How do you retain employees and ensure the healthy development of your franchise? For East of Chicago Pizza Co., the answers lie in its Mastering Appropriate Skills Through Employee Recognition System (MASTERS) program. MASTERS, which was implemented early this year, is open to franchisees and corporate and store-level employees, training them in all aspects of store operation and corporate culture.

Franchise Zone spoke with Cory Washburn, vice president of operations for the chain, about why programs like MASTERS are so important to a franchise system.

Franchise Zone: Where did you get the idea for the MASTERS program?

Cory Washburn: We recognized that finding and keeping good employees is difficult. Other operations were saying they'd pay $7 or $8 an hour to attract people. It's not dollars alone that keeps employees-it's also important for employees to feel they're being developed as a person and that they're part of a company that offers opportunity for them. Our reasoning [behind MASTERS] was to use it as a recruitment and retention tool so employees would want to stay involved and know opportunity exists within the company.

How does the program work?

Basically, it's a six-level program. The levels increase in difficulty and challenge. Level one introduces [participants] to the culture of the company and starts to train them in operational skills. On level two, for intermediate employees, we start to cross-train them within the unit, teaching them to make our pan dough. Level three introduces a real leadership role-once they reach that level, they're a certified trainer. At level four, they're qualified to be a shift supervisor; at level five, a store manager; and at level six, a franchise operator.

We didn't want it to become a typical training program which is why the program has three elements: knowledge, performance review and a certification exam, for which there's a minimum passing percentage. This allows us to make it a competency-based program, to find out not only whether employees are learning and performing, but whether our trainers are doing their job.

We're very careful in specifying that even though we tell employees when they reach a level four or five, they're qualified to be a shift supervisor or general manager, we aren't guaranteeing them a position. But it certainly means they have the skills and knowledge for the position.

The other benefit we saw for the company is it would allow us to create a company-wide rating system for employees' level of experience and training. If an employee happens to relocate to another city and wants to work for a franchisee there, they can list on their resume, "I'm level-four certified." We all understand what that means and can be sure that person has the level of skills we're looking for.

Please the People

Are there any rewards or recognition for participants?

At every level, they get a letter from the president of the company. They receive a different type of nametag they can wear on their uniform. There are also small gifts from the company, such as a T-shirt or an attach with their name on it.

At level six, the company offers a real enticement: We take 50 percent off of the franchise fee. Or if the participant doesn't want to become a franchisee, we also offer coaching opportunities to help them with whatever they want to do. At our annual conference, for anyone who's achieved a level-six status during the year, we'll have an actual formal commencement in front of the entire franchise body. They'll be recognized by the founder of the company and formally given their level-six certification, a plaque and gift from the company saying, "Welcome to the MASTERS Hall of Fame."

A person has very few formal ceremonies in his or her life-a high school and maybe college graduation, maybe a wedding. And we thought we needed to make this special for somebody's who's taken that much time, put forth that much effort to reach the pinnacle of our program. When we hold our annual expo next November, we hope to have our first graduating class of level-six certified employees in the MASTERS program.

Is participation required of all employees?

When we created the program, we said, "Let's inspire them rather than create policy." It ended up being a very good strategy, because those who have participated are cheerleaders and encouragers for the other people. So participation is not required.

Why not?

We had to design the program with the franchise operator in mind. We made it easy to facilitate, where we weren't pulling employees out of the store for a long period of time. We wanted to allow employees to go through the program on their own time, so even if the franchisee didn't actively promote the program, the employee could still participate. All the franchisees have been more than willing; some have joined it themselves. The participation continues to snowball.

How important is it to have a program like this?

I don't see how we ever survived without it. One of things I noticed is that even McDonald's is talking about a program like this within their company. I think about how challenging it must be for a company that size to implement, and I feel fortunate we recognized the need for that when we did, even though it was still a challenge.

Would you suggest smaller franchises develop a program like this?

Franchises are going to be ahead of the game if they start developing their employees-a franchise is only going to be as good as its people. It's something even large franchises have to consider.

Will MASTERS participation someday be a requirement for supervisory and management positions?

That's certainly going to be at the discretion of the franchisee. We've encouraged some franchisees to go beyond what we've set in terms of incentives. Some franchisees have indicated they'll require a person to have level-five certification, for example, if they want to become a general manager. That's great from our perspective. We encourage that, although as a company we're not requiring it at this point.