“It’s kind of like a mild toothache; it never goes away,” laughs Bill Mulholland, describing life as a franchisee. “It’s more than a job, or even a business; it’s a different culture and a way of life.”
In many respects, the New Jersey native grew up steeped in that culture, watching his father put in long days as the owner of a New York City deli. But as a teenager, Mulholland wanted to follow a different path. Rather than follow his father into the family business, he enrolled in Fairleigh Dickinson University as an accounting student. But an entrepreneurial spirit was embedded in his DNA and, shortly after earning his degree, he bought a truck and started a business. The business had nothing to do with coffee or donuts, but for Mulholland, the road to Dunkin’ really began with that truck.
“People ask ‘How on earth did you get into trucking after majoring in accounting?’” says Mulholland. “The answer is, there was an opportunity. I was a bar manager at TGI Fridays after college, and a co-worker there had a relative who owned a trucking company. I started doing sales for them, and I got them a lot of clients.”
Some of those clients were antique dealers who needed furniture delivered. But they weren’t big money-makers for the company, so they were often left off the schedule. Mulholland seized on another opportunity. “I asked them, ‘If I rent a truck, will you allow me to personally deliver your furniture?’” recalls Mulholland. “The answer was ‘yes,’ and that’s how I started.”
That job delivering antiques led to many others, and eventually Mulholland was delivering for several local furniture companies. He secured warehouse space, sold his car and bought a box truck. “I now had my own truck, which I could afford because I got rid of my car, so I had to drive that truck everywhere. I don’t think I owned a car for six years,” recalls Mulholland. “I was bartending at night and doing trucking during the day.”
His hard work paid off. One truck led to a fleet of 15 on the road, and 5,000 square feet of warehouse space grew to 20, then 50, then 100 thousand. “It snowballed, and I made sacrifices, but when things make sense, you want to just keep pushing forward.”
Mulholland still owns Bilco Moving and Storage. Over the years, he learned that the trucking business was not recession proof. When the economy slowed, so did furniture sales. But coffee was a different story. The Dunkin’ location near his house was busy every time he stopped in for coffee. He became acquainted with the owner, Tom Mascia, and began looking more closely at the brand. Just as he had done years before with that first truck, he seized the opportunity and in 2010 he bought a Dunkin’ store in Haledon N.J., not far from his home.
“I very open-mindedly went into the Dunkin’ world not knowing if I was going to succeed or fail,” recalls the 52-year-old entrepreneur. “I got in and really hit the ground running because I had to do a remodel the day we got in.” It was a 24-hour store and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say he spent nearly that many hours a day baking, working the counter and learning every aspect of the brand and the business.
After one year, sales at Mulholland’s Dunkin’ shop grew by 35 percent and he realized he should open another. “It wasn’t something I could comprehend at the beginning. I was just in business to have one store, but once you’re in it, you see other franchisee leaders who have 5, 10, 20 stores and you start thinking, I can do that.”
As Mulholland continued buying stores, he made a decision that kicked his company’s growth into overdrive. In 2015, he began buying property. “The first three properties I bought were from another franchisee. About a year later when I got an appraisal, the property values had doubled,” Mulholland explains earnestly. “Was it luck? No, it wasn’t. By putting your own leases inside your own properties, you become your own best tenant.”
The equity allowed him to buy more stores, and Mulholland found himself growing a second company, one that was named by the brand. “The powers that be said ‘we have to name you inside the Dunkin’ network, so we’re going to name you the Mulholland Network,’” he laughs at the memory. “Dunkin’ named us.”
Today, the Mulholland Network has 37 Dunkin’ restaurants, with another three under construction in New York and New Jersey and other real estate holdings. “Honestly, it’s like a snowball downhill. But I think it’s helpful to see where I started and where we’re at today. Basically, owning half our real estate today is one key to the success and it’s catapulting me to invest in other brands.”
Those other brands include Jersey Mike’s. Mulholland owns nine sandwich shops in New Jersey and has five in the pipeline for Fort Myers and Naples, Florida. He’s also signed an agreement with Inspire to develop a new brand concept, Buffalo Wild Wings Go. Mulholland plans to open 10 locations in New Jersey and five in Fort Myers. When asked about the future of his company, Mulholland’s answer is simple: “I want to be where I can be, and whatever comes my way, I want to be ready.”
With that philosophy, his team is exploring additional growth opportunities with all three brands: Dunkin’, Jersey Mikes and Buffalo Wild Wings. “It’s a business trifecta if you can buy the property and put three of your brands in. In some ways, we’re becoming a real estate company that sells coffee, sandwiches and wings.” Beyond quick-service, Mulholland is also scouting investments elsewhere in the hospitality industry, including full-service restaurants and hotels.
Mulholland credits the franchise model for providing him with the tools and training to succeed. But he maintains that there’s also an X Factor at play. “That X Factor is the quality of work you do. But also, the way you hire, retain and treat your crew. That’s all up to you.”
Mulholland speaks with pride about his team, now with more than 800 employees. Many of them have been with him since the start, some are childhood friends and others made the move over from Dunkin’ corporate – including Tom Schultz, who trained Mulholland and many others, as new franchisees. This year, Mulholland’s 17-year-old son joined the company as a high school intern.
“We’re a family. We lead with empathy and compassion. That’s first and foremost. You have to put yourself in another person’s shoes and you have to feel what they’re going through. As leaders, we’re teachers, parents, cheerleaders and psychologists at any given time.” Mulholland continues, “The other thing is, this business isn’t 9 to 5. It really is a way of life and a different kind of culture that we have. We’re results-oriented and if you’re getting the results, we’re good.”
During employee interviews, candidates are sometimes asked non-traditional questions about the last movie they saw, where they grew up or their favorite pastimes. “It’s not necessarily about what they can do for us, because we can train for that. I want to see that you’re a happy, motivated, inspired person and we can work on everything else. We sell coffee and donuts, but we’re really in the people business. If you really get that piece, people will always have your back.”
Mulholland’s ‘people first’ focus extends beyond the company walls with the recognition that while Dunkin’ is a national brand, his is a local business. As such, the Mulholland Network allocates a percentage of revenue to give back to every community where they open a store. They support local schools with several fundraisers a year, from golf outings to fashion shows. Mulholland is also active in the New York Chapter of the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation and is a sponsor for the chapter’s annual May gala.
Mulholland says years of working 24/7 have given him the privilege of giving back, and also the privilege of time spent with his family. You can often find him with his wife, Danielle, cheering on their children—either at their son’s baseball games or his two daughters’ softball games and dance competitions. “Early in my career I was not around at all, I was always working. Now, I have a team in place that allows me to work from anywhere. It’s the other side of the rainbow, which is really why you go into business.”