By Jacquie De Almeida
Ray Russell is a big fan of zeros. Although that’s not far off from what he had in his pockets when he immigrated to Canada from his native Iran, the number zero is at the heart of Freshslice Pizza, the franchise he founded in Vancouver in 1999.
“Zero per cent royalty, zero per cent marketing fees,” says Russell, when asked what franchisees pay to serve up Freshslice pizzas. “Other franchisors charge franchisees to use their call centre. What do we charge? Zero. We also have zero per cent rebate and zero per cent double-dipping policies in place.”
The only zero he doesn’t like seeing is at the bottom of his franchisees’ profit column. If you follow his system, though, he says that’s not bound to happen.
As president and CEO of Freshslice Pizza, Russell leads a business that has grown to some 80 locations in British Columbia over the last 16 years, picking up the Consumers’ Choice Award for Business Excellence in 2007, 2008 and 2009 along the way.
It’s a far cry from Iran where Russell spent the first 18 years of his life. Finishing high school in 1987, he decided to leave his home for a place he felt might offer him a brighter future. With no relatives outside the country except for a third cousin in Montreal, Russell moved to Canada.
“I had $8 in my pocket and didn’t speak English or French,” he says. “I knew Canada was a beautiful country. I had a lot of confidence in myself and in the Canadian government.”
Settling in Montreal, Russell started to build a life for himself, which included taking classes at both Vanier College and McGill University. It wasn’t long before he moved to Vancouver and enrolled at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) with an eye on becoming a civil engineer.
In 1990, he started his own construction company, working as a contractor and later as a developer in Greater Vancouver. By the late 1990s, however, the local economy took a dive. The downturn hit the construction industry hard, forcing Russell to look for other opportunities in 1999.
“I kind of found myself out of a job,” he says. “I couldn’t get any good projects.”
A conversation with a friend who happened to own a pizzeria got him thinking about his next move.
“I told myself if I ran the restaurant, I could probably sell much more than he was selling,” Russell recalls. “Based on that, I started working on a business plan. I wanted to see if I could prove that my concept would work. And I did.”
Rolling in dough
Having built restaurants in his days as a general contractor, Russell knew how much it cost to build a pizzeria. He still needed a hook, though, and studied other pizza franchises to find his niche. His answer was to create a ‘by-the-slice’ business with a delivery component.
“My reasoning was if I was going to do something, it had to be unique,” he says. “All the major pizza brands were concentrating on delivering big pies, but no dominant player was focused on selling individual slices in combos.”
He also came up with the idea for a more health-conscious version of the fast-food staple. Rather than white dough, he would offer only multigrain pizzas topped with low-fat mozzarella and sauces. Russell decided freshness, quality and value were the concepts he would push with pizza lovers.
As he was gearing up his business plans, a U.S. pizza chain with locations in Vancouver was winding down. He picked up their leases, bought their recipes and headed south to learn the ins and outs of running a pizza business, including how to make a pie himself.
It wasn’t long before Russell was back in Vancouver and behind the counter of his own Freshslice Pizza. Success followed, as did the idea to franchise the business.