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MOD Pizza CEO Scott Svenson: ‘Culture Travels through Stories’

MOD Pizza CEO Scott Svenson
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In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, Maxwell Leadership Thought Leader Don Yaeger sits down with MOD Pizza Co-Founder and CEO Scott Svenson to discuss what sports taught him about energizing purpose-driven teams. 

Every business should have a story that encapsulates its reason for being — its “why” to use Simon Sinek’s word — beyond making money or even filling a need in the marketplace. MOD Pizza is a fast-casual restaurant chain that offers artisan-style pizzas and salads at 500 locations across America. But that’s not MOD Pizza’s story. In fact, says Co-Founder and CEO Scott Svenson, that barely scratches the surface.

“MOD Pizza is a best-in-class, highly profitable business whose purpose is to serve people and contribute to a world that works for and includes everyone,” Svenson said, who founded the chain with his wife Ally in 2008. “That’s our story…and our mission.” The business now has 12,000 employees but the person who embodies the mission best is a man named Kory Harp, who is getting ready to celebrate his 13th anniversary at the company he came to work for straight out of prison, wearing an ankle bracelet.

Scott and Ally Svenson

“When Ally and I founded MOD Pizza, we wanted to build a business that made a difference in people’s lives, and we reflected on our experience as athletes,” explained Svenson, who played football at Harvard. “Like a great team, a great business wants to put ‘points on the board’ — i.e., profit — but it should also make sure everyone shares in the win.”

To the Svensons’ way of thinking, “everyone” included people who have just come out of prison, people who were homeless or recently come out of rehab; people who had a hard time finding any community or connection; people who might be considered outsiders but who Svenson figured needed someone to believe in them.

People like Harp. If hiring a man who had done hard time in prison seemed unconventional, you can imagine how outrageous people thought it was when Svenson eventually promoted Harp to general manager because of his hard work. Svenson believed not only that Harp deserved promotion but also that he embodied MOD Pizza’s purpose to a tee.

Harp proved Svenson’s astuteness when, upon learning of the offer of promotion to GM and the larger salary that came with it, Harp refused to talk about money. Instead he asked for a few minutes to step away and call his grandmother to report the good news. “Kory told us that our belief in him was payment enough,” Svenson said. Harp got his raise and went on to establish himself as a top leader among his fellow managers.

In the podcast, Svenson explores corporate culture at the intersection of sports, business and social impact, offering lessons targeted for purpose-driven leaders including:

  • How to excel by thinking like a “business athlete” who understands the rules of the game, what game you’re playing and what’s in bounds and out of bounds.
  • How to bake your company’s purpose into its product from day one.
  • How to build your company culture on a four-quadrant flywheel of purpose, people, profit and repetition.

Balancing the flywheel to ensure you are achieving both profit and purpose, while taking care of your people, takes work, says Svenson, but the rewards make the efforts more than worth it. “What we found is that by virtue of giving opportunities to people like that, they generally showed up in a way that is filled with gratitude, and generosity.”


Check out the full interview archive for interviews with Condoleezza Rice, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan.


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