Mo Jessa: Duke of Earls

Mo Jessa has worked his way up from a summer job as a prep cook to become president of Earls Restaurants

Earls Restaurants president Mo Jessa is so passionate about leadership that he earned an executive coaching certification from Royal Roads University

The new president of Earls Restaurants sits at a booth in the 65-restaurant chain's Hornby Street store and recounts a life-changing situation that inspired him to learn about leadership and coaching.    

Mo Jessa and his twin brother, Al, had drifted apart and hadn't spoken in years. Suddenly Al started reaching out and doggedly pursued a normalized relationship.

"I thought, 'When is this going to wear off?'" said Jessa.

"But he kept pressing until the relationship was restored. It was a relentless pursuit, and I wondered why."

Al had been taking leadership courses and one lesson was to look within for blind spots and obstacles to progress.

Jessa took similar courses that led to him completing an executive coaching certification program at Royal Roads University in 2011.

"What I saw is that being an effective leader does not just come from adding information through reading or looking at what others are doing," Jessa said.

"You have the same responsibility to find out the things that you already know that are holding you back."

Friends say that he practises what he preaches.

"Mo is a living testimony and witness to the power of personal development," said Ken Beasley, who is president of Key Foods and once worked with Jessa at Earls.

"He is always open to feedback, constructive or otherwise, and is continually looking to develop himself in anticipation of the next step.

"This combined with his innate ability has been the recipe for Mo's success."

Jessa sometimes volunteers as a speaker at corporate events and has won praise for that generosity.

"Our franchise owners talk about it as one of the best presentations we've ever had at one of our annual retreats," said Sussex Insurance COO Aly Kanji. "He speaks about his own experiences and shares in a way that others relate to."

Being able to relate to workers comes naturally to Jessa, who is 47 years old.

Perhaps that is because he started at Earls in an entry-level position in the late 1980s, when he was going to the University of Calgary and harboured dreams of becoming a doctor.

Mediocre marks in his science classes were a far cry from the straight-A academic performance that he had achieved in high school. He realized that he needed a Plan B.

Jessa considered going into business with some friends from university, but, as time passed, it became clear that he was deep into an accidental career.

He had become a senior cook opening an Earls restaurant in Calgary and had completed the Red Seal Program.

Jessa's climb up the corporate ladder continued.

He became a sous chef, chef of various Earls restaurants in the Alberta region and then regional chef, overseeing five B.C. locations.

In 2000, he became the company's executive chef and then, in 2005, its vice-president of operations.

"As an East Indian boy, the idea of working in a kitchen was not something I dreamed of," he said.

Born in Tanzania, Jessa moved to Canada when he was 13 and his Ismaili parents fled the war-torn country.

"My family wanted me to be an accountant, an engineer, a lawyer or doctor. The idea that I would stay with Earls wasn't there."

Part of what changed his mind about pursuing a career at Earls was the pride that he noticed in his co-workers.

Training at Earls instils what he calls a "passion to do something noble for the customer rather than just a task to perform and finish."

Suddenly a server appears, as if on cue. Jessa is offered freshly made sourdough bread.

The company plans to launch the freshly made bread in all its kitchens on July 31, and kitchen staff are working hard to get it right.

"This is one of the toughest breads to make because it uses a live yeast starter," Jessa explained.

Earls' initiative to start making sourdough bread in each of its stores instead of contracting the job out or making the bread in a common commissary underscores one of the main reasons for the chain's success.

Ever since Earl (Bus) Fuller and son CEO Stan Fuller founded the venture in 1982 in Edmonton, the company has emphasized fresh ingredients.

Now a venture that generates $250 million annually and employs 5,000 staff, Earls plans rapid expansion south of the border.

Expansion across western Canada and Ontario followed the "cluster" strategy where the company targeted larger cities and opened multiple locations close to each other.

That's changing.

Earls' U.S. locations include three restaurants in Denver and one in Bellevue, Washington. Instead of filling out Seattle or expanding further in the Colorado capital, the next Earls opening is surprisingly set for Miami early in 2014.

That's about as far from the company's Vancouver head office as is possible in the U.S.

The next Earls openings are slated for Boston and Chicago later in 2014.

"What we're going to test is the idea of skimming the best locations and take the best possible sites in the U.S. instead of worrying about clusters," Jessa said. "We're not handcuffing ourselves. Just because we opened in Miami, it doesn't mean that we have to open in Tampa Bay or Fort Lauderdale."

Part of the rationale for opening in Miami is that landlord Simon Property Group Inc. (NYSE:SPG) approached Earls with the opportunity.

Simon owns or has an interest in 326 retail real estate properties comprising 241 million square feet in North America and Asia.

Jessa said many of its malls are high-end and have appropriate demographics for future Earls restaurants.

His goal is to open four new restaurants in each of the next five years.

"Our constraint for growth is not capital nor is it sites," Jessa said. "The question is 'Who are the people to run the stores and are they ready?'"