There are a lot of emotions wrapped up in the forthcoming retirement of company great Jeff Williams, Chief Operations Officer (COO), who has devoted the better part of his career to Border Foods.
Jeff joined the company in 1996 soon after his wife, the late Carol Williams, accepted a position. Actually, she’s the one that set up his interview with co-Founder Lee Engler (Jeff and Carol were already married).
And when Carol passed away in 2018, Jeff took on the very unique role of assuming the leadership position of his beloved spouse, carrying on her legacy and simultaneously building upon his own. So in a way, Jeff’s retirement marks the close of an important era in Border Foods’ history.
The Early Years
Jeff takes us back to the ’90s when he first joined Border Foods as a District Manager (the equivalent of today’s Area Coach).
“We went through such a metamorphosis over time,” he says of that period. The company that Jeff and Lee Engler bought from Taco Bell, he says, wasn’t properly staffed — he estimates at least half of the 62 restaurants didn’t have managers. Many closed. Because of this, the early days were just about survival and getting the right people in place.
And yet even from the start, he says, the importance of family culture was apparent. It’s shared in that first interview and permeates throughout orientation. Here, this isn’t forced culture; it’s part of the very fabric of Border Foods.
In fact, it’s this embedded family culture that Jeff has watched evolve impressively during his tenure. Border Foods now hosts annual Family Fun Days appreciation events, rewards its top 20 percent with the annual Best of the Best trip, and remains committed to providing educational scholarships and more robust employee benefits offerings than its competitors.
“We value our people,”
Jeff says matter-of-factly.
Jeff was mostly in the field throughout the early years. Once he moved up to a corporate position, of which there were only a handful at the time, he met Jeff and Lee for breakfast on a weekly basis. It’s one of his favorite memories.
“I loved working with Jeff and Lee so closely,” he says, sharing that the Englers’ generosity and level of involvement as entrepreneurs is not commonplace in the field.
Jeff was holding the title of Senior Vice President when he agreed to take over Carol’s position in 2018 and eventually, moved into the COO position.
Now, Jeff doesn’t seem to be one who can tout his own accomplishments. He quickly deflects; this humility brings us back to a focus on team and company excellence. He’s extremely proud of Border Foods’ impact on peoples’ lives.
“I think a few years back, I coined the phrase ‘making lives better,’” he says. “To quantify our vision, purpose … this is how we have the opportunity to change peoples’ lives.”
He shares an example of an employee who had a whiteboard in her office where she displayed handwritten goals. One was to “get promoted to buy a bigger house” for her family. Jeff feels good about working where dreams like these are entirely possible!
“I believe people need to believe in something bigger than them,” he says. “… part of who we are is that we want to be the best.”
“Our family culture is the foundation, but what drives us is excellence.”
– Jeff Williams, retiring COO
That excellence really paid off in 2018 when the Engler brothers received the highest honor in the Taco Bell world, the Glen Bell Award (named after the brand’s founder). Moved by company accomplishments more than his own, Jeff says that that was a great day for him, and a very emotional one.
Defining His Legacy
“Running an organization like this has kind of been a dream come true,” he shares. “… I hope the legacy is that the company is even more successful moving forward.”
Jeff hopes to see Border Foods continue to offer exceptional job opportunities and mindfully do the right things. Of him and his colleagues, he says “we are all so incredibly lucky to have stumbled into this environment.”
So what’s next? Jeff admits he’s feeling a little nervous about this next chapter.
“You do something for so long,” he says. “Now you have to become something else.” As COO of a family-focused company, it will come as no shock that Jeff plans to spend more time with grandkids. He also plans to get back into volunteering. Meanwhile, we’ve got BIG shoes to fill! But Jeff’s legacy will be irreplaceable.