The Primitive Podcast: Blake Buchanan
Posted by Kade Wilcox | January 6, 2021
Rooted in Tenacity Blake Buchanan has just “Figured It Out”
Behind every powerful success story are countless tales of grit, hope, determination, and, of course, heartache. Blake Buchanan, CEO, and co-founder of Bahama Bucks, takes us on the winding 30-year journey to create what is now a beloved nationwide franchise.
Already one of our favorite episodes, hear more from Blake Buchanan in this episode of The Primitive Podcast. We promise you won’t want to miss it.
Kade Wilcox (00:00):
Hey guys, Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. Thank you for tuning into this week's episode. We hosted Blake Buchanan, the CEO and one of the co-founders of Bahama Bucks, which is now a really large franchise. Just a fascinating story of tenacity and stick-to-it-ness. As one example, they only had 20 stores in the first 20 years and then have since exploded. It was just a really great conversation. I think you'll really enjoy it. As always, thank you for listening to the podcast, please share with your friends and help us grow our audience. We really appreciate you.
Kade Wilcox (00:49):
Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you joining The Primitive Podcast and I'm really excited to have you because everyone, if you're from Lubbock or the area knows exactly what Bahama Bucks is. Especially if you have little kids. But that's kinda all I know about you, that you started Bahama Bucks. And so I can't wait to hear more about your story and learn a little bit about leadership from you. So for those who don't know who you are, why don't you just start by giving a little bit about your background and your story, and then we'll dig into how you started Bahama Bucks and all that fun stuff.
Blake Buchanan (01:29):
Absolutely Kade. Thanks for having me by the way. My name is Blake Buchanan, I'm founder and CEO of Bahama Bucks franchise corporation. And incidentally, it started right here in Lubbock, Texas. I was a sophomore at Texas Tech University. Looking for that summer job and I read a want ad of a guy selling shaved ice equipment and thought, man, I'm going to start a snow shack here. That'd be really fun. Back in the day, it's really interesting because at the time we built what we considered a massive snow shack because in that day, it was huge. It was 240 square feet with a drive through and parking and AC and a bathroom. So it was like, wow, this wonder. And now I look at that and that's the same size of one of our walk-in freezers now.
Blake Buchanan (02:13):
So it's just a tiny thing, but it really was a story of adventure. We, like a lot of businesses out there, had a lot of ups and downs and valleys and peaks to our story and our story is really one of tenacity. It is really sticking with something for a long period of time and just being passionate about what you do. So it's a lot of spit and grit. And one thing most people don't know about Bahama Bucks is our journey. We're celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. So I'll save you the math. I was 20 when we started, I turned 50 this year, so it's a big milestone. It's a big adventure year for us. But it's an interesting journey and it's full of neat lessons along the way.
Blake Buchanan (02:55):
The one that most people overlook is they look at where we are now in the nice corporate headquarters in the support center, in all the franchisees we have, and shops from Puerto Rico to California. And they're like, wow, overnight success. But it took us 20 years to get 20 stores. So I burned, my twenties, burned my thirties, just chasing a dream. And when I turned 40, we opened our 20th store. And so it really is one of those where you really press into your family, you press into your friends, and it really gets gritty because you have to know who you are, what you're built to do, and what your passions are, especially as a leader and as a person. So it's a fun story, but I wish it was someone else's. But it's ours.
Kade Wilcox (03:39):
Well, there's so much to jump into there. When you started it when you were 20 what did you anticipate? Did you just see it as a summer job and then you'd graduate and you'd move on to finance or healthcare or whatever you were interested at the time. What were you anticipating or aspiring to other than a summer job? And then at what point did you realize this is what I'm really going to pursue.
Blake Buchanan (04:05):
Both great questions because initially it was a horizontal move for me. I'd been mowing lawns with my brothers since I was 10 years old. We had put trailers and trucks and crews together. And so it was a big thing, but I was like, I'm going to try this other adventure. And it really was a way just to get through college and get a little extra spending money and all that. And so I thought it was a fun idea. Now in 1992, I graduate, take a stockbroker position out in Phoenix, Arizona. So that's what took me out there. And it really takes your first real job to realize, Oh, wow. I really liked what I was doing on that other one. So I took on my business partner, Eric Lee, who's a college buddy of mine and my father, Tom Buchanan to join the ranks with us and we just looked at it. And I have to tell you, Kade, as a young 22 year old entrepreneur, I thought I would have a hundred stores in my spiel to them I said give me three, maybe four years we'll have a hundred stores. And if you do the math, you're like, wow, that's amazing. And little did I know it took a lot more than just wishing and hoping.
Kade Wilcox (05:07):
So did you grow up in an entrepreneurial home? You mentioned that you had started mowing lawns at a very early age and you had crews and trucks. So who, or what fostered that kind of entrepreneurial spirit in you?
Blake Buchanan (05:19):
I think it was just the experience, the idea in our family has always been adventurous. My father was somewhat of an entrepreneur as he was doing insurance agencies and things like that. But the real desire came as just a young kid when you're trying to figure out, hey I like sweets, I know where the 7-11 is, but I don't have any money. And so we just knock on doors and say, Hey, can we cut your grass? Can we sweep the sidewalks? What can we do? Earn five bucks and go blow it on Slurpees and Kit-Kats or whatever. And so it really was this desire at a young age, you just weren't employable, so you had to get really creative in how you were going to make money. And I think it was just that adventurous spirit and also that inventive idea of let's see what we can do and just go for it. And so really, I would attribute a lot to my parents. They always encourage that. And I think most of it was just to get us out of the house.
Kade Wilcox (06:12):
Yeah. That's good. You mentioned it took 20 years to get to 20 stores. Can you talk a little bit about that? Why? And what were some of the key things that happened along that way, because what you have now seems almost unbelievable. And so I'm curious as to what, economic factors, or maybe it's a whole host of things, but could you tell us a little bit about that?
Blake Buchanan (06:38):
It's an interesting story, and it's one that when asked to share, you kind of have to check your heart and go through it, because there is a lot of tenacity and passion, but also a lot of heartache in it. Life happens between your twenties and thirties. We have three amazing young boys, but we also had a miscarriage. My wife had cancer. We lost a home in that process. We've had to sell cars and all those things, but I would say the hardest part was really chasing this dream. And don't get me wrong you would see it do well. And then something would set you back and you'd see it do well again. And it was just the life of an entrepreneur, so to speak.
Blake Buchanan (07:21):
And one of the interesting moments came is there was a tragedy that happened to my business partner, Eric Lee. He's a great man. His wife was killed in an auto accident unexpectedly. They have a nine month old sweet little daughter, and now things go topsy turvy on us. And I just remember looking at him and I said, Eric, we're going to do whatever it takes to keep you here, but we want you to take a year off. We're going to keep paying you, but take a year off. Now, here's the problem. There wasn't enough money to feed any of this, but that's where we made a commitment because he is a brother. He is a partner. And we said, we're going to keep paying. We're going to do whatever we can to make it work.
Blake Buchanan (08:00):
And my mom and dad were very gracious. We had three boys at the time. They were six, four in one, just turned one years old on his birthday. And they had a small guest house in the back of their property, a little two bedroom bungalow. And we were like, can we move into the guest house? Now as a father, and as a husband, we know to mark our words. So I was so full of pride. I'll never forget looking at my sweet Kippy, that's my wife. And I was just like, Kippy, this is strictly temporary. And with all the pride I could muster, I grabbed the hands of my kids and we walked in and moved into this tiny house. And we had sold our home and we really were going to eat the equity. And that's what it took to get through that season.
Blake Buchanan (08:44):
Now, again, you're going to have a lot of life happen. You're going to invest back into your company and invest back into your company and the real meaning behind that story is we have now saying in our family, it's you better define strictly temporary, because my six year old, when we moved in great guy, when we moved out, I grabbed him and we went and got his driver's license. So we were there for 10 years, trying to make this dream work. You could see glimpses of hope and this store would do great. And it was just amazing, but now you're going to have to invest and you got to capitalize and you're going to have to get more inventory and you know, buildings and things like that. So you're just always throwing it back into the business.
Kade Wilcox (09:28):
I can already tell you right now, this is going to be one of my favorite episodes. I have so many questions. You mentioned you would see progress and you'd see success and it would keep you going and then you would reinvest. Beyond seeing its potential and tasting a little bit of the success, during those 10 years, you moved in, he was six, you moved out at 16. 10 years is a really long time. What kept motivating and driving you forward instead of saying I'm going back into private equity or investing or whatever. Why stay the course? Instead of going another direction?
Blake Buchanan (10:11):
Well, I think part of it is Bahama Bucks is really my namesake, right? Buck is short for Buchanan. And so I have awarded franchises to people and made commitments to them saying, I'm going to be here. We're your support. We're going to get through this together and come, high or low, we're going to make it. And so first you have that. It's a trust, it's a commitment, it's a promise. And so you want to make good on that. The second half was, this is the other half of the story, I was doing second jobs. I was taking third jobs. I was doing everything I could to keep it rolling. And when you really look at it, there's something in you where you're like, okay, this we're going to crack the egg. It's there. You see it. And you keep seeing it. And part of it was, we weren't really chasing money. We were more chasing a dream and a desire and really our calling and what we felt our calling at Bahama Bucks was always to bless our guests. And we could see that. We could see guests coming into our shops, having a great time. They would enjoy these mini vacations. And it was all about serving them and creating these magnificent moments that they could have memories with. And it just restored them and regenerated them. And you just saw, wow, this is really a need where we are. And so it was just these little safe havens that we'd put out there. Bahama Bucks would open and all the kids and adults and college kids would hang out there. And it was just this funky little vibe snow shack that we kept opening. So we just loved it.
Kade Wilcox (11:35):
That's amazing. So what happened after year 20? You really put in a tremendous amount of effort and faith, and grit, as you've mentioned those first 20 years you get to 20 stores, but then something takes off. And so what happened then? Like why such a dramatic shift?
Blake Buchanan (11:59):
A lot of it is market exposure. All of a sudden you've put shops in bigger cities and bigger towns, anything from Phoenix, to Dallas, to Houston, to San Antonio, you start opening in these markets and other people start seeing lines. And they're like, hey, I want a piece of that. So attributed a little bit to the old American Idol, when somebody has been singing in a bar for 20 years and now gets a little exposure and people are like, wow, he's good. And that's exactly what happened. People started trying the snow, they started tasting and said, wow, there's something different about this. And that's where it just tipped. People just started realizing what it was. The product was great. The staff, our avalanche crew, were fantastic and we had a fantastic franchise family fully committed to the brand. And so I think when you look at it created synergy. You had the right teams, you had the right people, you had the right locations with the right product. And all of a sudden it just started growing.
Kade Wilcox (12:53):
That's cool. Was there a moment where you realized, no pun intended, that the snowball had started finally rolling? That after 20 years of effort and commitment and energy, was there a moment you realized, okay, it's about to take off or did it just happen to you and then you reflected on it? Or what did that feel like?
Blake Buchanan (13:12):
We saw it coming. And I tell you, the saving grace to us is we had 20 years of a great team putting together processes, putting together systems. So we had this really deep foundation. We knew who we were. We knew who we are. We knew what we were after. We knew how to handle guests and guest recovery. So we had all these systems in play from marketing to field operations, and all these other things that we now support our teams with to really be able to hold and grow. So if you think about it we had really deep roots and all of a sudden everything else just started growing. So I think that's what really helped fuel the growth is we weren't surprised by it. We were able to handle it. And we were able to open stores and do them well and put the right people in the right spots and continue to see the snowball effect, if you will.
Kade Wilcox (14:07):
This is an overgeneralization, but a lot of times you'll hear organizations that grow really fast and then come backwards to build that deep foundation you're talking about. And you had the luxury and benefit of really having a deep foundation that was able to support growth. And not that I'm an expert, but that seems like the right way to do it because you have a culture and you've established all those values and the team and the processes. And so it makes a lot of sense as to why you're ready to absorb all that growth. How do you see your role as a leader? It maybe a tricky question, because your role as a leader inevitably has changed over the last 20 or 30 years. 20 years ago, you were doing everything. So maybe speak into how you see your role as a leader now and what that looked like for you.
Blake Buchanan (14:52):
You really are insightful because early on, as a young entrepreneur, you're all things to all people and you're wearing every hat. And I think one thing we've done well throughout our Bahama Buck's family is we really understand roles and we understand goals. Everyone in our corporate organization, everyone at the support center, understand their role and they have specific goals. And we work with a lot of strategic deadlines and we're making sure that happens. But I think what my role now is when we look at the seat I sit in, there's really several things that I oversee. Part of it is making sure we put the right people in the right seats, very cliche, I understand that. But however, teaming is such a huge thing, but not just bringing the experience and all of those types of attributes, but it's also what is their skillset.
Blake Buchanan (15:40):
Anytime you do anything on a team, you need multiple people to take on a task and as we're opening stores. And so you have to have all these giftings and talents. And so really as a CEO now, my role is making sure I understand their gifts and talents, but making sure they understand their gifts and talents so that each department doesn't frustrate each other, that we have clear lanes to run in, and that everybody knows their strengths and what they're able to do. For me individually, what still energizes me is I'm still very inventive by nature. I love being on anything new coming out, anything like that. I'm really good at the inventive side of things like that. Now I always bring the tenacity, so I want to see it go all the way to market.
Blake Buchanan (16:23):
But the other thing that I've realized is there's a role for me too in fixing things that are broken. So I love the inventive side, but I love fixing things that are broken. And that's usually looking at a process. Looking at something that's not working like it once did. And mainly because it's a lot of inventive characteristics to it, how do we solve problems? And I think most leaders understand that the seat you sit in, you're just constantly solving problems and you're looking at creative ways to do it either through different team members, through different processes or grabbing new skill sets.
Kade Wilcox (16:55):
That's really good. Thanks for sharing that. Is there a process for you as a leader, like for these things, like specifically, whether it's inventing new products and getting to contribute to that, or whether it's fixing problems, do you have a process, like how you organize your week, or how you spend your time that specifically focuses on those things, or is it more spontaneous and you solve problems as they come to you or you tinker with things and invent things as it comes to you. Like, what does that look like?
Blake Buchanan (17:24):
I wish it was a scheduled thing. Usually most of the times you're inventing, it is because a problem or challenge has come towards you, something you didn't expect, something you didn't see. And now it's time to either pivot it much like COVID, which everyone in America had to say, we're going to adapt. We're going to pivot. What does that look like for us? We didn't schedule a lot of time for that. Although it took a lot of time and all of us cleared our schedules to figure that out. So I think it's a blend of both what I do now through my week. I do allocate on Thursdays, just two hours where I'm going to study, where I'm going to read, where I'm going to look, but that's only part of it. One of the things I think is having a bit of discernment. I'm a huge people watcher. I love seeing trends and just how people interact, what the shifts are in the marketplace. And I think just having a tuned sense of awareness really helps you if you're inventive in nature. And what I mean is you have to understand what problems exist or what you're trying to solve before you can really create something that makes a lot of sense.
Kade Wilcox (18:26):
What does your time look like with your leaders? How many employees does Bahama Bucks have?
Blake Buchanan (18:30):
So at the support center we have about 55. Coast to coast, we employ anywhere from about 2,500 to 3,500, depending on the season.
Kade Wilcox (18:38):
Okay. So what does your role for your core leaders that are helping lead the organization? Like what's your time with them look like?
Blake Buchanan (18:48):
It's interesting. They're called directors. We have 10 directors over 10 distinct departments and I'm with them every Monday morning. We also have our quarterly offsite meetings and then we'll do an annual as well. Those are the core of Bahama Bucks that go out and say, how do we execute? How do we train? What do we do here? What's the problem? How do we fix it? But we've got this really tight core. Now, what is most interesting about Bahama Bucks is there's three owners. There's more owners than that. There's three families, you've got Eric Lee, you've got my mom and dad, who are involved in the business. And then you've got myself and Kippy, my wife, who's involved in the business.
Blake Buchanan (19:31):
So you also have an ownership team where we've divided up and each of us take different sections of that. And so it's really an interesting category of saying, you've got three families, they all understand their strengths, they're very good at running in their lanes. And they know which hat to wear when. And so I would say is probably one of the things I'm most proud of is the early challenges we had as our roles as a leader. Eric and I are extremely different. He is so gifted at numbers. Just a math whiz. Can do it in his head, great guy to have on a negotiating team because he's just so quick with numbers and I'm more the creative and I'm more the inventor and things like that. But it takes both of us to package that together. My dad always brought the legal aspects to the things together, all the insurance aspects, we had the black and whites there. And so us learning to work together and then spread that through all the directors has just been probably one of the best accomplishments we'd done just by knowing when to yield and when the lead on certain things.
Kade Wilcox (20:42):
Where does vision fit, in your mind, in your organization? And then maybe even generally speaking for a leader, what does vision mean to you and how do you see your role in terms of vision? And what does that look like at Bahama Buck's not just from your 10 directors, but then to your 55 central staff and then your thousands of people across all your franchises, what does that look like for you?
Blake Buchanan (21:03):
To us it's paramount? And I'll tell you like everyone did the first thing I did when even COVID hit. When everything's shutting down and all that. The first thing we did, because we knew this was going to be monumental, is we looked at it and said, what is our vision? What is our mission? Because if it only matters in the good times, it's not a great mission. It's not a great vision. And we just revisit it. And I pulled it out. And that was the first talk I gave to our directors. And the first talk I gave to our teams was I just opened up with our vision, here's who we are and our vision is really simple. It's to bless our guests by creating the ultimate tropical desert experience. And in our shops all across America, we say be the blessing. We want to bless our guests.
Blake Buchanan (21:52):
So if you look at an avalanche crew member who works in a shop all the way up to our directors and everybody else, everyone knows our vision is to bless our guests, because ultimately that's what we're about. People think we're in the snow business and we're not, we're in the people business. We've just learned how to love and serve people and how to do it with honor, dignity, and respect. And that's really been our charge through this last season. But what was nice is that had been our charge for years before this. And it was just a matter of going back to the vision and saying, in hard times, we know we're about to walk through some stuff. We're going to ask people to pivot. We're going to change some things. Everything's going to go upside down just for a moment. How do we make sure we're all centered? And it was back to our vision. And so to us, it's the most important thing that anchors any company together.
Kade Wilcox (22:42):
From a communication standpoint, how often do you feel like you're intentionally communicating vision to that? Because that's a lot of people especially with the franchises. That's a lot of different franchise owners and managers of those stores, you start going down the line, it's a lot of people. So is there a method of your communication in terms of how often y'all are talking about vision and pressing into that?
Blake Buchanan (23:07):
Absolutely. So that's where the partnership with Eric being a great numbers guy and a low communicator, I'm the high communicator of all the owners and all that. So I love communication. It's my thing. So I'm proud that we have a full communications department, but me specifically, every Monday, I write a Monday minute that goes to all the directors, that goes to our, what we call our snow advisory council, the seven regions that are head of all the shops out there, and it gets passed through the whole system. Now we are highly intentional about communication because with our franchise family there's constant communication. And from my desk alone they're going to get a pretty steady mill of communication all the time, but you should see the buffet of communication we have. It's amazing. Everything from weekly newsletters to videos all the way down to the avalanche crew we're texting videos twice a week called the daily wave that just shows them how to do a better job at their jobs and stuff. So our communication is one of the main priorities and main focuses at Bahama Bucks. Just because that's one of your biggest unifying factors of any team is, do they know what's going on? And how do we react? How do we pivot and those topics?
Kade Wilcox (24:22):
That makes a lot of sense. How do you treat failure? Like when you think back over 30 or 40 years of doing this, like what's your approach to failure? How does it make you feel? How do you learn from it? What's your philosophy of failure?
Blake Buchanan (24:35):
As a young entrepreneur failure would make me so mad. And you just want to sweep it under the table. And it's really interesting. We actually celebrate our failures at Bahama Bucks because we've learned, had we not had these failures along the way, we would have never invented this great product, or we would have never found this new process or this new idea how it is. And so I still don't like them, but I'll say this. We embrace them because of what it's taught us, what we learned through it. And failure really is probably one of the keys to our growth strategies because we've learned what doesn't work. And once you start eliminating that half, it's really a lot simpler to identify what works in your business and why. And so I think keeping track of those failures and man, we've got a list of those, it's a mile long of all the failures. But it is something that we celebrate and we've learned to laugh at them and then learn from them.
Kade Wilcox (25:35):
You said failure is critical to your growth strategy and certainly we've not been at it as long as you have at Bahama Bucks, but I can't think of a greater contributing factor other than our people to our growth besides learning from really dumb decisions. So that's good. Thanks for sharing that. How do you approach your own personal growth? I mean, you've got 2,500 people you're responsible for, you've got your 10 directors and everything in between. A lot of things pulling at you from finance perspective I mean, just a whole layer of things that you have to deal with on a daily basis. So how do you approach personal growth?
Blake Buchanan (26:08):
For me, a lot of it is staying connected. I'm a big reader, so I'm always reading stuff and podcasts, I love all that. But one of the things you do to stay connected is always be serving, just serve in some capacity because you learn so much from it. My wife and I as of this last semester, our youngest just went off to college. So we're empty nesters and it didn't take her two seconds to sign us up for a college group. So now we're having kids over at the house and we go to college group every Tuesday night and I've got more college kids in my house than I ever have. So part of it is, personal growth is just staying connected. And I think that's creating neat connections with different people.
Blake Buchanan (26:50):
I'm privileged that I've got great mentors in my life as well. And I would say they've helped me along a lot of my personal growth. For me, you don't have to have a lot of mentors, but you've got to have, one, two or three guys or, or people that can really pour into you and bring a lot of wisdom to you. And you know, I'd say Eric and I both were grateful for my father when he came on board because he was really a passive owner for several years. But when he finally came on board, he was able to really mentor some young entrepreneurs and give us a lot of wisdom and help us avoid a lot of pitfalls early on. So that was really good.
Kade Wilcox (27:31):
Speaking of mentors, you mentioned your dad multiple times, who or what have been some of the biggest influences on your leadership and this journey you've been on?
Blake Buchanan (27:41):
I love Pat Lencioni, Maxwell's got great stuff there. There's just so many books you can read and all of that. On a personal level, I'm very close with our pastor, Chuck Angel, probably one of the best leaders I've seen do certain things in a different industry. Obviously I'm surrounded with good men. I've got great family members, but there's always the aspect of a praying mom. Who's constantly praying for her kids and I'd say that's my mom. She's taught us to be grateful for everything, to always lead with humility. And she can certainly keep you grounded. I think we all have that. We may think we're great, but all you have to do is go home and mom's like, no you're not that great.
Kade Wilcox (28:30):
What's something you feel like maybe you've learned from your dad? He's had such a pivotal role in your life and has been a part of the business from very early. What are one or two things you feel like you've really learned from him that have helped shape your leadership?
Blake Buchanan (28:43):
One thing, most of the Buchanan men and women were just hard workers. Since I was a little guy, my dad just taught us to work really hard and I've teased him forever because there were three words he would always utter to us. Your car breaks down and we'd call him at the office. He'd be like, figure it out. And so when we talk about that inventive personality, I think all my brothers and my sister too, we were just charged at an early age to figure it out. And so if I really look back on the past 30 years in the sweetness of the time I've had with my father and serve alongside him that's his biggest attribute to the company and to everyone else, any problem that comes our way, he'll be the first to say, we can figure this out. It's been, so I think, figure it out
Kade Wilcox (29:37):
What a huge contribution. That's like really rooted in your story and your personality and your character. You started the whole podcast out by talking about tenacity and really tenacity is nothing more than figure it out. And so it seems like you really lived that and believed it. Last question for you. I always loved this one. If you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you give yourself based on what you know now?
Blake Buchanan (30:04):
Wow. You know, when I'm asked this in a different setting, a lot of times they ask me what would you tell the young college students you're talking to or something like that? I always say marry well. Marry above your pay grade, it will change your life. And I did that. I married well. I think if I go back to my 20 year old self, probably the best advice I could say is just pace yourself. We were in such a hurry all the time and I'm that guy too, where I just can't seem to get enough done in the week and all of that. But you gotta have a little space for grace in your life, cause you're going to make some mistakes. But one thing that my wife Kippy and I have always talked about is one thing we've done well is we have savored the moments, because even when we were poor, we were broke, but we weren't broken. Those are some of the sweetest times we've had with our kids. We had the best time because you're learning how to play board games. You threw rocks and you played with sidewalk chalk, and those types of things. And so we really savor the moment wherever we are. And so I think that's what I'd tell myself is pace yourself and savor the moments. Don't let it race by it. Cause it's such a sweet journey.
Kade Wilcox (31:21):
That's a great way to end the podcast. Thanks very much for joining us. Really appreciate your time.
Blake Buchanan (31:26):
Absolutely. Thank you so much.