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story.lead_photo.caption Former Taco Bell franchisee Dick Davis shared his years of business wisdom Tuesday at the Callaway Chamber of Commerce. At one point, Davis owned 21 restaurants in Missouri. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

You might not know the name Dick Davis, but if you live in Mid-Missouri, you've probably eaten his food.

Now retired, Davis once owned 21 Taco Bell, KFC and Huddle House restaurants across the state. He shared some of his tips for business success Tuesday morning at the Callaway Chamber of Commerce.

"Whatever you do, you need to like it," Davis said.

As a fan of Taco Bell's food, to this day, his standard order is a hard-shelled taco, a bean burrito and an unsweetened tea — Davis did exactly that.

Davis got his start in business on his father's side. Joe Davis owned a gas station at 10th and Bluff Street in Fulton, which later grew into a gas and service station supply business called Davis Oil.

"Back in those days, a service station wasn't just a gas station, it was a place to get your car worked on," Davis said.

However, the gas shortage of the 1970s caused a change in the service station industry. With gas being rationed to stations, businesses had less incentive to compete by offering the best service. Then 7-Eleven came along, and with it many stations made the switch to the convenience store model.

"We had to hire our own management staff, and we didn't know how to do it," Davis said. "And as a gas station owner, it's hard to make money. If gas is a penny cheaper somewhere else, that's where a customer will go."

By now, Davis was opening his own gas stations, including a McStop (now a Fastlane) in Kingdom City. He felt envious of the corporate support and training given to the McDonald's franchisee moving into the building and decided it was time to give fast food a whirl.

After a lengthy process, including partnering with his father for capital and spending a week working at a Taco Bell in Tennessee, Davis opened his first Taco Bell in Fulton.

For the first year, he managed the business himself.

"You have to be willing to mop the floors, make tacos and do whatever it takes to get it done," he said.

For the first several years, Davis made little money; he didn't even draw a salary, relying on income from his gas stations. He opened stores in Mexico and Kingdom City, telling Callaway Bank that he just needed to sell more tacos. The purchase of three formerly corporate Taco Bells in northern Missouri finally made the difference.

"When I went from three to six, I started making money," he said.

Though Davis' empire peaked at 21 stores, he found that was too many to handle — Davis prefers close interaction with store managers. Ultimately, 13 proved the ideal number. Now retired, Davis remains involved in the Callaway Chamber of Commerce.

Advice

The first order of business for Davis was defining his company culture. That happened at a conference for franchisees in California.

"The instructor one day said, 'Okay, you're going to be gone from your business for six months. What are you going to tell them to do in your absence?' I said, 'I'm going to tell them to follow the Golden Rule,"' Davis said.

That "treat others as you would want to be treated" philosophy extended to customers, employees and suppliers alike, and Davis said it served him well.

"The concept of running a business is not complicated," Davis said. "If you have a product, a good price and good service, you'll have customers. The challenge is in the execution. It's hard to deliver good service and good quality food every day and every order."

Encouraging personal responsibility proved key. Davis encouraged store managers to set their own budgets, which he approved. He also made sure to be generous with praise and incentives, from pizza parties to trips to Cancun.

Davis also quickly learned the importance of knowing your own weaknesses and working with people who make up for them.

"I've never been much of a disciplinarian, so I had to hire a manager who was at that first store," he said. "You can't do all of it yourself."

Lastly, Davis advised beginning franchisees to make sure they know what they're getting into.

"Some people don't like the structure of being a franchisee," Davis said. "A taco goes shell, meat, shredded lettuce and cheese. If you put in meat, then cheese, then lettuce, it's not a Taco Bell taco, and you're going to get into trouble."

Doing your own market research is also important — Davis learned the hard way the corporation won't provide estimates on profit margins and operating cots. He advised talking to other franchisees in locations far enough away not to be your competition.

It also helps to have a significant sum socked away, as fast food is rarely profitable within its first year of business.

Following Davis' talk, CCoC Executive Director Tamara Tateosian remarked on the number of high school students in the audience.

"I want to make sure students know there are opportunities to start businesses right here in Callaway County," she said. "Eighty percent of businesses here are small businesses. If we can plant the seed for one kid to become an entrepreneur, we've done our job."

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