Some eight years ago, Capital City native Joe Walker was in military gear fighting Iraqi insurgents, a world removed from becoming the CEO of a 14-store pizza business with 400 employees and sales of $11 million.
The 33-year-old has used his business savvy, military experience, a disciplined franchise structure and the financial help of a family friend to craft himself into a Marco’s Pizza magnate of sorts.
From a singular store in Northeast Richland 31/2 years ago, Walker has rapidly opened the lesser-known pizza chain across the Midlands, the Upstate, the coast and even one in Wilmington, N.C. That store was a milestone for the franchise – its 500th operation in a business dominated by Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s. Walker’s most recent store opened last month on Sunset Boulevard in Lexington County.
“I’ve got quite a few eggs in this basket,” said the father of three, who relishes his franchisee role with Marco’s Pizza. “I have not been disappointed.”
Harold Tuma, a friend and adviser to Walker, was the then-20-something’s initial financial investor. At 83, Tuma remains active in the business.
“He has met every goal that he and I talked about, before we ever started,” Tuma said. “I would do it again.”
Eight of the stores are in the Columbia area. Walker said he wants to double the number of his stores in three years, doing even more battle in the $46 billion U.S. pizza industry.
In 2007, Walker was fighting the tail-end of an enemy insurgency against U.S. and coalition troops after those forces had toppled Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist-led government.
He applied military habits to his business.
“Marco’s resonated with me at first experience because of the absolute adherence to all operational standards expected of all its franchisees,” Walker said. Each Marco’s Pizza operated by Walker and his umbrella management company, JH Development, requires a separate franchise agreement.
“My choice to invest in Marco’s Pizza was based on the brand’s stringent, almost militaristic standards as they pertained to the product integrity across the brand, the service in providing the product, and the overall image of the brand.”
Every store employs 25 to 30 part-time and full-time workers, totaling about 400, including management and staff, Walker said. About a dozen people work at JH Development, overseeing the daily business of the 14 restaurants. Walker also handles regional marketing and development duties through a separate company. He’ seldom goes to a store.
“I could not do, nor continue to grow, if I had to stop and focus on those areas of specialty that our team attacks daily,” said Walker, who has a personal and family background in commercial development and cotton merchandising.
Marco’s Pizza was founded in 1978 by an Italian immigrant named Pasquale “Pat” Giammarco. He opened his first store in Toledo, Ohio. The company now has more than 500 stores in 36 states, with more than 1,200 new franchise deals under commitment, the company has said. Marco’s is moving to quadruple its store count within seven years.
Walker said Marco’s pizzas are made with fresh ingredients. Dough is made in each store each day, he said, adding the pizzas are made with a proprietary, three-cheese blend that is never frozen and contains no fillers.
“We spend more money on cheese each week than we do on everything else in the store combined,” Walker said. “As a result, people love the product.”
Tuma remains a fan of Walker’s character as well as his business sense.
“Joe’s a great young man,” the Lexington resident said. “If more young people today could see how he operates and acts – he sets the example for all the people in the corporation.”
More importantly, Tuma said, “Joe keeps his life in balance with his family, his business, his church – and he finds time to play golf.”
Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398
Who is Joseph Walker III?
▪ A 33-year-old Columbia native
▪ A graduate of Hammond School and Wofford College
▪ A soldier who spent a year overseas and three years as an infantry officer at Fort Benning, Ga.
▪ A husband to wife Haley and father of three
Since opening his first Marco’s Pizza in September 2011 on Hard Scrabble Road, Joe Walker’s company has moved quickly.
2012: Two more opened locally
2013: Four opened in Florence, Anderson, Cayce and Irmo
2014: Six opened in Myrtle Beach, Garden City, Sumter, Greenwood, the Columbia area and Wilmington, N.C.
2015: One on Sunset Boulevard in Lexington
SOURCE: Marco’s Pizza