Legends in Leadership Episode 29: Adam Alfia

Welcome to legends in leadership brought to you by ISF and the Carrington group. Legends in leadership is an inspirational podcast featuring the stories of leaders who are making a difference. Our goal is to inspire you with the stories of leaders who come from humble beginnings, overcome challenges, and ultimately rise up to make a difference in people’s lives.
Hello, welcome to legends and leadership. This is Jason Smith, your host today and family officer with the Carrington group, joined by my co-host, Carl Watkins, also a family officer and partner with me at the Carrington group. How’s it going? Well, each week we kick off our show with our leadership trivia question. And for this week, Cole is going to take the helm and tell us about a famous leader and caught what do you have for us today?
Yeah, it’s a good one. So today’s legendary leader started out as a child of Cherokee Nation wandered his way through Argentina, South Africa and Australia before launching a career in America that ranged from the Ziegfeld Follies stage in New York to becoming an iconic star of Hollywood’s big screen. His Wit and Wisdom captivated people from all walks of life with a commentary on politics and American culture that made him the most quotable cowboy that Oklahoma ever produced. He is a friend and frequent critic of several presidents, and HL Mencken called him the most dangerous man alive because the power his comments had on his adoring public, who is this legendary leader? I’ll be back at the close of today’s show. Yeah.
All right. I’m excited to have our guests today Adam Alfia. On this episode, we are continuing to interview the honorees of the Dallas Business Journal top 100 entrepreneurs. Adam is managing director of MyStar, Maestro Avenue Entertainment Group, and most recently, the founder of the feedback app. The majority of his business ventures are in either the hospitality industry or involve the enhancement of the customer experience, from allowing you to leave discrete real time feedback to business owners and managers with the feedback app to my star which offers personal assistance programs for automotive companies such as Infiniti, Nissan, Subaru, and Mitsubishi. Maestro offers concierge services to AARP vacation programs and the medical industry. He is one of the founding owners of several successful concepts that says shell shack, playground theory nightclub TXR landmark and the art. So welcome to the show. Adam. Thanks for Thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me. Good morning.
So a lot of lot of experience in the hospitality space. And we kind of like to start each show with rewinding the tape a little bit and tell us how you became interested in the hospitality industries.
Well, when I when I was still in, at SMU, I was very interested in cars. I opened up a mechanic repair shop when I was still in school and slowly grew those into four locations. If you’re going to be in any consumer driven business, auto repair is one of the worst ones. I mean, everybody you know what if you if you ask people who you know who’s at least trust me, trusted person out there, Auto mechanics are probably way up there. So I, you know, we decide to do things a little different, where we’re honest with the customer, and we had a huge following. We had four locations here and in the Dallas Fort Worth area. And I sold those in 2005 and wanted to get him something new. And at the time, I was finding myself going from, you know, from store to store and needed a personal assistant to help me out. And when I looked for a fractional type of personal assistant service where you know, somebody, I can just call up say, hey, I need XYZ, I found that most of them were overseas, you couldn’t really hire a company here or person here that will just do Hey, I’ll charge you by the hour for whatever it is you need. So when I sold, I looked for somebody else to do and I decided to open up a call center that catered to high end individuals who needed a personal system but not full time. Okay. And that was, you know, once we started getting a lot of we had a lot of financial planners and attorneys people that were always on the go that hired us, we started giving our services to companies who gave it to their employees as a benefit of working at that company. And then it migrated into Can you give this to our customers? Okay, that was kind of like the lightbulb moment where, you know, it occurred to me that if a company gave their customers a elevated type of personal assistant service concierge service to help them with anything they needed, not just what that business was interested in, and then branded that service to that to their company. It would really have Big loyalty play? So we started going my, my background was automotive. I knew a lot of car dealerships in the area. So we started marketing. The service called MyStar to local dealerships. And we started having we had a really good response to customers. dealerships used to started giving away their dealership branded personal assistant concierge service to the customer every time they bought a car. Okay, so it was a really cool, really good service. And we caught the eye of infinity. In 2009, they called us and said, hey, you know, we have a bunch, we had a bunch of infinity stores, and we got brought up at the, the dealers meeting said, Hey, we have this really cool product that customers love. So in 2010, infinity launched infinity Personal System. And we’ve been with them ever since we’re in every infinity, if you push a button in the car, you reach our call center, here in Dallas. So since then, now we’re launching Nissan, we started two months ago, we launched Subaru last year, Mitsubishi A year and a half ago, we’ve got about two or three other manufacturers are going to use our services here coming up in the next two, three years. So that’s, that was my foray into the hospitality and you know, customer experience and stuff like that. And in 2011, I opened up a bar nightclub, my first one here and uptown in McKinney. With my cousin, I was single at the time. Seemed like a cool thing to do, right?
Often, like you get to a certain point in life. And almost inevitably, someone says, Hey, we should open a bar. Yeah, I mean, we talked about when we go to go out all the time, and especially in Dallas, where there’s not a lot of nightclubs, okay. And if you don’t know anybody, you’re standing in line. And we used to joke, oh, man feel in our place, that’d be really cool. And then one came available for sale. And we looked at each other said, I’ll put up the money, you run the deal, and we’ll do it. And now we’ve got five concepts here in Dallas and Fort Worth. And that we also part at part of the when I bought the nightclub, it also came with a restaurant. And I met some some guys, two great guys, Dallas and Matt, that learn how to bowl crab. And we got together said, hey, when we open up a crab restaurant, I’ve got the space right on, you know, McKinney Avenue. So we opened up the first shell shack, I want to say 2014, maybe. And now we have eight locations. Right? So kind of weird how life takes you down certain paths. And I would have never thought if you had a million years that I’d be you know known or in a in a crab restaurant. Here we are.
So your entrepreneurial journeys, you’re starting back in college, I’m curious, what was the sort of mentorship or motivation? Or who did you look up to, to sort of learn what it is to be a business owner and that entrepreneurial effort? It’s fine, because I actually took, you know, took business in SMU. And looking back, there was a lot of things I had to unlearn that they teach you at school that you never if you did it, you know, the way they do it. They don’t teach you about negotiating and, you know, property taxes and right and it was when I opened up my first location that I actually built from the ground up, I got a property tax bill and I had no idea what it was. I mean, I hadn’t I’ve never paid property tax before. And I go, I’ll pay it later, it turned out to come back as property taxes, the only tax you can negotiate, and ended up costing me instead of paying $50,000 I think after all the fees and everything that I think it was 110 Oh, wow. So you know, it was less than less than Yeah, so if, you know, they, they didn’t teach you anything in college, about lawsuits, you know, rights as a business owner, how to file certain things, a lot of things that, you know, I had to learn on my own. But as far as, you know, he wasn’t on the stage yet, then but people like Elon Musk that wake up in the morning, so I have an idea. And do it are the kind of people that I really look up to where it’s, you know, a lot of people when they you know, they have ideas, but you know, the difference is they don’t really, a lot of them are good ideas. I hear ideas all the time people come to me and I go ahead and go that’s a great idea. But you know, just, you know, they keep on doing what they’re used to doing. And they you know, don’t take the you know, Leap of Faith forward and it’s a shame because we’d have a lot more great products if people just you know, pursue their dreams a little bit more. Yeah, and actually execute. Yeah, vision. Well, I mean that like for example, when I was starting my auto repair shops, I actually went to the head of the entrepreneurship program. I went to the head of entrepreneur and I already had my auto repair. Shop over here. enabled road. It was just four days. And I wanted my vision was to open up like a huge facility that competed with the dealerships. And I want him to go, Look, here’s my idea. Here’s my business plan, and he goes, Oh, nobody will ever lend you money on that. Because I needed about one and a half million dollars to buy the land build. So coincidentally, I was sitting with my cousin one day, and he goes, You know, I have a buddy that works for an SBA approved lending company. Yeah. Because he looked at the SBA ago, I don’t even know what the SBA was. I mean, my professor didn’t tell me why. So I went applied it within 3 4 5 days, I had an approval for $1.4 million. Where’s this guy when I need him? Yeah, so I’m supposed to be an entrepreneurship program. Yeah, you know, you know, the advice that I was looking for, I mean, because I left, I was really disheartened after I talked to my professor, he goes, you know, nobody’s going to lend you money on that. But I got it. Now, the SBA is gives smaller loans than they used to back this was in 98, when I got my first SBA loan, but nothing now they cap it at a certain amount, but back then it was, you know, they were giving if you had a good idea, and you hadn’t, you know, if we had collateral of the business and land and all that you were already operational at that point, this was expansion capital, this wasn’t just an idea. Yeah.
But still, I mean, I think a lot of people don’t know, all the avenues that are, you know, that the government helps you with so far as wanting to, you know, start a new business, etc. And I think, you know, people are afraid to take that leap, because it is hard, but it is a lot of, you know, roadblocks, you know, when it comes to opening up a new venture, especially something that nobody’s done before, because now you’re building an industry from the ground up,
right? So how do you decide the ideas that come to mind? Or come across your desk? Do you have a process to decide if that’s something worth pursuing? Or not? Is it more of a feel type of approach you take?
Well, I’m very hands on so my first consideration is how much bandwidth I would have to put into the project in order to make it work. Also, like feedback for example, my newest project is more of a labor of love. Because I’m a huge customer service nut and I think that customer service in the US is dwindling, people don’t care anymore the generation that we have now growing up you know, especially you know, learning how to how they communicate via text and not face to face, I think is a dying art. And I see people especially in you know I’m in the hospitality industry and restaurants for example, we see this new breed of waiter we know that a waiter position, you know, used to have where, you know, they’re really skilled they can read your face if you’re unhappy with something they come up as everything okay? But now they’re so oblivious to facial expressions and mannerisms I go you can clearly see that I’m unhappy. Why would you not walk up and you know, you’re you know, that’s what you do for a living and say, Hey, I see that you’re unhappy with your meal or if I ate half my plate and pushed it away you need to find these people don’t have the cues that the use to anymore yeah, have you know and I think it’s a huge part is you know, face to face interaction. You know, my kids now you know, they don’t call me they send me a text right? Sometimes I find myself back and forth they just call me one minute conversation instead of 15 minute texts back and forth so
so how does the feedback app look to help improve that deficiencies that you’re that you’re seeing growing in the market?
So whenever I’m in a retail store, you know I’m always my antennas always up I’m always looking around I see you know, employees on their cell phones. I see you know, lack of customer attention you know, I’ll go to Home Depot for example and I’m walking around for 10 minutes I go somebody just please help me I got a question and you know, you know, you’re not, When you walk up to an employee and go hey, I’m looking for this instead of go yeah, let me take you over there. Let me show you what is it okay yeah, it’s doing miles three miles that way to over the go. And I’m walking around I mean, just walk me over you’re not doing anything. Right so paid to do this. Yeah. So I believe that customer attention customer experience is dying. And actually, I was at a Walmart when I had you know, the light bulb moment for If only there was an app, there was a situation where I went in with my kids, we just bought a puppy and we got them home. It was like 11 o’clock at night by the time you know, Okay, it’s time to go to bed go I forgot I got to have a kennel. So we all my son and I went to a Walmart bought one of the huge kennels because it’s going to be it was going to be a big dog. And we were going through this the only thing that opened was a self-checkout lane. And it was a candle that was in a box but it was really hard to get through the scanner. I asked the girl and we had like, you know, seven or eight items in the car, you know bought them some toys, etc. Some food? Oh, you know, we can’t scan you up here because they have little you know, the front of the checkout has their own zone count terminal. She goes well, we can’t help you. If you have more than five items and go like a why and she goes that’s just the rules. I go okay, so we struggle we finally got everything scanned as When we’re leaving, I saw that she wasn’t there with another girl there they switched out against. So I asked the girl, I said, the girl that was here before said that I can only scan five, you can only help me with five if she goes outside. That’s not true. Okay, I go, Well, that’s what she goes, yeah, she’s lazy. So we were walking out, I saw the girl on her phone. So I walked up to her and I go, I’m going to talk, I’m going to tell your manager about the experience I had. And I took her picture name on her on her badge. And the next day, I had my personal assistant service, I called them up, send them a picture, I said, get the manager on the phone from Walmart, I want to tell them the experience I had. And it was a process. I mean, they had to call the store. And finally, you know, coordinate the time when he’s going to be there. Finally, we got him on the phone. And I told him the situation, he goes, Do you have her name, I go not only have her name ever picture. He goes, Man, if if it was only this easy when I can get information from customers about wish everybody told me when they had an employee that wasn’t doing what they’re supposed to. And I said, if there was an app out there, that no matter what business I was at, I could tell them what I’m having experience with. And in real time, that would send that to the manager of the store or designated employee, that would take care of it. I think that would go a long way for customers to be able to voice their opinion sure about that. In real time, not I’ve left and now I go on Yelp and say, hey, they got terrible customer experience, because then that doesn’t help my position. All it does is hurt the business, right. And businesses, most business owners want to know, especially small business owners, they want to know. And a lot of times managers or employees at the store, you can walk up to them go, Hey, your bathroom is out of toilet paper, they won’t do anything, they just go back to whatever it is that they’re doing. And nobody ever done my job. And so I think, you know, an app like feedback that lets the people that need to know, know, in real time what their customers are experiencing and interface with that customer. Because as a chat feature. So if I’m somewhere and I have an issue, and I tell that manager can now have conversation with me and take care of take care of me right then no.
So with client experience, so important to a lot of the stuff that you’re involved with, how do you create that culture internally, to where that’s so vitally important, maybe from the top down, but how do you, as a leader, instill that culture?
Well, you, you know, we have a very rigorous training, hiring and training process and our call center. So we probably turn away 90% of applicants, we, you know, a lot of people apply that have call center experience, and we don’t want constant call center experience we want, right? We want life experience. Yeah, learn how to deal with customers, because you can, you know, I get on the phone, I make calls customer service every once in a while, whether it’s your credit card company, or Home Depot, or whatever it is. And as soon as that person gets on the phone, you automatically know what kind of experience you’re about to have. Just based on the sway they say hello, exactly. Because you know, you can tell where they want to help you or if they really liked their job, just from their voice. And we do have quality control that all they do is listen, does that employee want to be there today? And can a customer tell? And we can hear you can tell. And that’s what we care about is when that customer gets off the phone with us. I want you to go wow, that was a really nice experience. Now granted, people most of the time, don’t call us to complain when they call for a concierge say, hey, I need help getting into a restaurant or hey, my wife’s anniversary, you know, can you plan something fun? So they’re calling up for they’re not calling to complain. But still we want when people get off the phone to say that was one of the best customer experiences I’ve ever had. And that’s what we strive for. And you just got to find the right people?
Now Do you find that the market’s expectations have changed as well? Or do you? Do you still find people are hungry for that experience? And are they just becoming callous to feel like oh, this, I guess this just is the way it is? Or lower bar? Yeah, I can get the feedback app help bridge that gap as well.
Yeah, it should. Because you know, one of the things that drives me crazy is waiting. We have we have eight restaurants now. And when I read the Yelp review, sometimes, you know I’ll call the manager or call my business partner. Hey, what happened here? And the number one answer always is the customer didn’t tell us. So customer could have had a bad experience. But people are so opposed to face to face confrontation now that you don’t see a lot of customers raising their hand and saying can I speak to the manager? Oh, this is unacceptable. They just leave. They don’t come back. They might tell some friends. Hey, don’t go over there. And worse is they put something online?
Yeah, they rip into you online where you have no opportunity to engage them and try to resolve it. Right. So if I think if customers because nobody walks into an establishment, especially restaurants and says I want to have a bad experience Sure. walk in and they say I want to pay money and I want to get good value for my money. And if that transaction doesn’t transpire, if you’re not getting value for your money, you won’t come back but me as a business owner, I want you to tell me though, if you’re sitting down. If there’s anything that’s not to perfection, if you say that, you know, the food came out cold or whatever it is, don’t grin and bear it, raise your hand, especially now if you have an app, and we advertise it on the tables, if there’s anything that’s less than perfect with your experience, let us know. And we’ll respond in real time. That’s great. So I think customers, once they know that they have a voice, especially talking to the manager, like if you walked into a restaurant, he said, here’s the owner cell phone number, if there’s any problems, call them. Now, obviously, we don’t want to give and that’s part of the reason for the app is most managers don’t want the customer to have their personal cell phone number. So that’s where the disconnect is. And I think that the feedback app, you know, bridges that gap.
So how do you manage employees and those opportunities? So obviously, the first time something happens, it’s an opportunity for coaching to help them become better. What does that sort of approach like for you, when you’re trying to coach someone up through and through a learning experience?
Well, I think that one of the problems is that employees, especially in hospitality, that has hospitality industry, know that customers either A, don’t know their name, B, won’t complain directly about them. And that it really doesn’t affect their paycheck at the end, okay. But if I’m, if I’m an employee, and it has on the table, that at anytime I the customer can complain directly to the manager and say, Hey, I’m, you know, sitting at table 12, and services horrible. Me as that waiter, I’m probably going to do a better job. Sure, knowing now that there’s a button of sorts that anybody can push and call me out for having that service. But very few people complain, they just go to restaurants, I had a terrible experience. And the owner, when you look at it, he can identify the, the waiter, or what happened, it was, usually by the time the restaurant finds out about it, you know, two or three days have passed. Sure. Now they’re doing everything and they’re throwing everything at you to, you know, to either a remove their post and be comeback because it’s not really having the post as much as you know, I just lost a customer who’s now made their experience vocal. Right. And you know, it’s out there, right. And Yelp, for example, loves negative reviews. If you have, if you have negative reviews, a lot of times they float to the top, rather than the good. We know a great experience, great experience. That was all, a lot of times stay at the bottom unless you sort it by good experience. Interesting.
Yeah, yeah, I actually heard something on another podcast that talked about Yelp in, the longer the response, the more negative it is. And so it’s interesting, because if it’s positive, it’s like, this is great, this is fantastic, wonderful. But people will go on, and they’ll give one stores to multiple different places, because they just like to complain. And they’ll write a thesis about it.
Yeah, there’s only so many things you can say about a positive experience. But there’s a lot of things to say about it, because you have the details. Now, whenever somebody has a you know, negative experience, you have details of what, you know, pissed you off, right? So now you want people to know about it. But if I could just have a conversation with the manager, and the manager comes over, he goes, Hey, I’m sorry, that was the meals on me. Next time you come, you know, come see me. And I’ll make sure you have a better experience. That to me goes a long way compared to, I’m just going to leave and not come back.
So there’s not a public facing piece to the feedback app, then it’s all internal. And it really just meant to create an opportunity to resolve rather than just publicly shamed.
Our slogan is actually give them help before the Yelp, okay, so you want to take care of that problem before it becomes you know, a situation where they leave and come back or gets put on, you know, on one of the public sites, Google, Facebook, etc. And, you know, one of the great things is, is after somebody, somebody’s situation is resolved, the manager, whoever has the app on the business side can send them a link to give them a positive review. So not only diverting a bad review, hopefully, once you resolve it, you can now turn it into a positive review.
So what’s your vision for the feedback app? We’ve talked a bit about restaurants, but what’s the grand vision for where this can help improve the industry as a whole?
Well, I mean, it’s not just restaurants. So you know, we’re going to utilize our call center. So if you actually walk into a Walmart or Home Depot, any type of business, and you have an issue and you open up your app, it shows you where you are, let’s say you’re at Home Depot, I’m okay. I’m at Home Depot, and you put your response, if that business is not on feedback, because a business has to register with feedback, and you know, say, Okay, here’s John, here’s bill, they’re going to be the ones managing the, you know, the feedback messages coming in. If they’re not on that the call center, my call center actually gets a real time pop on their screen. And then an agent will pick up the phone, call that Home Depot, get a manager on the phone and say I’ve got a customer, you’ve got a customer they’re on site right now. That’s having an issue. Here’s your issue. Can I conference them in and get the two on the phone. So now, no matter what store I’m in whatever business I’m in, I can now have a direct feedback loop to that business.
That’s great. And so do users of the feedback app pay a monthly fee? to participate and to have that in their pocket? Or is it mostly monetized through the business? Business side,
right? So users never pay? Okay? We are right now we’re just launching it and putting it in different businesses absolutely free. And then we’re going to monetize it, where it’s going to be $50 a month, for any, for any business to have that in their store. No coach is very inexpensive, you know, one customer, you know, one customer experience is going to pay for that. Right. Right. Fantastic. Well, we like to wrap up the show with asking our guests about a particular leadership nugget of information. So maybe it came from a book or another podcast or a conference, but just a leadership nugget for our audience that’s helped you progress as you have to find the success that you’ve experienced.
You know, not to quote, Nike. But one of the things that, you know, I think I brought this up in the beginning is just do it if you have an idea that you’re passionate about. Just do it, you know, you’ve it’s on the side, you know, you have if you only if you work 40 hours a week, there’s still a bunch of hours during your weekends to start the project. You know, the first thing you need is my, one of my business partners always says the first thing you need is a customer, nothing happens. So put your friends and family and see if it’s a viable business, if they’re willing to pay for it, and then pursue it. I mean, you know, nobody wants to work, you know, for a company all their life and, you know, retire with a pension, you know, people want people want to pursue their dreams. And if you have a good idea, you know, run after it as hard as you can. Yeah.
Yeah. Well, Adam, thanks again for joining us on the show today. Really appreciate your insights. And how can folks, check out the feedback app?
Feedbackapp.com. Okay, perfect. All right. Awesome.
Well, Kyle, we’re going to turn it back over to you for our leadership trivia answer.
Yes. He never met a man he didn’t like. I don’t know if you if either you have a guess or not. Is the second favorite son of Oklahoma, obviously. Well, Rogers.
Oh, wow. Wow, I didn’t I did not realize he was a Cherokee background. Yeah. Great. Well, folks, that’s a wrap for our podcast today. On behalf of our guests and my co-host, Kyle. Want to remind you that If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more than you are a leader.
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