Keri Solheid and Colleen Van BlarcomBy Grace Webb • May 2016 • Category: Cover Story
Sisters Keri Solheid and Colleen Van Blarcom are continuing the family business of bringing smiles to customers’ faces.
Nearly everyone can remember the excitement of going to eat at McDonald’s as a kid: the bright yellow-and-red interior, the colorful indoor playground, the Happy Meal (and, most importantly, the toy that came with it). It was a special treat, a place to celebrate a birthday or a good report card. Even for adults, stopping by McDonald’s for ice cream can be a pick-me-up after a tough day or a fun time with friends. It’s still a treat, no matter how old the customer is.
Since McDonald’s was founded in 1940, it has become the leading fast food franchise in the world, employing more than 1.7 million people and selling more than 100 billion hamburgers. Every major city in the world has a McDonald’s restaurant, if not several. Countless kids find their first jobs working for Ronald McDonald. In other words, it has become a part of the very fabric of life in America.
For sisters Keri Solheid and Colleen Van Blarcom, the impact was even greater. As the daughters of former local McDonald’s franchise owner Jerry Bambery, the women had a unique view inside the world of McDonald’s from the time they were kids. They remember with perfect clarity the day that McDonald’s launched its breakfast menu and added Chicken McNuggets to the menu. They remember meeting with key industry leaders such as Ray Croc and Jim Klinefelter, who worked with Bambery to jumpstart McDonald’s from 116 restaurants in the U.S. to 25,000 restaurants across the world.
And even though neither of them planned to go into the family business, they’re now the proud owners of five McDonald’s restaurants in the area: three in Mankato, one in Northfield and one in Faribault.
They may not have planned to go into the business, but they’re naturals, combining their father’s shrewd business smarts with their own resourcefulness, work ethic, and deep compassion for employees and customers alike.
As they explain it, they’re in the people business—they just happen to sell hamburgers at the same time.
Tell me a little about yourselves.
Colleen: We’re originally from Minneapolis. Our parents are Jerry and Marilu Bambery, and there are three girls in our family; Mary (now McNulty) is the oldest, Keri is the middle, and then me. We attended Christ the King Catholic grade school and Regina High School, an all-girl high school in downtown Minneapolis.
Your dad, Jerry Bambery, was pretty involved in the world of McDonald’s while you were growing up. What was that like?
Colleen: Our dad started with McDonald’s in 1959 when he was 17. He worked for McDonald’s Corporation while we were growing up. When he began, there were only 116 McDonalds across the country (McDonald’s wasn’t a global company yet). He and his friend, Jimmy Klinefelter, started working at McDonald’s only a day apart and together became leaders within the young McDonald’s system. They were key players in developing and growing McDonald’s in the Midwest region, which consists of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and Iowa. They’re considered pioneers in McDonald’s. So, McDonald’s was a part of our lives since we were born.
Our dad worked a lot. Typically, we ate dinner at 7:30 p.m. We didn’t know any different. Mom was supportive and acknowledged how important working hard was. She never made it a bad thing that my dad worked all the time. It was always positive: “Your dad is working hard to provide for your education and save for our future.”
When Dad and Jimmy retired from the corporate side to become McDonald’s franchisees, the company had grown to more than 25,000 McDonald’s restaurants globally. Today, there are more than 36,000 worldwide. The amount of growth and expansion that they were part of is impressive.
In June of 1985, Bamco was formed when Dad retired from the McDonald’s Corporation and became an owner/operator of the McDonald’s in Mankato. I had just graduated from high school, and my sisters were in college, when my parents moved here. It was a bit of a change for me to move from Minneapolis to a city with cornfields and no Target.
Do you have any special McDonald’s memories from your childhood?
Colleen: Of course, meeting Ronald McDonald for the first time. My other favorite memory was my dad bringing home a case of Chicken McNuggets for us to test before they were available on the McDonald’s menu.
Keri: We went with Dad on his store visits on Saturdays and Sundays. Those were our days to tag along with him. While visiting the restaurants, Dad always taught us the standards for the business, both quality and operations; we learned those quite well.
I can vividly remember the day that the Egg McMuffin came out, and going to the Dinkytown McDonald’s at the University of Minnesota campus and having a Triple Ripple (Neapolitan ice cream cone). I remember going to the Snelling McDonald’s in Roseville, when the first outdoor Playland opened. Those significant moments are such a huge part of our history.
You’re both very involved in the community. Where did that come from?
Keri: Mom was a stay-at-home mom who was an extremely involved volunteer at our school. Our philosophy of volunteering stems from her. She led by example. She was the one at school, working hard to help raise funds to enhance our Catholic education. As a kid growing up, you didn’t always want your mom at school with you, but once you grew up, you realized what a gift it was that she was there. She imparted that passion for giving back to us. It’s a key part of who we are.
Colleen: I learned to fundraise from my mom. She started the Christmas wreath sale for our grade school. I was seven years old, going door to door, saying, “Hi, I’m Colleen Bambery. I go to Christ the King School. Would you like to buy a Christmas wreath to help our school?” That was in first grade and here I am at 48, still fundraising for Catholic education. I am very proud of helping to create Wired To The Heart and Lucky 20 for Loyola Catholic School. I also have a soft spot for any kid who’s fundraising for their school; that takes a lot of perseverance and passion.
How is that passion continued through Bamco?
Colleen: Ray Croc, McDonald’s founder, believed that you give back to the communities that you do business in. That’s who my dad is, and it’s second nature to us, too. Our parents gave because it was important and the right thing to do. You don’t do it to get your name in lights. We receive requests daily from all of the communities that our restaurants are in, and we do what we can to help as many causes as we can. When I look at all of the charities that we are involved with and the different things that Bamco is involved in, I believe that is a reflection of how our parents raised us.
Keri: We do give back, but we don’t talk about it. We don’t need that plaque on the wall. The reason for giving back is because it’s important and it’s needed—and it is simply the right thing to do. We give privately and quietly. The needs are great and many, but we do the best we can to try to make a difference for our people, our customers and our communities. It is up to all of us to help where we can, so we do.
What other lessons did you learn from your parents?
Colleen: My mom always taught us that being nice matters, and my dad stressed that we are put on this earth to do good and to help others. It is all about what good you can do and what difference you can make.
Our dad always said that “can’t” is not in the dictionary. If you look at all three of us girls, persistence would probably be a word that describes all of us. I don’t know if it’s the combination of going to an all girls’ high school, or only having sisters, but it was taught by our parents that girls can do anything.
Keri: Even at 49, not using “can’t” has stuck with me. When it comes to doing something, “can’t” might be the right word for the conversation, but there is always another way. You have to avoid limiting yourself by thinking that something isn’t possible. It might not be perfect, and it might not be the prettiest. But you always find a way around the word “can’t.” That word was never allowed to stop us. We learned to look for opportunities and see through to other possibilities.
Colleen: Another lesson I learned from my dad was my quest for perfection. Growing up, I was a pleaser. I followed all of the rules and didn’t want to disappoint my parents or my teachers, so I got great grades and stayed out of trouble. I remember my sophomore year of high school, I was showing my dad my report card of all A’s (again), and he said, “Colleen, the best thing you should do is to get a C. You will learn more from that than you will in achieving all A’s.” That puzzled me. It took me several years to understand that lesson. I was serving the wrong master. I was trying to do and be what I thought others thought I should be, instead of running my own race.
Growing up, did you plan on joining the family business?
Keri: When we were growing up, Dad was working for the corporation, so it wouldn’t have been considered joining a family business. It wasn’t until we were in college that they bought their first stores. Even then, there was never any pressure or expectation that we would join the “family business.” They raised us to go to college and dream our own dreams.
I attended St. Cloud State University and earned a B.S. degree in Management/Finance. Mary went to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and earned a B.S. degree in Political Science/Marketing. Colleen also attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and graduated with a B.S. degree in Business Administration/Management. We were encouraged to go make something of ourselves, wherever and whatever that may be, so we did.
What came next?
Keri: After college, I went to work for Deluxe Check Printers up in the Twin Cities. It was during that time that I met my husband, Dan. I worked at Deluxe for five years and then stayed home after having our son, Danny. I had the opportunity to start working for my parents remotely doing accounting and then became more involved as time went on. It was after we had our daughter, Lindsay, that we made the move to Mankato, and both Dan and I began working directly with the family business.
Colleen: Each year during college, I had a different job. One year I worked in the college dorm, another year I was a cashier at the grocery store, and another year I worked in retail. But each summer when I came back to Mankato, I worked at our Bamco restaurants.
During my junior year of college, there was an opportunity for me to do a management internship with McDonald’s in La Crosse, which is part of the Courtesy Corporation. Dick Lommen, Courtesy Corporation’s founder, was a good friend of my dad’s, so I signed up and got the internship. Prior to the internship, my experience with McDonald’s was at the crew level. This internship exposed me to the management side of McDonald’s. That is when my love and passion for McDonald’s became a career choice for me. The exposure to operations, systems, routines and management of people got in my blood. Dick had 14 restaurants then (now 53), whereas Bamco had two restaurants at that time. Those years were invaluable for me. Afterwards, I was able to move back to Mankato and help my dad grow Bamco from two to five restaurants.
What was it like working with your father?
Colleen: It was a great journey. Thirty-one years ago, Bamco was at two restaurants. Today, we’re at five. I’m forever grateful that my dad trusted me and gave me the room to help grow and develop his company. Of course, we had our struggles of working together. I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t have our moments. I’m sure some of his life lessons that he taught me came back to bite him when my “‘can’t’ is not a word” arguments wore him down to give into me.
My dad will always be a teacher with high standards and things to teach—stressing to always do the right thing because there is no other way to do it but the right way. He is brilliant. I always say that Keri got the finance, numbers, walking calculator side of my dad, and I got the operational side of his brain. Dad really set Keri and me up to purchase Bamco together without us realizing it. We need each other’s strengths to run Bamco, just like he needed our strengths to run Bamco. I could not do what Keri does. I love to be in the restaurants with the people and the action. That’s why Keri and I complement each other well.
Keri: My role in a sense was always different than Colleen’s. She was in the front lines working with Dad. He gave me a lot of room to learn what I needed to learn, and it became more of a trusted partnership. He counted on me for that. That was sacred. You did not want to mess that up. Our brains numerically were wired similarly, so it was the ying and the yang to what we needed to do. You always wanted to make sure you made him proud, so you always worked to the best of your abilities. It was expected of us. Second best was never accepted; you had to do your best.
What were the challenges of working in a family business?
Colleen: Well, there are pros and cons of working with a family business. My husband was also involved for 17 years, so, at that time, I had my dad, my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law and my husband all working together with me. I would say the hardest part of working in a family business is being able to shut work off when we’re all together. Sometimes we just wanted Thanksgiving to be Thanksgiving with no talk of the business, but with so many of us involved, it was natural for it to be part of the conversation. It took a lot of discipline to not talk about business when we were all together.
The positive side of a family business is that everyone has everyone’s back. You are there for each other and make sure the business runs well. Are there challenges? Yes. It was probably more difficult for Rick (my husband), my dad and myself, since the three of us were in operations. Ultimately, someone had to make the final decisions. There can only be one boss. My persistent side probably frustrated my husband and my dad, but in the end, I made the decision to take the lead role in the company.
Your father has been very open about his struggles with depression. How did you face that as a family while running the business?
Colleen: That has been part of our lives since I was five. We saw some of it at work—the ups and the downs. There were times that it was difficult to work with our dad, but we knew that he was not in the best emotional state. We just worked harder to make the business run and protect our dad. There have been times when we know that this person we love is not in a good spot, and we wish we could take the pain away when he did not realize the pain that he was causing others because he was not well. That has probably been the biggest difficulty.
Keri: It’s not a pretty disease. It is painful and gut-wrenching to see someone that you love struggling. Words cannot always describe what it is like. You figure out how to protect the one who is hurting. Empathy is incredibly important to have in order to help you manage.
Colleen: I think that what helped the most was when my dad shared about his mental illness (in his 2007 Connect Business Magazine cover story). When I was five, mental illness was not discussed. I remember being told, “Something is wrong with your dad’s brain.” But we didn’t talk about it. I remember my teacher telling me, “I know we shouldn’t talk to you about it.” So I didn’t really understand. I would get up in the morning, knowing that my mom and dad were up all night because my dad was suffering… I learned to have a different level of empathy for people. I always say McDonald’s is a people business that serves hamburgers. My dad’s illness taught me to have compassion for our employees and our customers. Every person has a story. Oftentimes, mental illness isn’t talked about openly. That was especially true when we were children. After my dad shared his story, it was amazing how many people will talk about it to us. Society as a whole is talking about it more and more. A lot of people suffer with mental illness. I’m glad that my dad shared. It has probably made it easier for a lot of people to understand. I see that in a lot of my employees, and I’m able to guide them and encourage them to seek help. With mental illness, you cannot wish it away or change your way of thinking. It’s not that easy. You can’t hide from it. It is really amazing how many people suffer, and they just don’t know how to get the help they need, or the support and understanding from their family.
Keri: It is a difficult disease. It is really hard. You consume so much energy trying to keep the ones you love protected from the effects of the disease. In some ways, we are a compassionate society, and in some ways, we are the cruelest society. If everybody paused long enough to hear the other side of the story, to truly engage and understand how others are doing, to care more, we would change our world. We will get there, but it takes a lot of work, a lot of caring and a lot of empathy and understanding. It is about helping one person at a time.
How has McDonald’s changed since the time you began working there?
Colleen: I started when I was 17, so back then there were a lot fewer items on the menu. Happy Meals were only available five times a year. There were only single lane drive thrus, and we didn’t have the automated beverage system that makes our drive thru sodas. Now, we have grilled chicken, salads, McGriddles, McCafe, Cuties, GoGurts and apple slices as menu options, just to name a few.
I understand that McDonald’s restaurants in Europe are using kiosks in their lobbies for ordering. Any chance we’ll see those here soon?
Colleen: In Europe, those countries are further advanced in the technology aspect of what they can provide for their customers. In the U.S., there are more than 13,000 restaurants to change out the technology and advance it to the level of Europe. It never happens as fast as we would like it to. Smaller markets make it easier to roll out and test the technological advances.
What other challenges did you face when you bought Bamco?
Colleen: Probably one of the biggest challenges for me when I bought the business was learning about commodities. That was just a side of the business that never fell on me. Dad made the pricing decisions. Several years ago, there was a lot of pressure on us as owner/operators to continue with the Dollar Menu, and at that time, wheat, corn and beef were at record highs. We lost money on every McDouble we sold. I had to make a decision that would negatively impact the business. My dad wasn’t there to do it for me. I needed to move the price of the McDouble from $1 to $1.19. It sounds easy, but it’s not. The fear was, if you took products off the Dollar Menu, how many customers would you lose? How much less often would customers come? We are a penny business. Our margins are tight. With the increased minimum wage changes and other increased cost pressures, there were tough decisions I had to make.
You mentioned wage affecting your margins. What are your thoughts on recent pushes to increase minimum wage even more?
Colleen: I believe business owners should make their own decisions on what to pay their employees, and the government shouldn’t be involved. To be competitive with attracting and retaining employees, businesses will always figure out the correct wage to pay. When the government proposes minimum wage increases, it plays well in the media that everyone should make more money. I don’t know a single business owner who doesn’t want to pay their employees more. The media doesn’t show that any minimum wage increase is really another income tax revenue stream for the government through payroll taxes.
What are the most rewarding parts of the business?
Colleen: Our employees and our customers. We have great employees! For many employees, we are providing them with their first job. They learn about teamwork, customer service, food preparation, food safety and cleanliness standards. My passion is developing our managers. I love teaching them that they are part of one of the world’s largest brands and here they are running a multimillion dollar restaurant. Bamco managers wear many hats; they are in charge of building sales, delivering great customer service, inventory management, training departments, accounting, human resources and operations. My dad stressed with me that we train people up until the day they leave. We never give up on someone. As a first time employer, we must teach them skills that they can take with them. That has stuck with me. I know not all managers will be with us for 20 years, but we have many who are, and I keep teaching all managers as if they will be. I have received many thank-you notes from past Bamco managers, thanking me for what I taught them and how it has helped them be successful in their careers. Knowing that I helped make a difference in their lives is rewarding.
Another great part is our customers. Every restaurant has several coffee groups. I call these groups the “Tables of Wisdom.” I thoroughly enjoy visiting and learning from them. I learn about their perspective on life, their family, their travels and their health issues. They keep me posted on the obituaries. They make me smile. I truly appreciate their business.
Explain how being an independent owner/operator works.
Colleen: Bamco is a separate corporation running independently of McDonald’s. By paying our franchise fees to McDonald’s, we operate their brand as independent owner/operators. I know that I will sell a heck of a lot more hamburgers as McDonald’s than I would as Colleen’s Hamburger Shop.
What are your thoughts on the decision of the National Labor Relations Board that quick service restaurant companies employ the staff of the franchises? How does this affect you and your restaurants?
Keri: We are an independent, small business. We operate a franchise, which pays rent and service fees to McDonald’s in order to utilize their brand. We are not run by the corporation. We are independent, and we make our business decisions and lead Bamco as an independently owned and operated business. We are separate entities, and that’s the way it needs to be. Otherwise, you lose the autonomy of being a small business owner.
McDonald’s has changed its look significantly in the last 10 years. How do you balance your history with staying modern?
Colleen: McDonald’s is evolving to a more sophisticated look. We want to be current and relevant, and we want our buildings to grow up as our customers have grown up. You’re already starting to see remodeled lobbies, and in the next few years, you’ll see more exteriors changed as well.
Some experts have said that the McDonald’s menu is getting too cluttered. What do you think?
Colleen: I absolutely agree. We are in the process of simplification right now. It is never as easy as it seems. McDonald’s has done studies showing that consumers have identified their favorite three items. As we try to streamline, we have to be cognizant that we don’t take off their second or third choice, because we would risk the consumer not visiting as often if we don’t have their favorite choices.
When the menu gets complex, it slows down our kitchen’s efficiency, and that’s what slows down our service. People are in a hurry. McDonald’s is between point A and point B—whether it’s soccer practice, work or class. We need to makes sure that when a customer comes through our drive thru or front counter, they can get through quickly. When you have many items on the menu, it just slows down that piece. Operationally, streamlining will help all of us deliver what our customers want when they want it and how they want it.
At the same time, McDonald’s has some pretty exciting things on the horizon, which will hopefully be released by next fall. It’s a combination of new products and simplification. I recently went out to Oregon and tested the new products, Chef Crafted Sandwiches, and they’re outstanding.
McDonald’s hired Steve Easterbrook as its new CEO in 2015. What are your hopes for his approach to the company?
Colleen: One of his priorities is about simplifying the menu but being regionally relevant, and that is so important. Years ago, we all had to have the same item at every single McDonald’s. But we all have different tastes. A Spicy McChicken didn’t go over as well in the Midwest as it did in the South. Steve has helped with simplifying the menu and being relevant to regional flavors.
What characteristics make a great employee?
Colleen: Attitude is everything.
Keri: Attitude is everything. It either opens your door or closes it. With the right attitude, you find your way through that door.
Getting to know you: Keri Solheid
Family: Husband Dan, son Danny (23), daughter Lindsay (20)
Hobbies: watching golf, reading, four-wheeling, snowmobiling, spending time with family
Favorite food on the McDonald’s menu: Sausage McMuffin with egg and a hash brown on it, McChicken, Diet Coke with extra ice
Getting to know you: Colleen Van Blarcom
Family: Husband Rick, daughter Jessi (21), sons Ryan (19) and Luke (18)
Organizations: School Board for Loyola, McDonald’s Twin Cities Co-Op Executive Board, YMCA, Mankato Area Healthy Youth, United Way, Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau, Women Operator Network (WON)
Favorite food on the McDonald’s menu: Diet Coke, Caramel Frappe, Quarter Pounter with Cheese, Hotcakes, Egg Biscuits
Like Father, Like Daughters
When it comes to the story of McDonald’s, both the local franchise in southern Minnesota and the worldwide corporation, Jerry Bambery plays a pretty big role.
Bambery started out as a McDonald’s crew person at the age of 17 and worked his way up through management, playing a pivotal role in developing the five-state region for McDonald’s corporation. He and his wife, Marilu, became owner/operators of a McDonald’s franchise in 1985 when he retired from McDonald’s and formed Bamco. Eventually, he operated five stores: three in Mankato, one in Faribault and one in Northfield.
In April of 2009, Jerry and Marilu sold Bamco to two of their three daughters, Colleen Van Blarcom and Keri Solheid.
Bambery was impressively successful during his 50-year stint in the fast food industry, and he had some simple advice on how he did it.
“In a penny business, if you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves,” he said. “Don’t waste. Sell what you buy. Be aware of your expenditures. A good manager should know how many dollars of labor he has on the floor at all times. He or she should know what a minute’s worth of time costs. These are simple rules. Good managers know these rules.”
Phone: (507) 345-1968
Address: 193 West Lind Court, Mankato, Minnesota