Women in Business: Lee Easley, SVP Brand Development, East Coast Wings & Grill

In August, 2014, Lee Easley became the Senior Vice President for Brand Development of East Coast Wings & Grill in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Previously, from November 2010 to August 2014, she served as the Vice-President of Real Estate and Site Development in Winston-Salem. During November 2007 to November 2010, Lee was employed by East Coast Wings & Grill as the Director of Real Estate and Site Development. From January 2004 to November 2010, she was also employed by the company's former affiliate, SIGNATURE MANAGEMENT, INC. as Broker-in-Charge and Director of Operations and continues also to be employed, from July 2003 to the present, by MID-CAROLINA REALTY, INC., as a broker in the area.

How have your life experiences made you the leader that you are today?
Growing up, I came from a humble background and loving and supportive family. We didn't always have financial excess, but we always had what we needed. I think that instilled a very strong work ethic and determination inside me. I've always been determined to achieve my goals, whether it was buying my first car, working to put myself through college, or beating breast cancer at the young age of 38. The challenges I have faced to this point have only served to make me a stronger person, and given me invaluable life experience that automatically spill into all aspects of my life, both business and personal. I have high standards and expectations of myself, and this also means I expect the same from others. It is important to follow your vision and keep your faith.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at East Coast Wings & Grill?
After college, my career path started in banking as a loan officer. I am a numbers person and it has served me well, as I went on to do real estate paralegal work, and then on to become a commercial real estate broker. I began working with Sam Ballas, CEO of East Coast Wings & Grill 11 1/2 years ago under a separate commercial real estate company that he owned. He was looking for a Broker-in-Charge to come into his commercial property management/leasing company. Little did I know at the time that it was due to the fact he was beginning to build East Coast Wings & Grill and wanted to be able to devote more of his time towards building the infrastructure for the franchise system. In working with him in the commercial real estate arena, I began to help out with a new franchisee lease or site selection here and there for East Coast Wings & Grill in addition to my regular duties. As the franchise began to gain momentum, it became a natural progression to step in and handle all the East Coast Wings & Grill real estate needs. As East Coast Wings & Grill began to experience steady growth, I saw a great opportunity to get in on the ground level of an emerging brand that I believed would have incredible potential. Upon reaching a maximum workload straddling real estate between multiple companies, I gave Sam my resignation letter as Broker-in-Charge for the property management company in order to pursue working with East Coast Wings & Grill full time and helping to build the franchise system. I was nervous, but excited and felt that move could either blow up in my face or be the one of the best decisions I've made - and thank God it was the latter! All of my employment experience prior to this seemed to have lined up perfectly to give me the skill sets needed to ultimately build a corporate real estate and construction division for this franchise system, and in turn, help grow what has become a nationally recognized franchising leader in the casual dining industry.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at East Coast Wings & Grill?
The highlight has definitely been proving myself and earning the opportunity to be a part of building East Coast Wings & Grill. Seeing this company literally grow from infancy, and watching Sam's vision actually emerge into reality has been, and continues to be, an incredible journey and growth experience. As for the challenges, they don't call it "growing pains" for nothing! I can think of a couple of separate time periods during my time at East Coast Wings & Grill that did test me personally, and in turn made me stronger and ultimately grow professionally. The first occurred just about a year and a half after coming on with East Coast Wings & Grill full time. I was diagnosed with breast cancer and it turned my world upside down in a second. After the initial fear had been dealt with, and with tremendous family support, my determination kicked in and I basically made up my mind that I was going to fight to win. And that became my motto - Fight To Win. I look back on that time period in my life and I am thankful. I kept my faith that all things happen for a reason, and realize that it gave me the time, as crazy as this may sound, to put the infrastructure of this division in place. I would take my laptop with me to chemo and work for hours and I was perfectly happy with this because it gave me a sense of normalcy and purpose in my life, and another goal to focus on to keep me moving forward. As for more current challenges, I would have to say that with the advance of East Coast Wings & Grill as a leader in the casual dining franchise sector, there have been growing pains that have had to be figured out. I recognize that achieving the next level of success takes constant evaluation of myself, personally and professionally, as well as the ability to evolve and innovate to keep pace and anticipate for future growth.

What advice can you offer women who are trying to reach an executive level position?
Never let anyone tell you that you cannot do what you want to do. It makes me think of a time when I was just out of college and considering going ahead and getting my real estate license. A person in my life at that time actually was discouraging me from doing this, stating that it would be very difficult for me to succeed because only "older women or men" were successful. Wow. How short-sighted is that? And just think if I had listened. It is important to follow your instincts. You are responsible for your own success and happiness. I followed mine and it has proven to be a great decision.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have to admit that it can be challenging at times. I am blessed to have a caring and supportive husband. I am so thankful as he allows me to be myself, follow my career path of choice and endures when I work too much! I am also very lucky in the fact that he is an excellent cook and actually enjoys that as a hobby! We believe in working hard, but also in playing hard. We love to travel, play competitive tennis, and I can always be found outdoors working in my flower gardens. We try to take at least one substantial trip each year to do something new and see new places. My favorite destination so far has been the sailing trip we took last fall through the British Virgin Islands. We chartered a 46' catamaran for eight days and just island-hopped with two other couples, mooring up at a different island every night, and snorkeling through some incredible water. It was truly a fantastic experience! Those are the experiences that help keep me grounded.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I do think it is important for the business world to continue to understand and embrace that a woman in a leadership position may not, and most likely will not, take the male-expected path to achieve a desired result. The key is that the result was realized and achieved. It doesn't make a woman weaker or less skilled to achieve the result via a different path. Women also have to work harder to overcome the stereotype that they always make emotional-based decisions. I think women in executive level positions have reached that level for a reason. They have worked hard, proven performance based on knowledge, experience and logic, just the same as any man in a leadership position. Women tend to be better multi-taskers than men, and therefore should be recognized in their abilities to see at a macro as well as micro level. I feel fortunate to be working in an environment that allows me to speak freely, brainstorm and offer input regularly, and men and women collaborate together with a primary focus of doing the best we can to foster our franchisee success. If our franchisees succeed then ultimately the brand succeeds.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My first mentor was my boss while I was in banking, prior to making my jump into real estate. Jim taught me that a title doesn't make a leader, even though I think of him still as a great leader. He taught me the value of treating people with respect while still motivating them to rise to expectations. He had a gift for bringing out the best in others and making others want to succeed. Upon entering the world of real estate, and subsequently franchising, I am very thankful that Sam was willing to take me under his wing and share his knowledge gained from a diverse professional background, ranging from working on Wall Street to CEO/Entrepreneur. I have learned more than I ever realized from having direct access to him, and he has definitely been a great influence in my professional life, constantly challenging me and pushing me to better myself, and rising to the next level.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
On a personal level, Nancy Brinker, Founder of Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Her journey started when she made a personal promise to her dying sister Susan to find a cure. Now it has morphed into a legacy of awareness that is saving lives every day. On a professional level, I have to say that Kat Cole, President of Cinnabon, is a great inspiration to me. I came to know her name and position through the franchising industry, and have begun to follow her career more after seeing her story on Undercover Boss. In her early corporate start, she took about a 50 percent pay cut to jump into the corporate world. She understood that taking that opportunity would be well worth that initial sacrifice. She saw an opportunity, believed in it, and used it to grow personally and professionally. I subscribe to her ability to seek the positive and the possible in people and situations, while constantly honing her business skills and drive. She believes that within every challenge is a chance to learn and grow and that is so true and something I try to keep in front of me every day.

What are the biggest goals you want to achieve at East Coast Wings & Grill?
Smart Growth. I want to keep our focus on quality growth, not quantity of unit growth. By default, we have achieved an average of 22 percent new unit growth annually over the past five years. I plan to continue this trend, with a focus on our franchisees first. We look to partner with quality franchisees and do not feel the pressure to have to sign on anyone just to keep unit counts up. Again, by default, we have 32 stores operating, and approximately 50 more to be developed in the pipeline within the next five years. By sustaining smart growth, the rest of the pieces fall into place. We start with a strategic partnership with quality franchisees that we want to give every opportunity to succeed. This means we focus specifically on Unit Level Economics of our franchisees and the brand every single day. So much so that a Unit Level Economics Division has been put into place to deal specifically with store and brand metrics and analysis. We have continued to see an increase in our average unit EBITDA's and are approaching our 11th year of same store sales growth. The goal to continue this upward trajectory can become more difficult as the unit count increases, however by working with a fantastic core group of multi-unit franchisees (about 90 percent of our franchisees own two or more units and Area Development Agreements), we continue to make their bottom line a top priority. If our franchisees succeed, then it automatically equates to success for the brand. I do not ever want us to lose sight of the fact that our satisfied franchisees, as shown in our most recent Franchise Business Review report, are the foundation for the brand's success.