Burgerville grows at relaxed pace

CEO says downturn changed restaurant chain's strategies

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Burgerville plans to open its 40th restaurant soon in space beyond the security gates at Portland International Airport, as it continues to search for a new downtown Vancouver site to replace its iconic walk-up, the company's leader told a local business crowd Thursday.

But there are no plans for major growth beyond the two carefully thought-out locations being pursued by the Vancouver-based hamburger chain, Jeff Harvey, president and CEO, said in his keynote comments during a quarterly luncheon held by the Columbia River Economic Development Council at the downtown Hilton Vancouver Washington. The theme of his talk was change, according to Harvey, who shared how his company's business philosophy allows it to adapt to rapidly changing economic and social climates.

"For quite some time, we've been entering a world where standard business practices don't apply," said Harvey, who joined The Holland Inc. -- the company that owns Burgerville -- as its chief operating officer in 2004. He was named president in early 2008 and put in charge of Burgerville's expansion.

Harvey said the company was preparing to add 10 Burgerville restaurants to its portfolio when the bottom dropped out of the market in 2008, leaving the company's lending partner, G.E. Capital, in ruins. The pivotal event forced Burgerville executives to re-evaluate, said Harvey, who came to the restaurant industry after a career in electrical engineering.

News of the downfall of Burgerville's lending partner landed on the Wall Street Journal's front page the day after the Vancouver chain had expected to sign financing documents.

The recent economic downturn has changed everything from Burgerville's relationships with its suppliers to its marketing strategy, which now empowers the approximately 1,500 employees who work for the company, said Harvey, who previously worked for energy companies such as PG&E and Chevron Energy Solutions.

"The real richness of our business is in the power of those on the front lines," Harvey said.

The evolution led Burgerville officials to tie the parent company's "serve with love" mission to a company leadership program that Harvey said enhances employee listening skills.

"I had heard every day we were teaching our people to make hamburgers," said Harvey. He commissioned the leadership program as a way to refocus the business on building relationships.

The changing business climate also has changed Burgerville's relationships with suppliers, leading to meetings that now consider the business needs of both parties -- the supplier and the restaurant chain, Harvey said.

"Working as partners is a real difference from pre-2008," he said. Burgerville's suppliers include Oregon-based Country Natural Beef and Portland-based Franz Bakery and Sunshine Dairy.

From its hyperlocal supply chain to its mission to give back to the community it serves, Burgerville expects to concentrate its focus on the Pacific Northwest, Harvey said. The chain's 39 restaurants are situated along the Interstate 5 corridor from Centralia south to Albany, Ore.

He acknowledged that social media now plays a large role in the company's direction, empowering Burgerville enthusiasts to weigh in on menu items and planned locations.

For example, feedback from restaurant patrons and travelers at PDX changed the location of Burgerville's airport restaurant, set to open this winter. The venue was originally planned for the Oregon Marketplace, a set of shops located outside the airport security gates. But Burgerville officials worked with PDX owner the Port of Portland to change the location to Concourse D, giving travelers a chance to take the popular take-out food along on their flights.

"Everybody wanted to take that milkshake on the plane," Harvey said.