New Submarina Ceo Sees Value, Quality As Key To Growth

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mimi Zeller, the new CEO of restaurant franchise Submarina, isn't afraid to go the extra mile.

In 1990, when Zeller landed her first job as a franchise operations director at Domino's Pizza, her commute took her 110 miles up the California coastline ---- one way. She spent so much time talking on her cell phone that the resulting neck injury took 15 months of physical therapy to heal.

But the job taught her a skill that would define her career.

"I have to give Domino's a lot of credit," Zeller said. "That's really where I felt I learned franchising." On Aug. 24 the board of privately-held Submarina, Inc. named Zeller their new chief executive following a change of ownership at the company.

Lynn Lowder, the company's new chief operating officer, gave his boss high marks.

"Franchising is a different model; I'd say you have control, but you don't have total control," Lowder said. "You really have to work with positive leadership of the highest order if it's going to work." Lowder said Zeller's secret to success was a willingness to always reach out to franchisees, and keep an open-door policy no matter how big the company grows.

"It's so old-fashioned it's cutting-edge," he said.

Indeed, Zeller's hands-on approach has instituted a new tradition at Submarina: everyone from the CEO on down will learn how to make a sandwich, even if they only do it once.

Despite the recession, Submarina is slowly growing. The privately-held company says it made $20 million in sales last year, and $18 million the year before.

The company opened 18 stores in 2008, for a total of 63 stores nationwide.

When the national economic downturn hit, the company scrambled to develop a strategy to stay afloat, said Brian Kennedy, Submarina's developer for San Diego County.

Kennedy credits Zeller's philosophy of not cutting corners as a reason for the company's continued success.

"(We decided) we need to position ourselves to show the customer that we are a value, and they're getting quality for their value, as opposed to just hacking it all out, reducing their portions, or reducing the quality of our meats," he said.

Zeller grew up in the Midwest and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and marketing from the University of Kentucky. After five years working in marketing for a Michigan steel company, she saw an ad in the paper for Domino's Pizza, and was drawn in by an offer to travel.

"At the time I had no idea what franchising even was," Zeller said.

Zeller later moved to Los Angeles and worked her way up to overseeing 725 stores in 8 western states. Later, after moving to the San Diego area, Zeller eventually ended up consulting for Submarina before moving on to Mailboxes, Etc.

Zeller retired in 2001, but came out of retirement in 2006 to serve as Submarina's chief operating officer. She became president in 2007.

Today Zeller lives in Rancho Bernardo with her son, Patrick, 14, and her husband, Dave, who owns a consumer lending business. Her daughter Lora, 20, is a senior at the University of San Diego.

"We're really excited because we have a partnership with Darren Sproles right now," Zeller said. "He actually approached us because he eats our product all the time." "There's a lot of similarities between Submarina and him because we've always been the underdog and the little guy," she said. "He's the smallest player in the NFL and had people all his life telling him, 'you can't do it because you're so small. You can't do it, you'll never make it in the NFL' and he did." "And we feel like we're the same; like we're going to make it, too," Zeller said.

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100 E. San Marcos Boulevard, #340
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