If You're Trudging, It's Time for Change

Don and I didn't need MBAs to know that Boston Pizza did a healthy business. And it was easy to see why. Pizza and pasta are mostly made from two ingredients: flour and water. One of those ingredients was extremely cheap, the other practically free, making food costs really low. (That's still the case today, which explains in part why there's a waiting list to become a Boston Pizza franchisee.)

Around the time I became a fixture at Boston Pizza, I also began to get frustrated with police work. The job was becoming political, with officers spending more time jockeying for top spots in their regiments than busting criminals. I started to look around at other opportunities within the RCMP, but I couldn't find anyone doing what I wanted to be doing in 5, 10, 15 years. I wasn't aspiring. This is a crucial part of corporate culture that most businesses ignore or skip over. If employees aren't aspiring to greater heights, to the next rung up the ladder at that business, the employee pool becomes stagnant with bored, resentful people whose productivity will start to slowly limp along. If you've ever worked with unenthusiastic people, you'll know that it's as though the oxygen level in the office decreases every time they enter it. People start to trudge to work. Negativity creeps in and poisons the environment.

Then came the RCMP regimental ball, to which we all wore our Red Serge. This particular night was a combination retirement-promotion party for two men with long careers with the RCMP. One was retiring after 30 years on the force, the other was heading across the country to a new position. The first would receive a gold watch, the other a plaque. As the chief inspector handed out the gifts, he got their names wrong and didn't even notice. At the time, the rest of us all laughed about the mix-up. But later, at home, it hit me hard. I realized that not only was I replaceable, I was interchangeable. After 30 years of service, it must have felt like the ultimate slap in the face for your inspector to get your name wrong. I couldn't shake that night off, and I knew that I didn't want to be either one of those guys.

When I became a police officer, I was sure that it was a cradle-to-grave commitment. No looking back. But after the regimental ball, I began to feel an itch. I wanted a change. That's what happens sometimes. You choose your university major, you leave home, you sign that contract, you make that first big professional commitment — and then you run into an old friend from high school. And what he or she is doing looks a lot better than what you've got going on. Suddenly, you start questioning your decision to become a lawyer, and you sabotage the bar exam by getting trashed with your buddies the night before.

Even during RCMP training I got the sense that not everyone was going to make it, or that not everyone wanted to make it. Some recruits up and quit when it became pretty apparent to them that police work wasn't their calling. This was a big revelation to me. I was raised to commit. The idea that you could switch horses midstream was entirely alien to me: once I signed on to become a police officer, that was it. I remember one recruit who put on his uniform, went out behind the stables and shot himself. God only knows why he couldn't just quit, get help and find another professional path. But a very small part of me understood that rigidity, that stubbornness. I could understand how hard it is sometimes to say, “Hey, I was wrong about this decision; this is not for me after all. I want to change my mind.” You don't want to let people down. You don't want them to think that everything they thought they knew about you was wrong.

Then came the clincher. I went to work one day to learn I was being transferred. Bad enough it was out east, to Ontario, but worse, I was being sent to a desk job. The RCMP had me in mind for a training position that would involve more paperwork: more forms and less actual police work. It hit me like a brick, because there was no discussion back then. They put you where they needed you, and you couldn't say no. The news caused every last ounce of remaining enthusiasm I had for the job to finally leak out of me.

At the same time, I had begun to realize how enthusiastic I was about my Friday nights at Boston Pizza. I began to really pay attention to what Gus and his brothers actually did for work. I noticed what kind of hours they kept, and asked myself, could I do that? I watched them at their tasks, again asking myself, do you think you could master that? Serve customers? Flip the dough? Make a giant vat of sauce? The day-to-day business of running a restaurant began to take over my thoughts, just as what life as a police officer would be like had done when I was going through basic training.

Imagining myself as a police officer was one of the key things that had kept me going. I had never paid attention to what Gus and his brothers wore to work, or what kind of shoes were required, but now I did. I listened to how they talked to their employees and what was expected of them. Boston Pizza had a family atmosphere and one of camaraderie — you could just feel it in the air. It attracted young students, the post-concert crowds, and busy families; people who liked its informality and the way you gathered around and shared a pizza. Remember, this was considered exotic — your meal plopped in the middle of the table, and reaching for it with your hands. But young people love to try new foods, and Canada was a young country. In the early 1960s, there were 8 million people (about 42% of the population) under the age of 19.

The switchover was almost involuntary, as though my heart “knew” before my head that I was about to make another big decision about my future. And, ultimately, it was a decision that took place in my heart. If I had left the decision to my head, it would have told me I was crazy to leave steady, pensioned pay for something so irregular and unsteady. But money wasn't the draw. The work, the culture, the possibilities were. For me, the restaurant had all the qualities I loved about police work: camaraderie, spontaneity and even shift work and odd hours. In my heart I knew I was leaving one calling for another — a simple decision, yet the hardest one I'd made so far. But I wasn't going to make that decision alone.

By then, Don Spence had also become disillusioned with police work. We both knew that if we stuck together, we could do well in the business. We had the personalities to draw and manage crowds, and we could learn to tackle the simple recipes that went into making great pizza and pasta dishes. The more we hung out at Boston Pizza with the Agioritis brothers, imagining that kind of life for ourselves, the more real it became. Our social lives had begun to revolve around Boston Pizza. And not for the first time, Gus suggested that I'd make a good pizza man. He recognized something in me before I did. I had the personality for this kind of work, Gus said. But as much as I could imagine working at Boston Pizza, and maybe even running one of my own, I still couldn't quite wrap my head around the idea of leaving the RCMP. It was like letting go of a security blanket.

Meanwhile, Gus opened a third location in Edmonton, another corporate-owned store that one of the brothers managed. I got the feeling I was watching something grow, something that could be successful — it was kind of like running beside a slow-moving train that you know will speed up at any moment, so you'd better make the leap. Gus lacked formal business training, but he had a really important quality: he didn't doubt himself. He had a natural confidence that wasn't steeped in arrogance. And his philosophy was: This is a good thing. Let's make more. Join me.

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