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Call Him Coach

Mike Repole works smart and hard. “No matter how smart you are, the harder you work the smarter you get,” he says.

As the 42-year-old brand-builder for Glaceau enhanced waters, who now steers Energy Kitchen and Pirate Brands, Repole knows something about hard work. “There’s no 9 to 5. I have a BlackBerry and two cell phones. If you email me and I don’t answer within 12 hours, call the police. Something’s wrong.”

The son of a seamstress and a waiter, Repole grew up in Queens, N.Y., and was the first in his family to graduate from college. And his harder-smarter work ethic seems to have paid off.

Co-founding Glaceau in 1998, he saw the company’s annual sales grow from $100,000 to $935 million in 10 years. Coca-Cola bought Glaceau for $4.1 billion in 2007.

Two years ago, Repole became managing partner and majority owner in Energy Kitchen, a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants. In late 2010, the expanding chain had about 20 stores, 11 of them in Manhattan. Same-store sales increased 30 percent from 2009 to 2010. “But I want it to be 100 percent,” Repole says.

He’s also the No. 1 shareholder of Pirate Brands, maker of low-calorie, gluten-free snacks, and has operating control for two years. In 18 months ending in mid-2010, Pirate Brands’ sales increased from $50 million to $100 million.

Repole is intent on winning—literally. In addition to his health-related businesses, he’s one of the nation’s top-10 racing thoroughbred owners, recording 13 victories in 46 starts during the 2010 Saratoga meet.

In a recent interview, Repole shared his ingredients for brandbuilding with SUCCESS.

How do you evaluate a venture?
Mike Repole: I’ve always been a visionary and innovator. When you want substantial success, you need to be a trend starter. At the end of the day it’s about building a great brand and being a trend starter. Glaceau, Pirate Brands and Energy Kitchen all are trend starters.

What were the key steps in building Glaceau?
MR: Always start with a concept and vision: Where do you think consumers are going to go in the next 10 years? Enhanced water, vitaminwater—this is something I wanted to drink, that I liked, that my partner Anthony Leone liked.

You have to be flexible and nimble to evolve your plan. If you identify a mistake, you must learn from it and evolve. Big corporate America is too inflexible and can’t change to keep up. That’s a huge advantage to small companies.

How has your personality helped your success?
MR: My company is called “Driven Capital” and has nothing to do with cars. No. 1, I’m competitive—the most competitive person you’ll meet. I’m the biggest sore loser you’ll ever meet. I’m passionate, determined and committed. I also believe success is best when shared.

I plan to grow Pirate to $500 million in the next five years, from $100 million, where it is now. I want 1,000 Energy Kitchen stores in 10 years. If it’s 900 stores, it’s a loss.

When I hire, I tell people my goals. I look for people who are Type A, love playing on a team, who want professional and financial success. I don’t believe in hiring managers. I believe in hiring coaches who push people to levels they never dreamed they could go.

What’s your management style?
MR: I run my business ventures like a sports team. My dream jobs were general manager of the New York Mets or basketball coach for St. John’s…. I hire the best. In sports, the best free agents come up only once every five years. In business, free agents are available every day.

People don’ t leave our companies. They like being heard, having a voice. We have healthy debate from everybody. People aren’t afraid to express an opinion or disagree. No one gets shot down more than me. People feel very comfortable…. They have to check their egos at the door and hold no grudges. We put all the concepts and thoughts on the table and go with the best. Everyone must support the choice. Everyone feels like they add value, because they do.

My success comes from surrounding myself with smart people. I empower my people, let them make big decisions. It’s a confidence-booster.

What specifically attracted you to Energy Kitchen?
MR: I loved Energy Kitchen as a consumer in 2005, 2006, 2007. I loved that everything was steamed, grilled or baked, but I saw things I wanted to change. Some menu items were 680, 720 calories, and I wanted to get everything below 500 calories.

 

I wanted to change the colors, which were orange and blue—male gym-rat-centric. Women were afraid to come in. We have a creative look and feel now; we softened the colors. We went from 95 percent male to 60 percent female and 40 percent male. I also wanted all beverages to be low-calorie.

What’s your strategy in building Energy Kitchen?
MR: We’re building for the long term. I want our brand to be here 100 years from now, when I’m not. So I keep long-term goals in mind: It’s a marathon and not a sprint. You must give up short-term growth for long-term goals. Hire the best people. Pay the best people. Build the brand for the long term.

What attracted you to Pirate Brands? What have the challenges been?
MR: Energy Kitchen had 250 employees, and when we had a meeting, we wanted snacks and ordered Pirate’s Booty [the brand’s flagship snack]. Then a few minutes in, we’d have eaten it all and we’d send someone to get more.

[Pirate founder] Robert Ehrlich had kept it small. He’s still an owner with significant minority shares. I approached him and took it from five full-time people to 50. We focused on grocery, club and natural specialty food stores. We focus on moms—let them sample and let the kids try it. They like it, and Dad ends up eating it while he watches the game on TV.

When I purchased Pirate… 1 percent of consumers loved it and 99 percent didn’t even know it existed…. We have a grassroots marketing campaign. We do this with word-of-mouth and education— why it’s a healthier option [and] reading the labels.

What do you see yourself doing in five or 10 years?
MR: For me, the journey is better than the destination. I want to enjoy the ride and be building a great brand with great people.

When I sold Glaceau, my 600 employees who owned stock received from $10,000 to over $1 million. I want to do the same thing with Pirate and Energy Kitchen—make the employees investors so they don’t go to a job, so they feel ownership.

I have one little regret from Glaceau: I wish I had enjoyed the ride more. I went from age 29 to 39, and the time went by like 10 minutes.

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