Tips From The Top: One On One With Craig Erlich, President And CEO Of BRIX Holdings & Red Mango

I spoke to Craig Erlich, President and CEO of BRIX Holdings, the company that owns Red Mango, Smoothie Factory, Souper Salad, RedBrick Pizza and Greenz, about his lessons in leadership and business

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?

Craig: I grew up in humble beginnings rarely seeing much of my father as he worked 16-hour days for a local utility company. My mother also worked much of the time as a legal secretary, which I believe between both of my parents, I was taught early on about great work ethic and if you want something, you have to earn it. I played sports in school where I was not a star athlete but made enough contributions to help my teams become winners.

When time was available, much of my youth was spent working in local restaurants both in the kitchen and waiting on tables. Later on, after college, I spent much of my professional career in corporate retail where I held various positions from Store manager to Regional Vice President. While I was with CVS Pharmacy, I also had the pleasure of being a board member of Easter Seals, which is a non-profit agency that works with individuals with various disabilities. I have always tried to help others less fortunate and this was a great opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. While working with Easter Seals I met with the leaders of Red Mango USA where we were very much aligned on the future of the organization, so I began my career with Red Mango and ultimately Brix Holdings from there.

Along the way, I have also owned independent businesses, which have helped me tremendously throughout my career, appreciating all facets of running a successful business.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Craig: Poor leaders have been very frustrating for my growth, although it may have helped me more than some of the great leaders I have had in my life.

One example is a “Just get the numbers” type leader and while that may get you short term success, if you do not build a culture of integrity and openness, you are certain to be doomed eventually. I have always prided myself on achieving sales and profitability wherever I was, but I’ve seen leaders pick identifiers of results that were easily manipulated and was often frustrated that those manipulating results were praised without looking at the big picture.

Another example that I experienced was a leader with “selective accountability.” There was another division that frequently had poor results and kept losing team members. Over and over this leader would ask surrounding markets for their top performers to help this individual who clearly was the issue with the poor results. The organization lost some very good talent because those that transferred quickly became frustrated with the culture of that division and ultimately left the organization. It was later determined that the root cause of the poor results was due to that poor leader, but this went on for years and lost countless high performing team members. I personally gave many team members to that division which set me back many times. Thankfully, I had developed a pool of talent to step up, but the organization lost respect for my supervisor, which was challenging to shield.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Craig: Great listening skills: It is one thing to be a good speaker, but a great leader is a great listener. When team members feel like they are heard and part of the solution, that will be much more effective than simply telling them what to do.

Holding people accountable: It may not be the popular decision, but you have to be honest and provide frequent feedback to an individual so that they know they must perform to a certain level. Believe it or not most people appreciate knowing where they stand.

It’s “us” not I: Great leaders talk about the team, they inspire, they share the credit for the success of the organization. Be wary of the leader that says “I” too many times. If you truly want your organization to be successful, it will only happen with all involved, including customers and not just the person at the top.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to an audience of entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Craig: Never get used to the word “: In life, there will be plenty of No’s thrown at you and its easy to get used to it and become complacent. If you hear “NO” enough, you can anticipate another “No” coming your way and it affects your energy. Any new opportunity you get must have a potential “YES”. I have always told my team to think like a rookie. The reason is experience is good but can also affect how you navigate the future. A rookie goes in with high energy not anticipating what can happen next thinking that every opportunity can lead to a great moment.

Be honest: I have been around many different types of individuals and am fearful of the people who I do not feel are being honest or sincere. The only way we become better individuals and leaders is when we are around honesty. Some may not like what I say all the time, but they know that they will get an honest answer with no hidden agendas.

You don’t have to be different, Just be better: I hear all the time “that other person is already doing it.” Don’t shy away from a crowded field because a star will emerge and finds success. Whether in business, sports or everyday life, top performers are not alone in their field, they just happen to do it better.

Adam: What is the best piece of advice you ever received? 

Craig: My wife Shari bought me a plaque for my desk a long time ago when I was going through a challenging time that said, “What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I guess over the years that saying gradually sunk in because I have become less worried about failing and more focused on seeing the success of my work. One thing that I hope is that I inspire others to be the best that they can be. I care about those that are around me and they know that I am there for them when needed.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Craig: I have always been around sports and athletics. I generally go to the gym at 4-5am each day, so I start my day with a discipline that spills over to the rest of the day. Being on sports teams has made me appreciate that everyone can have a purpose that can lead to our success. My coaches always found ways to inspire me at our pregame meetings, which I try to do at periodic meetings to get everyone fired up and aligned. No matter what I do, I want it to be accurate and done well.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Craig: I have a very supportive family and I feel that is most important to leading a happy and successful life. There is enough doubt and negativity in the world so my contribution is to be the best person I can for my family, friends, colleagues and anyone I meet. Ordinary things we can all do, such as holding the door open for the person behind you, letting someone merge in front of you on the highway, saying Please and Thank you, returning a phone call or lastly simply smiling at someone is a great start.

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