By Andrea Hansen
Photographs by Bob Holtsman Photography
INTERVIEW: DANIELLE ROBSON, TIM HORTONS, SASKATOON
At age 18, Danielle Robson was living in Alberta and going to university, with plans to become a lawyer. Her best friend’s dad owned several Tim Hortons franchises in Edmonton and one of Danielle’s jobs was working for him. He recognized something special about Danielle and threw out the idea that she should apply for her own store. With support from her family, they did, and three weeks later, in June 2003, they had their first Tim Hortons store in Saskatoon, on Fairlight Drive.
Fast forward 15 years, and “Hurricane Dani” shows no signs of slowing down, having just opened their tenth Tim Hortons store. They also own two Mr. Mikes restaurants. With over 300 employees and a young family at home with three kids under age 10, what drives Danielle Robson? Talking with Danielle, she’ll admit she thrives in chaos and jokes that if she wasn’t having a baby or opening a store, she would be bored. Her definition of boredom is different from most people’s.
I always knew we would run more than one store.
The story starts with a typical small-town upbringing on a family farm.
What about your upbringing influenced where you are today?
You had to work on the farm, planting the garden, hauling water, hauling grain. And we had horses and played a lot outside. Small towns are a great way to grow up and raise kids if you fit in. I never seemed to fit in. I am opinionated and have a strong personality. I always felt I had to be someone I wasn’t.
A story that helps to explain my upbringing is that when I was about 12 years old, my horse needed to go to the vet. My parents said, “It’s your horse, figure it out.”
I had to call the vet, make the appointment, and figure out how to get my horse there. I remember at the time feeling like my parents were so mean, and now thinking back, how I learned to be independent and responsible and was taught that if I wanted to get something, I had to get it myself.
When you started with one Tim Hortons, was owning multiple locations always part of the plan?
I always knew we would run more than one store and I knew I wouldn’t be happy with just one. It took us four years to get our second store. Then, from 2009 to 2011, we gained three stores, and then there was a lull, and then from 2013 to ’14 we gained several more, and it’s been steady since.
At this point, I am not actively seeking more stores, but I wouldn’t say no to one. Really, once you get over three, it’s just like having another kid – you just add it in the mix. It’s not as big a deal because you now have the infrastructure and people in place. \ e have three GMs, three office staff, and two maintenance guys. For them to take on another store, it’s not a huge deal, whereas before it was.
Looking back, what memories stand out from the beginning?
I really had no clue what the business was all about in the beginning, but I had to figure it out and I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning; you can ask my family. I prefer to be the boss. If that meant I had to work 20 hours a day, I worked 20 hours a day. I did what I had to do. Dad stepped away when we got our second store in 2007 and I preferred it that way as I was already running the business.
Dad helped with fixing, maintenance, and unloading and was always there for support, and now my husband, Darryl, provides that support. I do remember firing my first employee and it was so hard, and I was so nervous and almost in tears, but Dad made me do it. He wouldn’t step in.
Describe your typical day.
I get up and on the road before 5 AM, before the kids are up, and “do rounds”: I go from store to store and I check in and pound out my three or four things I need to do. I say hi to all the staff and try to make sure the staff know who I am. Lots of times, there are people I have never met. Employees should see you working side by side with them and that no job is above you. I still serve guests every single day and work the line for five minutes. They won’t see me otherwise.
I do that until 7 AM and then back to my office to deal with everything else. I do my running around in the afternoon and stop by our Mr. Mikes and try to be home when the kids get home from school and cook supper. I’ve always been an early morning person because I used to do chores and feed the horses before school!
What have you learned about yourself?
I’ve learned how to overcome my own ignorance and attitude and how to humble myself and be mindful of other people’s feelings. That’s where I had a huge learning curve. I used to think, I can do it myself. I was 19 years old, cocky and arrogant. I had to learn how to manage people and lead, not just be a boss. There is a difference between being a boss and being a leader. Anyone can be a boss.
What would your employees say about you?
I would hope they would say I am genuinely concerned and supportive. A lot of my employees don’t have family here and the store becomes their family and you form a close relationship with them.
One team member asked me to attend her child’s birth after hearing I had been the support person for a family member and I was happy to be there for her. Then another asked me and now I’ve been at about eight births! The most recent one, I stopped by my employee’s house to check on her after her manager had called me that she might be in labour. Within 10 minutes, while on the phone with 911 and with her husband waiting on the street for the ambulance to arrive, I had delivered the baby with my own hands!
You are fearlessly independent, and yet you have this huge team you depend on. You’ve obviously had to let go of a few things along the way.
There would be none of this without a huge team and family support. I would be nothing without my husband, Darryl, and he helps me do all the hard jobs along with all my GMs and business partners. You don’t do it by yourself. I remember when Dad convinced me to hire my first till counter (to go around to stores, count cash, and make bank deposits) when we had three stores. Seems simple, but extremely time consuming and I did it all, seven days a week counting money and doing deposits every day.
Hiring our first till counter was the hardest thing I ever did, and when I finally did let go it was life changing. After I let go of that, it was, “what else can I get rid of?” Not jobs that I didn’t want to do, but what other jobs did I not have time to do? It freed me up to be a better manager, spend time with people and not have to work 12 hours a day. Game changer overnight – “Kaboom!”
What keeps you going?
In the beginning it was the challenge – and I am always looking for the next challenge. By nature, I am a competitive person and staying still feels complacent. I am always looking for the next forward motion. What keeps me going is the 300 people who work for me, because I need to succeed for them to keep their jobs. Everyone might say, oh, they can find other jobs, but we employ many people who earn premium wages in our industry. They have worked their way up. I can’t just turn around and sell everything and walk away. I work hard so those people can have premium wages and have a better life here than they can down the street.
Loving what you do helps. I don’t dwell on things I can’t control. I deal with it as it comes, stay positive, and figure it out.
First published in the September 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.