|Al Salas, Founder and President of Koning Restaurants, explains why an investment in the community and people is more important now than ever.|
Salas spoke with Pizza Hut Communications about his career, company commitments and how his investment in the community is changing people’s lives.
Al Salas always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and with the encouragement of his mom and several influential mentors along the way, he has flourished as a leader in the community and in his restaurants.
As a teenager in Miami, Al wanted to choose a path that would help him best support his family. Fortunately, one day while playing basketball he and the other players were approached by Dr. Eduardo Padron, who encouraged them to further their education by going to college. Little did Al know that this chance moment would play such a critical role in his future and that this “man who walked the pavement” was the President of Miami Dade College (now President Emeritus) and would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and be included on the Time list of “The 10 Best College Presidents” in 2009 (among other distinguished recognitions). Dr. Padron would continue to be an inspiration to Al throughout his career.
After earning an accounting degree, Al was recruited to the food service industry where his career flourished in various accounting and finance roles and bringing him to PepsiCo where he focused on the Pizza Hut brand. Within a few years, Al’s role expanded into operations and field management.
During your career, you’ve successfully turned around a few key markets, including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. How did you do it? Honestly, it started with listening. A lot. We met with many people – RGMs, drivers, cooks, anyone on the restaurant team – and we listened to their feedback and their ideas. So many viable solutions came out of those conversations, not to mention the incredible loyalty and commitment cultivated by simply taking the time to listen. Another key step was to clearly identify and gain alignment on our goals, both real and aspirational, because ultimately the success of a team depends on every team member working together toward common goals.
What is your business philosophy? You are only as good as your last pizza. In other words, the key to real and lasting success are your relationships. Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort: That is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” iAnd this commitment starts with us, as leaders, to model in the workplace. We can build (and strengthen) relationships through site visits, mentorships, celebrating successes and including extended families, meeting with customers, actively encouraging teams to get involved in the community, etc. This investment in your people will benefit your organization tenfold.
Speaking of solid relationships, many on your leadership team have been with you for 20+ years, that certainly says a great deal about you as a leader. Considering our restaurant teams, what would you say team leaders value the most? I’d offer – teamwork, authenticity, development opportunities and barrier busting (i.e., help break down barriers to foster growth).
In 1998 you were approached about purchasing the South Florida market and it’s now grown to be one of the largest Hispanic franchises for Pizza Hut (Koning Restaurants International). Tell us what this has meant to you and your team, as well as the community. It’s always been about who I can help, and I cannot think of anything better than giving back to the community that supported me. We’re actively recruiting and hiring minority candidates. We’re reaching out to schools in the area, not only to recruit, but also supporting school programs to help kids further apply themselves (e.g., career development, college scholarships, etc.). Our restaurants serve customers in some of the most challenged neighborhoods, so it’s imperative that we give back/invest in the communities we serve.
Let’s go back to that moment when you met Dr. Padron as a student. It seems that this chance meeting not only inspired your career path, but also your passion for helping students further their education (Al currently serves as Chairman of the Miami Dade College Foundation). Can you tell us more about your work with the Foundation?
A key purpose of the Miami Dade College Foundation is to give our students opportunities to pursue their dreams regardless of background, circumstances, or finances. We raise essential funds for student scholarships, entrepreneurship, workforce training, STEM and other programs that advance the community and help close the funding gap between student need and the opportunity to succeed.
Miami Dade College has a very diverse student body. In fact, the college enrolls more Hispanic undergraduate students than any other college or university, and it is the third largest to enroll Black, non-Hispanic undergraduate students. The Foundation’s fundraising efforts for underprivileged students in these largely Latino and Black communities has truly impacted the lives of so many by opening doors for them through education.
Al “Team Player” Salas has a nice ring to it and it’s certainly indicative of how he leads his Pizza Hut restaurants and inspires others in his community. Sounds like others agree –
“I’ve known Al Salas for more than 25 years and from the first time I met Al I knew he was all about building and supporting the people around him – from hiring and developing the team, to putting in place programs that encouraged and supported in-store employees in their career growth, to dedicating resources and taking action to make a difference in the community. He models leadership in every way.” – Charlie Short, Senior Director, PHLLC Operations
“I’ve been working with Al at Koning Restaurants for the past 10 years. From feeding the hungry to raising funds for students to go to college, Al really helps a lot of people in our South Florida community. This is not about donating pizzas or giving money away, but so much more. He becomes personally involved in the causes he believes in and makes sure his team and our Pizza Hut family are part of it as well – we put people first in everything we do.” – Koning Restaurants employee