Originally published in Black Enterprise. Republished with their permission.
Growing up, if you had told Robert Pyles, one of nine children raised by a single mother in a small town outside of Anniston, Alabama, that he would own multiple McDonald’s locations, he probably would have chuckled. While he knew service was his calling, restaurant ownership wasn’t at the top of his mind. Forward years later; he now owns 12 McDonald’s franchises in Wisconsin and is one of the largest African American employers in that state.
HOW IT ALL CAME BE
Pyles’ early life had some rough spots. His oldest brother passed away at the age of 18, so he grew up feeling the responsibility of the household was on his shoulders. When he turned 18, his mother became his dependent.
After high school, he went into the Air Force serving for 15 years and living in Korea, North Dakota, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was in Wyoming that he started working at McDonald’s part-time at night and on weekends to make some extra cash.
From the first time he walked through the doors, he knew this was where he was supposed to be. He loved his job and loved serving customers.
In two and a half years he completed the McDonald’s ownership training program. At that time, Don Thompson, the former CEO of McDonald’s Corp., was the then-director of operations and also Pyles’s mentor. Thompson suggested that he check out some McDonald’s locations in Milwaukee because it was ripe for growth.
Trusting Thompson, Pyles packed up his wife and three children and seized the opportunity.
NEVER LET ‘EM SEE YOU SWEAT
On Feb. 14, 1998, Pyles opened his first McDonald’s. He remembers it like it was yesterday.
“It was the first day of ‘two for $2’ Big Macs. It was incredibly busy. Inside, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get through the day. But I told myself ‘never let ‘em see you sweat.’ I knew I had to hold true to what I believed.”
With approximately 45 employees in each location, he employs 600 people from the community. “With my first location that I acquired, I worked tirelessly to turn around performance, he says. “A year or so later, I took over a second one. From there, we went from three to nine between September and June.”
However, Pyles says that all growth isn’t good growth. “You must be prepared for growth and pay close attention to profitability. You can have less stores and be more profitable. My goal wasn’t necessarily to keep adding stores. I wanted to create a training center environment to let people see that an African American operator can operate at a certain level.”
But Pyles didn’t stop at just providing jobs to the community. When he recognized that his employees were struggling to find affordable housing near work, he started Magnolia Realty.
He partnered with a friend that had a construction business, and they began purchasing foreclosed properties around his McDonald’s stores, fixing them up, and selling them to employees at a fair price.
Pyles has built a legacy in his community and for his family. “I recognize that my business is bigger than me. My children are all in their 30’s now, and they work with me in the business. I’m grateful for that, but I also let them know that they have the freedom to choose their own path. It’s important to let them decide.”
In addition to being a business owner, Pyles is a minister at Abundant Faith Church of Integrity. “I think it’s really important to be both visible and accessible in the community. It’s not enough for me alone to be successful. My goal is to help others get approved for McDonald’s ownership. I started with my wife because there’s no inherited ownership in the event that an owner passes away. Now I’m working on getting others approved.” He sees his businesses as “a light on the corner” in the inner city. “I’m constantly learning and growing with the community.”