When Luis Ribeiro sees properties for sale on a busy street, he gets excited.
"It’s the challenge of finding new locations, driving by sites that maybe don’t necessarily jump out …, trying to find that diamond in the rough," Ribeiro says. "There is a lot of creativity involved."
As franchisee of 25 of the 61 Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. franchises in Rochester and co-owner of the Rochester Lancers, Ribeiro, 40, has transformed upstate’s coffee culture by keeping his focus on the customer and reinvigorating the Dunkin’ brand.
The franchise territories he oversees are Chili, Henrietta, Penfield, Perinton, Pittsford, Rochester and Webster, along with Avon, Macedon, Newark and Ontario.
The operating franchises overseen by Ribeiro-each with one to four stores-are Rochester Donuts Inc.; Paula Donuts Inc., Rochester Coffee Brewing Co., Webster Donuts Inc. and Worcester Upstate Donuts Inc.
The company employs nearly 500 people and plans to add 250 more jobs next year.
"It doesn’t get overwhelming to me," Ribeiro says. "You do get to a point where, OK, you’ve saturated the market from a store count and you may not be able to do more, (but) I don’t think we are there yet. We still see growth when we open up a new store."
Despite his success in the Rochester market, Riberio had no ties to Rochester when he moved here in 2001 at age 28.
Ribeiro is from Halifax, Nova Scotia. At age 19, he decided to move to Massachusetts, where his father’s family lives, to pursue a career as a pilot. He went to flight school during the day and worked nights as a baker for Dunkin’ Donuts in Worcester, Mass. The part-time job did not originally factor into his career plans.
"My goal was to always be a commercial pilot," Ribeiro says. "I got my pilot’s license, (and) I was working on my commercial license. The airline industry was starting to struggle, so I had to make a career path decision."
He completed flight school in 1994 but remained with Dunkin’ Donuts.
Career takes flight
In 1997 or 1998, Ribeiro remembers, he sought advice from his boss and mentor John Battista, who now owns something like 28 stores in Massachusetts. Ribeiro had worked his way up from baker to manager of two stores.
Battista is a partner with Ribeiro and Ribeiro’s sister, Paula Viera, in the franchises. Ribeiro’s work ethic made an impact on Battista.
"At first, of course, you never know what’s going to happen, but when we decided to go together in business, well, I could see he would get somewhere," Battista says.
The decision to stay with Dunkin’ came with a desire to expand. Battista and Ribeiro looked for opportunities in the Massachusetts area, but nothing came through.
Upstate New York caught Battista’s attention because of Dunkin’s ailing market there. Dunkin’ Donuts was a strong East Coast brand from Maine to New York City, but the farther west the brand went, the fewer stores there were.
"We started looking where the opportunities were," Battista says. "After looking in a few places, we decided that would be a good place to go-Rochester, New York, because there was so much there to do."
Ribeiro, joined by his sister, arrived in Rochester in June 2001. Kick-starting the brand proved to be challenging. They worked 1,000 days straight, just short of three years without a day off.
"It made us stronger," Ribeiro says. "I think we had nobody to turn to but ourselves. There were many times I just said, ‘You know, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel.’ When you are young you (think) maybe there (are) other options, but I’m glad we did it."
They wanted to start the stores with a focus on being reliable, always being available for their customers and their employees.
"We really were at the root of every problem," Viera says. "We were on that counter every single day, 18 to 19 hours a day. We were really watching everything, and we tried to build that customer base and that trust in people, that we weren’t going to go anywhere."
Battista continued to work in Worcester while Ribeiro and Viera focused on Rochester. For Ribeiro, Battista played a key role in molding his professional life.
"He was truly my mentor through this whole Dunkin’ experience," Ribeiro says. "He taught me things that most people wouldn’t teach. He taught me numbers, he taught me how to deal with break-evens and finance and all the details-how when you walk into a store, what to look for that most people don’t even see."
Another person who helped to build the business in the early days was Dan O’Neil. As operations manager for the Dunkin’ Brands Group, he saw Ribeiro as a person who could bring success in a market where the company had struggled over the years.
"My first impression was he knew the business very well," O’Neil says. "During the time he spent in Worcester, I know he worked in all aspects of the business. The next thing that probably jumped out to me-and it didn’t take long for this-is his work ethic. Hardworking person. Works seven days a week even today with 25 stores."
Rochester was truly a fresh start for Ribeiro, since he knew not a single person in the area when he made the move from Massachusetts. There were four Dunkin’ Donuts stores in Rochester in 2001.
With an unknown community, a struggling market for the brand and new responsibilities as a franchisee, Ribeiro began to build the stores with innovation in mind. Franchisees get a blueprint to follow as the brand recognition and philosophy of the company are already established. Ribeiro found a way to make his own mark within the formula.
"Dunkin’ does have a cookie-cutter franchise," Ribeiro says. "I wasn’t crazy about our image, and I said, ‘Give me the ability to do something different.’"
The vision included converting Dunkin’ into an upscale stop in a customer’s morning routine. Ribeiro added marble countertops, new flooring and non-traditional cabinets in stores, which helped him win Dunkin’ Donuts Innovator of the Year Award in 2007.
"Luis has been really good about if he has an idea about something, sometimes they listen to the ideas that we put forward," Viera says. "There is a model, but they will sometimes let you step out of the box slightly. I think we have made a difference, especially in Upstate New York."
Ribeiro focuses on finding new locations that would be ideal for a customer’s daily habits.
"We look for the convenience factor, so for us it’s really, ‘Is this store going to be convenient to the customer?’" Ribeiro says. "So (the Penfield) store does well because it’s on (Route) 441. If it was maybe around the corner …, a site that would have been maybe two doors off the corner wouldn’t work as well."
Factors that contribute to a successful store are traffic flow, the business environment of the location and accessibility. For Ribeiro, creating a vision of a store is where the creativity comes in.
"The part I like most is truly developing the sites. That’s truly my role now," he says. "Saying, ‘OK, well, how can I picture (it); if there’s these two businesses, can I piece them together?’"
Flight school prepared Ribeiro for the business world in some ways. The fear that comes with flight has to be channeled into focus similar to the way acquiring a new store requires confidence and acceptance of risk.
"When you are up in the sky, you’re in command," Ribeiro says. "If you make a mistake, you will probably suffer the consequences from it. There are mistakes you can recover from, and there are mistakes you can’t."
By focusing on customer needs, Ribeiro continues building the brand with two to three more stores each year. He plans to add eight stores next year and hopes to add three to four stores in each following year.
"People ask me, ‘How many stores can you own in the Rochester market?’" he says. "I think if you define that, you might be cutting yourself short. The market needs to dictate what’s happening. I don’t get caught up in the numbers. To me it’s not about owning five stores or 50 stores."
O’Neil believes the Rochester market would not have grown in the same way without Ribeiro.
"Western New York is a competitive market for us, and I think that is pretty much due to Luis," he says. "The brand is doing extremely well in Rochester. Perhaps we might not have been as fortunate with somebody else, and perhaps they might have opened the door more for the competition. But pretty much anywhere Luis has a store, our competition does not do well."
Both Ribeiro and Viera realize the importance of their father’s influence in their upbringing, helping foster their success.
"My father was born in Portugal; he emigrated to Canada," Ribeiro says. "I remember him telling me the story that the faucet would actually freeze like an icicle because it was so cold. I remember hearing those stories and thinking how hard it must have been for them. At least I moved to a country where the language and the customs are similar."
Viera sees their success as a way of life.
"My dad always says he worked 50-some years for his company and he never missed a day’s work. So I think that if you work hard the rewards pay off, and that’s just the way we were brought up and the way we grew up," she says.
Working together in business has never been a problem for the siblings. They found the trust of a brother-sister bond is effective for a business partnership.
"A lot of people do say, ‘How is it working with your brother?’" Viera says. "We just have really a good sibling chemistry, and if a day goes by that I don’t hear from him or he doesn’t call, it just seems like there’s a part of my day that’s missing."
One way Ribeiro has supported the community is through soccer. He is co-owner of the Rochester Lancers men’s soccer team and finds the outlet a way to connect with people.
"We just wanted to do something for the community," Ribeiro says. "We don’t look at it as a profit center. It’s giving back to the community. We all love it. All owners truly love the sport. We are not trying to make any money in it; it’s a hobby for us."
He and the other owners, a total of six people, began to talk about buying the Rochester Rhinos when the team was having financial trouble, but that deal never developed. They decided to bring back the Lancers as an indoor soccer team and did so in 2010. The Lancers had been a successful outdoor team decades earlier.
As in his work, Ribeiro, a Webster resident, loves to be around people in his free time, which he admits is hard to come by these days.
"I don’t have a lot of it, so unfortunately with owning all of these stores, there’s not time," he says. "When I do, I still love to play soccer. I’ve taken up golf over the years; (it is) a little bit easier on the body. I really just love to socialize with friends."
Rochester has become home for Ribeiro.
"I started from fresh here. I think the community not only embraced, obviously, the brand I represent, but it’s a giving community," he says. "I moved here with a suitcase, $500 and a dream. That was it. I can honestly say that I have lived the American dream."
Ribeiro knows now that staying with Dunkin’ was the right choice but he is not completely satisfied with his success. He still believes he has potential for a new endeavor.
"I have found my passion," he says. "I think there is something else in me; I just don’t know what it is yet. Obviously, I’ll continue to grow the Dunkin’ system, but I feel like I got one more push at something. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Being 40, I still feel like I have a solid 10 years to give."
For the Northeast, the Dunkin’ takeout/drive-through business represents some 50 percent of sales. As the Dunkin’ Donut brand has strengthened in Rochester, the ties between store and customer have grown.
"People take ownership to our stores," Ribeiro says. "When you talk to somebody about Dunkin’ Donuts, they’ll refer to it as their store. America runs on Dunkin’, and Rochester runs on Dunkin’. If I’m out, people always approach me: ‘Oh, Luis, I was at my store.’ (And I say,) ‘Oh, your store?’ It’s funny."
Having a chance to showcase his talents is what propelled Ribeiro to succeed.
"I think it’s a sense of pride, so obviously you want to be the best you can be," Ribeiro says. "I’ve been given a good opportunity. I’ve worked hard, but the community has been good to me. I wouldn’t be here if not for the community."
In hindsight, he can see how his career progressed.
"Part of me would have said run the other way; it was so much work," Ribeiro says. "But I’m glad I did it. If there was any advice I would give to myself 20 years ago, (it) is just stay the course. Whatever you do, be the best at it. That was always my philosophy. I think if you work hard, stay focused, stay grounded, you’ll achieve everything you want."
Today the focus is on the future. Twenty of the 25 stores Ribeiro owns were built from scratch, and five were existing stores that he improved with better light fixtures, flooring and layouts.
"We are on an aggressive expansion plan," he says. "I think maybe myself personally will have another eight to 12 stores over the next 36 to 48 months. Within the next three to four years, if we could fill in a ratio of three stores, four stores a year, we (will) continue to grow."
"Sky’s the limit, really. As long as there’s opportunities and there’s places that we could give life to a store, we are ready to do it," Viera adds.
Creating a new relationship with a customer is what the business comes down to for Viera and Ribeiro. That human connection has not changed in 12 years.
"I look at this business (as) a people business," Viera says. "Yes, it’s coffee and doughnuts, but we are more about the people. … Outside of people’s families, generally we’re the first people that they see in the morning, and so that gives us an opportunity to either make or break somebody’s day."
Interacting with people never gets old for Ribeiro.
"The part I still enjoy is every day coming in, meeting new people," he says. "I’m thankful for the people I have in the system. We have a family atmosphere; we do what we do every day, and we treat our people with respect and we get respect back. If I walk in and have to jump behind the counter, I’ll do it. I’m not above (anyone) just because I own the stores."
10/4/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].