for the entire state. “I wanted a big marquee store that would help sell franchises, train franchisees, and be the catering hub for our restaurants in Madison,” says Davey, adding that since opening this location last February six new restaurants have opened in Wisconsin and the interest generated has been significant.

The major selling point of Firehouse Subs for Davey was the product. “From the first day I tried it I fell in love with the food, the service, and the atmosphere,” he says. “People always say to do what you love and I fell in love with the brand, the founders, the company, and the business model; but at the heart of it all is the food.”

The ongoing support Firehouse Subs offers their franchisees also caught Davey’s attention. Introduced to area representatives Mike Kelly and Richard Taylor, the two have assisted Davey whenever necessary. “As local franchisees themselves, they deal with the same issues, products and pricing structure as we do. So when we have problems or questions we can go to them and get all the help we need,” explains Davey, adding that they were hugely instrumental in their initial success and how it’s been great to have them to lean on over the years.

While a balanced lifestyle can be difficult for business owners, Davey seems to have figured one out, but admits there is never really a time when he’s completely clocked out. “The difference between owning your own business and having a job is that your business is never not on your mind. As a business owner I’m never without my cell phone or laptop, because ultimately all responsibility falls on me, so I need to be able to solve problems whenever they may come up.”

As with any company, challenges can be unpredictable and hard to navigate. Looking back Davey remembers the recession in 2008-2009 and how he managed the ups and downs. “We’ve had some great times and some not so great times, you have to be level headed.  Just like with football, you can’t get too high when things are great, you can’t get too down when things are bad. We know we got a great product with raving fans that absolutely love us and in the long run we’ll be fine,” he says, adding this has been true throughout his ten years with Firehouse Subs.

Achieving such success with partner Anthony, Davey offers advice to those interested in franchising with a partner. “Do not make the mistake of partnering with someone who has the same skill set as you.  It will leave you with a gaping hole in areas where you are both weak,” he says. In their partnership Davey is great with number crunching, site selection, and lease negotiations, whereas Anthony excels in motivating their team, coaching, and day to day operations.

Recommending Firehouse Subs to all potential franchisees, Davey has turned several current and retiring athletes onto Firehouse Subs, creating a potential second career for them when they retire from the NFL. “I can’t say enough about our brand and our product. The company, still family owned, is a genuine, authentic story. Robin and Chris are both third generation firefighters in their family. It’s authentic, it’s the real deal and I’m very proud to be a part of this family.”

Happy with how things have and are continuing to develop, Davey’s most rewarding moment was reaching his long-term goal of introducing the beloved company to his home state of Wisconsin. “We are the largest franchisee in the Firehouse Subs system, and we’re very proud of that. We’ve done things right from day one and we treat our team very fairly. We have several employees who have been with us for ten years now and that’s very rare in our industry.”

Today, with a bright outlook on the future and his mind always on his family of five daughters, Davey is already thinking ahead. “Hopefully one of them [his daughters] will want to get involved with the business and help me run things. I would love for our company to survive into the next generation,” he says.

While entering the world of franchising has required a lot of hard work, Davey quickly states he’s had it easy compared to others. “My wife Kristen has her hands full juggling our five daughters.  My job is a lot easier than hers, that’s for sure,” he says with a laugh.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          -Jessica Spoto

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