He shared his journey from growing up in New York to owning and operating a multimillion-dollar, 450-franchise pizza restaurant.
At this bi-annual Liberty Business Connections breakfast on Sept. 27, Mr. Croce said he grew up with a spirit of appreciation as a young boy in Brooklyn that has continued to this day. He attributed much of his business success to developing a business culture that embraces appreciation.
“It is so important to love what you do and appreciate each other,” he said. “We need to love each other and lift each other up.”
When he was 8-years-old and the oldest of six kids, his mother passed away, thrusting him into adulthood that led to self-destructive behaviors. His father enrolled him in military school and taught him that he needed to be accountable for his actions, which led to the next point in his talk, one of accountability.
“When in doubt, point within,” he said. “Your business will be more successful if all of the energy is spent on being better versus trying to protect and defend yourself.”
While in military school, he would hear disparaging remarks aimed at him and his schoolmates by golfers who played on a green in close proximity to his school, and he promised himself that if he were ever successful in life that that he would treat people better than he was treated.
“How do you treat people – all people?” he asked. “In your office, do you just walk by and say, ‘How was your weekend,’ or do you actually stop and try to connect with people in your organization so they will know you really care?”
Mr. Croce said he wanted all of his employees to feel valued and important, so when he visited his restaurants, he would immediately head for the kitchen, start cutting pizzas, and then put on an apron to wash and dry dishes.
“When people really believe that you care, they will run through walls for you,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many times people protected me and our organization because they cared so much.”
During military school, he had the choice each afternoon to march with a rifle or play football as an athlete – he chose football.
After high school, he had the opportunity to play against future NFL legend Earl Campbell, and after a collision with him on the field, Joe knew football was not going to be his plan, so he committed to outworking everyone in the classroom, and he never earned less than an A from that point on.
He challenged audience members to take a look at how hard they are working within their organization.
“If you are young and single, you need to get skin in the game and do whatever it takes because there is no substitution for putting in long hours,” he said. “When you are a little older with a family and need balance, you must perfect your time management skills.”
He added, “Show me a manager who is constantly working, and I’ll show you people who are working hard too.”
After graduating from college with an accounting degree, Mr. Croce became an accountant but discovered he wasn’t passionate about this line of work, and it was then that he came up with the idea of starting a pizza business. He loved everything about pizza, how it brought joy to people’s lives.
“If you’re not passionate and don’t love what you’re doing, you are going to take it out on your friends and family, and it’s not going to end well,” he said.
He then tried to raise money for his business, and after 150 people turned him down, someone said yes and CiCi’s was born. In a time when pizza restaurants were either carryout or delivery, he made the decision to be different and start a sit-down pizza restaurant with a buffet.
The culture and attitude of CiCi’s constantly evaluated how they could do things differently, including creating innovative pizza topping combinations.
“Each business needs a point of difference to be successful,” he said. “Are you just trying to be a little better or are you insisting creativity from your people and a culture of accountability with no finger pointing, insisting that you must be different?”
As his business started to grow, he began to feel like something was missing – even with status, fame, and money.
He realized he wanted a family and said he found the best wife and kids in the world who brought him great joy, but still something was missing.
His heart changed after he processed something his wife told him one evening. She told him that God doesn’t want to punish or judge because He is a loving God, unlike people on earth.
He then discovered that God had to give him everything to show him that he really didn’t have anything without a relationship with Him.
“My hope and my prayer is that God is the center of your universe,” he said. “I’m convinced you can’t have a good marriage, success in business, and great kids and friends unless God is the center of your universe.”
Make plans to attend the next Liberty Business Connections Breakfast on Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 8 a.m. in Commons Place.