Stirring Things Up: Billy Downs Finds a Win-Win in Everything – Business Goal Setting Series

When Billy Downs opened his first BD’s Mongolian Barbeque in suburban Detroit almost 15 years ago, his goal was simply to see his restaurant succeed. But in the back of his mind, there was also a master plan – to see BD’s expand throughout the state and country.

Today, BD’s has 31 locations in 10 states and one in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Downs’s initial investment of $25,000 and a signing note for $100,000 has expanded to an empire that will top $63 million in revenue for 2006.

“I have invested literally hundreds of thousands into this business and taken personal risks – loans – of as much as eight million,” says Downs, who named his headquarters “The Yurt” after Mongolia’s hut-like shelters. “Having said that, our financial picture is strong. Our debt is being reduced at an aggressive pace. Someday in the near future, I look to be debt free.”

Goal 1: Give Control to the Customer

A graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Hotel, Restaurant & Institutional Management, Downs says he didn’t have a strong financial background when he started. But he knew how to hire the right people for the job. “Our CFO, Todd Pahl, has a terrific financial mind and is a great asset to me,” says Downs, whose business card once read “Mongo Man.” His upbeat personality and obvious sense of fun sets the tone for his eateries, and he still drops in on them to cook on the two-ton grill that’s the centerpiece of every Mongolian Barbeque.

What distinguishes his restaurants is the concept of “taking control of your own dining experience.” A create-your-own stir-fry operation, BD’s allows guests to choose fresh raw ingredients from a buffet and hand them over to the grillers, who provide spirited entertainment while they cook. Based on the ancient practices of Kublai Khan’s hunting parties, who cooked on their shields, BD’s Mongolian Barbeque is the epitome of interactive dining.

Goal 2: Fully Involved Employees

Getting employees to buy into common goals hasn’t been hard because, from day one, Downs has involved his team in the planning process. “Every summer, our team goes through strategic planning, looking into the next five years and developing or updating a plan to achieve our goals,” he says.

“I’ve found this process rewarding and humbling at the same time. Sometime things you try just don’t work out, and those can be expensive experiences. Our challenge is to learn from them.”

Goal 3: Turning Fun and Giving into Profits

Downs has also learned that while he’s motivated by profitability, getting there is a lot more fun when striking a balance between having a good time, making money, growth, teamwork and community. The National Restaurant Association’s Humanitarian Award recently recognized his community initiatives in Mongolia, where an estimated $25,000 will be donated annually to the Mongolian Youth Development Foundation.

That said, Downs also has specific goals for profitability, and systems in place to share the wealth through bonus programs. “The way to win is in finding a win-win in everything we do,” says Downs, who sets high goals in his personal life by competing in Ironman Triathlon competitions.

“I absolutely love what I do. I find the social aspects of the business challenging and very rewarding. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Alice Rhein is a frequent contributor to StartupNation.

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