This June marks ZingTrain’s 25th Anniversary!
That’s 25 wonderful years of developing long-term relationships (our favorite kind!) with businesses big and small, from near and far. What began with Maggie Bayless as a one-woman operation in an attic in 1994 (more details on that below) has blossomed into a nationally recognized $2 million business. With more than a dozen staff members, a state-of-the-art and oh-so-colorful training facility and the opportunity to work with and learn from clients from all over the world. It’s because of these wonderful, smart-as-a-whip and inspiring clients-turned-friends that we get to do the work we love and we look forward to watching these relationships continue to blossom, as we form new relationships, new ones form in the years to come!
To celebrate our silver anniversary, I sat down with ZingTrain’s Founder and Co-Managing Partner, Maggie Bayless, and asked her to spill the beans on ZingTrain’s beginnings, the milestone moments, how things have changed over the years, and her vision for ZingTrain’s future. As you’ll see, it’s a future that Co-Managing Partner Katie Frank is eager to help champion, which as you’ll learn about later in the interview!
For those not familiar with how ZingTrain got started, can you share your inspiration for starting the business?
I’d known Ari and Paul since before the Deli got started, when we worked together at a different restaurant in town, and I was one of those unpaid friends and family that helped with the Deli’s opening back in March of 1982. Then I worked on Saturdays while I was in the MBA program at University of Michigan—driving into Oak Park on Saturday mornings to pick up the Deli’s bread order, and then coming back to work on the retail counter for the rest of the day.
When I graduated with my MBA, I explored the big corporate world (at General Motors), the entrepreneurial world (Soho Soda) and the training world (Arbor Systems Group in Ann Arbor). I found that I had a real interest in, and passion for, training design and delivery. But I was disappointed that none of the organizations I worked for had the service-oriented culture that I’d experienced at Zingerman’s—so I was interested in finding a way to work with Ari and Paul again.
In 1994, when I read their first long-term “formal” vision for the organization (Zingerman’s 2009: A Food Odyssey—you can see it in the back of Ari’s book, Building a Great Business), I realized that strong training systems would be key to creating the Community of Businesses that Ari and Paul were looking for. So I stayed up all night writing a vision for what would become ZingTrain, which the three of us started in June of 1994–with a $1,000 investment, a desk in my attic, a second phone line and a fax modem for the computer I already owned.
Now, 25 years later, ZingTrain has our own training facility and a staff of a dozen people. We’ll do about $2 million in sales this year to organizations who come to Ann Arbor for our public seminars or who hire us to lead private workshops for their teams all over the country. And actually even overseas!
There are likely dozens (if not hundreds!) of these, but can you describe a few “milestone” moments in ZingTrain’s history?
Well, our first seminar was certainly a milestone! That happened on March 31-April 1, 1996 and was held in the overflow dining room upstairs in the Deli’s Next Door Cafe. That session sold out, despite the fact that we did no advertising—just some press releases that got us an article or two in some of the specialty food trade publications. Of course, back then we considered 16 participants “sold out”! Now we regularly host (and have room for!) seminars of 30 participants.
Another milestone was taking on a second managing partner, which happened when Stas’ Kazmierski joined me in 2000. While Ari and Paul were (and still are) partners in the business and often teach and speak to ZingTrain clients, their role is not to run the day-to-day operations at ZingTrain. By the late 1990s, the demand for ZingTrain’s services was increasing and I had two small children at home, which limited the amount of time I wanted to be on the road. Stas’ was well known to Zingerman’s as the consultant who had facilitated the work to create both our Mission Statement and the 2009 vision. He was also a Deli regular, since his office was down the street and he came in for coffee multiple times every day. Working together, Stas’ and I were able to take ZingTrain to the next level and by the time he retired in 2013, we had moved into our current space on Plaza Drive (Stas’s first ZingTrain desk was in a basement across the street from the Deli) and had become an organization with multiple trainers as well as a support team of marketing, administrative and logistics experts.
More recently, Katie Frank became a ZingTrain co-managing partner after being a ZingTrain trainer for 7 years. Katie will be leading ZingTrain into the future when I step back into a part-time role in August of 2020—which I guess is a future milestone!
What has been the most satisfying part of leading ZingTrain for 25 years?
The people I’ve had the privilege to work with—both colleagues within the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses and clients from around the country, and around the world. There are so many interesting people, doing very interesting and worthwhile things, that I would not have had the opportunity to meet without ZingTrain to bring us together.
And while I love great food, it has always been the people that make or break a job for me. At ZingTrain I’ve been lucky to work with an incredible group of smart, funny, irreverent, committed people who have helped bring my vision for this company into existence. When I am able to share my own insights and experiences in a way that helps someone else—be they a staff member, a fellow managing partner or a ZingTrain client—that is truly gratifying.
How has ZingTrain changed over the years?
Most obviously, we’ve gotten bigger. Both in terms of revenue and in the number of staff. And our offices and training spaces have changed dramatically! We’re no longer shoe-horned into other people’s space; we have space of our own that was designed expressly for the work that we do.
In the beginning, much of my time was spent with the other Zingerman’s businesses, helping establish the training systems that are a foundation of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB) culture. And of course ZingTrain still does work with them, but it is a smaller percentage of our time and our revenue than it once was.
In most ways, though, we have NOT changed. We are still trainers, sharing the tips, techniques, systems and organizational recipes that have helped Zingerman’s be successful for 37+ years.
Katie Frank became your Co-Managing Partner last year, which marked the beginning of your gradual transition out of the day-to-day running of ZingTrain. What are you most excited about for Katie? And for YOUR next chapter?
I am excited that Katie is now a business owner, as that has been one of her ambitions since she was a little girl! We teach about our Path to Partnership in the Zingerman’s Experience Seminar and it was great to see Katie going down that path successfully. And I am excited for ZingTrain that I will be able to step out of the day-to-day, while leaving the business in Katie’s able hands. I’m excited to explore some of the projects that have been on my mind for the past many years, and that I think can really benefit both ZingTrain and the ZCoB, but that I just haven’t had the bandwidth to work on. Back in 1994, most of my work was with the other Zingerman’s businesses, and I’m looking forward to re-focusing my attention on our internal training systems after these many years of focusing on outside clients.
There are likely TONS of people to thank for allowing us to get to this point, but is there anyone in particular that you’d like to mention here?
I will always be grateful to Ari and Paul, who believed in my vision for ZingTrain and had faith in my ability to build a business when I wasn’t sure about that myself. They are two of the most generous people I’ve ever met; always willing to share ideas, experience, time and credit for success. ZingTrain would not, and could not, have happened without them.
What does your vision for ZingTrain’s next 25 years look like?
The vision of what ZingTrain looks like 25 years from now should, and will, be written by the people who will make that vision a reality. For my part, my vision is for ZingTrain’s continued success—as an active part of the Ann Arbor community, as a resource for business owners around the world, and as an organization where people are excited to come to work.
As for Katie Frank’s vision for ZingTrain’s next 25 years...
I am excited to continue the work of ZingTrain into the future! I relish the challenge of organizing our team around providing memorable and distinctive experiences in every way people come into contact with ZingTrain. It is invigorating working with so many amazing clients, doing very innovative things. All of our work honors Maggie and Stas’ legacy into the future and I am filled with gratitude for that opportunity.
Thank you to everyone who has helped us get to where we are today. We can’t wait to see what’s to come in the next 25 years!