Scratching his way to the top

Mary Brown’s CEO talks about his humble beginnings

Bonnie Belec
Published on March 29, 2014

Greg Roberts jokingly says much like the chicken recipe used at Mary Brown’s Famous Chicken and Taters, his business career was built from scratch.

Coming from a family of 11 children whose father died when he was a young boy, the owner and CEO of the fried chicken franchise says they were all expected to work back then.

Roberts, 41, who was named one of the Top 40 entrepreneurs in Canada under the age of 40 in 2011, and Entrepreneur of the year in 2008, grew up on Triton Island in Green Bay, central Newfoundland.

His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were small business owners and he says it was from them he developed his work ethic and passion for entrepreneurship.

“Since I started in 1998, I feel like I haven’t really worked, even though I put in lots of hours, every day of every year. But it didn’t feel like work because I had passion for it. If you have that, other things come later,” Roberts said.

“If you go into business trying to make a lot of money, it’s probably not going to work. It’s like any discipline — sports, arts or whatever  — if you have passion for something you’ll do well and the rewards will come later, be it financial or self-fulfilment,” he said.

After graduating from Memorial University in 1998 with a bachelor of commerce degree and then obtaining his chartered accountant designation, Roberts decided public accounting wasn’t his calling and he left the firm and bought a tiny gas station on Pilley’s Island in rural Newfoundland.

“I never had any money so I started really small. My brother took over my father’s garage, so I started from scratch,” he said.

“There was a small business for sale and they couldn’t sell it, so he let me pay him out. I used credit cards and was creative,” Roberts said of his first venture.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I worked really hard. Education is very important. Business is really difficult and competitive these days. I think you need a business education — that certainly helps,” he said.

He branched out in the community of about 350 people and bought a pharmacy and other retail businesses in the area.

“I just kept building and building, and eventually got into the restaurant business — pizza places. Then I got into Mary Brown’s,” he said.

His first franchise was in Springdale and he picked up three more before buying the brand and company in 2007.

“The brand is really taking off,” said Roberts, who still calls Newfoundland home.

“It’s a great product, fresh chicken, with a recipe made from scratch, and we’re just capitalizing on that now. The previous owners were staying at the status quo. They didn’t reinvest and had no big-picture strategy,” he said.

According to Roberts and background material on the company website, Mary Brown’s originated in Richmond, Va. under the name Golden Skillet. Two Newfoundlanders — Pat Tarrant and Cyril Fleming — bought the rights for the company in Canada in 1969, but because of legal rights, had to change the name.

Mary Brown was the wife of the owner of Golden Skillet in Virginia, so Tarrant and Fleming called their new venture after her.

The company went under in the U.S. and eventually got into trouble in Canada in the 1970s. A group of shareholders picked it up before Roberts acquired it from them in 2007.

“Yes, I sell a lot of chickens,” he says, laughing when asked about his success. 

Today the company has outlets in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Ontario. It opened it’s 100th store on March 3 in Barrie, Ont.

They’ve also expanded outside Canada and opened the first international franchise in Istanbul, Turkey in November 2013.

“It was a lot of work in Turkey, and we’re still developing it,” Roberts said.

“We’re doing a lot of international development and establishing brand recognition, but so far so good.” 

 According to company information, Mary Brown’s sales have doubled during the last seven years and the company has been recognized for the past three years by the Canadian Franchise Association (CFA) with the Franchisee Satisfaction Award.

Roberts says life is good, not only because of his success, but because of how it has come about and the relationship he has with his team.

“Entrepreneurship may not be for everyone. You have to work hard, put in the hours and lead by example,” he said of the  more than 1,200 people who work with the company.

“Don’t ask anyone to do what you wouldn’t do yourself and, in the grand scheme of things, whether you are a small business or a big corporation, you need to develop a good corporate culture and a place where people feel candid to exchange their ideas,” he said.

“(Candidness) is huge, huge, huge. I can’t stress enough being candid, that openness, and people not being scared to speak up and tell you what’s going on. If we didn’t have that atmosphere, we wouldn’t get ahead,” said Roberts.

Last year, he appeared on “Undercover Boss Canada,” a reality television show. He said he declined the opportunity twice before, because he’s a private person, but after it was over he was glad he did it.

“I met loyal, hardworking staff in the company across Canada. It was a humbling experience,” said Roberts, who posed as a new employee who was being followed by a film crew making a documentary about the rapidly expanding chicken industry.

He worked as  frontline employee, cooking and serving the chicken, cleaning the fryers, serving customers at the main counter and in the drive-thru, and making home deliveries. At one store, he dressed up in a chicken suit.