Rare & well done

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You'll know what the tenants on the ninth floor of the Lamar Building are thinking as soon as the elevator doors open.

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Brothers Oren, left and Paul stand in front of the Arby's on Washington Road in Augusta, Ga.  Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Brothers Oren, left and Paul stand in front of the Arby's on Washington Road in Augusta, Ga.

They're thinking Arby's.

It's on the floor mats.

It's on the nameplate.

It's a novelty hat on the stuffed bear in Oren Trefz's office.

It is that dash of humor that has made the roast-beef-restaurant business palatable over the past 37 years for two brothers from Cincinnati.

"I'd like to run an ad: 'Roast beef cures cancer.' Before they threw me in jail, the volume would be up so we could pay off our debts," he says.

On the white carpet in a room in Paul Trefz's North Augusta home is an area under repair marked like an area damaged at a golf course. The carpet is gouged out because that's where he's been practicing his chip shot. Paul says he "attempts" to play golf.

League bowling starts this week.

The off-the-cuff humor translates into business success.

"If you've got a people-oriented manager, it is going to carry over to your customers," says Ray Biondi, Arby's senior vice president of franchise management.

Translation: Employees love their jobs because having personable managers shows through in their performance in front of the customers.

The Trefz brothers got a region of people not accustomed to eating roast beef to do just that.

They have 24 restaurants now, stretching from Evans to Charlotte, N.C. The stores that do the most business are in Columbia and Aiken.

In 1970, they started with two, serving roast beef in National Hills during Masters Week and waiting six more months to open the other restaurant on Gordon Highway.

"As soon as we bought the franchise, the parent company went bankrupt," Oren recalls. "We didn't know anything."

Paul had just left a job with Procter & Gamble and moved with his daughters from West Virginia to Georgia to join his elder brother in taking over an Arby's franchise.

"All I could think about was the bass fishing," Paul says.

OK, that time it wasn't a joke.

The Trefz brothers have some of their finest fishing catches hanging on walls. Pickerel from Canada. A blue marlin snagged in the Atlantic Ocean.

Paul, 66, is an avid enough fisherman to have his own pond at home. "The fish are biting at 5:30 when the feeder comes on," he says.

The 69-year-old Oren says: "You have to age, but you don't have to mature. Peter Pan is still in there."

From Charmin to beef

Miguel Diaz is 56 years old. He's been with the company as long as the brothers, starting at the customer counter on Washington Road in 1970 as a way to pay for his college books. He also ran the roast beef slicer because he was the only employee old enough to do so.

The menu was a roast beef sandwich and potato cakes.

Mr. Diaz had no intention of making a career out of his experience with the fledgling fast-food chain.

"I liked it, and they treated me well and the years have passed," he said.

He is now the operations director for the 24-restaurant chain. He drives to Columbia and Charlotte so that Paul doesn't have to go as often.

Mr. Diaz says that the brothers have different personalities but are a good combination.

"Paul is the people guy. He's usually the life of the company," Mr. Diaz says. Oren is more hard-nosed and sees the bigger picture. "Oren taught me a lot of organizational skills."

Oren got his organizational skills from the hometown Fortune 500 company Procter & Gamble. He says he was lucky to get that job because he wasn't a good student.

After graduating from Ohio University with a business degree, he went home to Pleasant Ridge, a suburb of Cincinnati, and walked into the employment office to find work. P&G was looking for someone for its field office division.

Oren spent 18 months in Cincinnati before being reassigned to Atlanta. He went back to Cincinnati after an additional 18 months in Georgia.

He would soon be going back, this time to Augusta to start an office in the Marion Building on Broad Street for the Procter & Gamble Distributing Co. That was in 1967.

Meanwhile, Paul had dropped out of the University of Cincinnati to go to work for Procter & Gamble.

He was a salesman, assigned to Beckley, W.Va., selling Charmin to grocery stores and distributors.

"It was just one of those things. They were looking for a man, and I didn't know anything about sales. I told them I'd be happy to make an effort," Paul says.

The test to get the job was Paul's future boss asking him to sell him the nail file that was on the desk. The presentation was good enough. It helped that his brother was already working for the company, Paul says.

He would spend four years selling toilet tissue and paper towels before Oren called him to go into business selling roast beef sandwiches.

Last October, Oren was invited back to Ohio University to speak to the business students. The dean believes the future will be in small-time entrepreneurs, not large corporations, so Oren was asked why he left P&G to start his own business.

As the story goes, in 1970, Oren went across Broad Street to a bar called Hops Grain and Barley, where he overheard a conversation about a franchisee who built two Arby's stores but never opened them.

"'I wonder if I could find some sucker to buy these Arby's,'" Oren recalls the man saying.

He got turned down by three banks before being approved. He called his brother to come down.

After all, it made sense: two restaurants and two brothers.

"Would have stayed, but sometimes you have to wait for somebody to die or retire before you get promoted," Oren explains as his rationale for finally leaving P&G. "I prayed for plane crashes and cancer ... never happened."

Oren would continue working for P&G for six more years, using his paycheck to cover the payroll and make the rent payments on the buildings until business was going well enough to stand on its own.

Ironically, coming to Augusta with bass fishing on his mind, Paul would find very little time to go fishing in the early days of the franchise.

"We learned as we went," Mr. Diaz says. There wasn't an office for a long time. Paul handled the payroll, writing the checks out by hand.

Mr. Diaz found himself running the Gordon Highway store after its first manager left the company.

Mr. Diaz worked for the Trefz brothers for three years before taking a year off to work in construction. He wanted to grow long hair and a beard. He went back after he was asked to help with the newly acquired Columbia store.

The conditions for re-employment were that he could keep his beard and hair style. The beard was shaved off a few years later - he retained the mustache - and now Paul is the only person in the company allowed to wear a beard.

The brothers were in a risky position. Neither had fast-food-restaurant experience. The parent company was busy reorganizing under bankruptcy. It was some imaginative advertising that got the Augusta stores roasting.

Paul persuaded a television station to go out to the store to tape a commercial featuring his daughters and Mr. Diaz's daughters running into the Washington Road store, saying, "Come to Arby's."

After they got the people in the door, it was the "C.S.P." that would get them to come back, Oren told Arby's newsletter editor: Cleanliness. Service. Product.

"When business is good, you want to be on your own. When business is really bad, you want to be back at P&G," Oren says.

Two dads

"In the beginning, I worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Did that for three years and then things turned around," Paul says.

Through his efforts, they were able to have a smaller staff and payroll, but they also kept him away from his daughters.

Paul was divorced, rearing Kristi and Robin on his own.

"I had live-in housekeepers. Had to. I had to work. Had no choice," Paul says.

One of the housekeepers was a student nurse and was into 4-H, so she taught the girls how to cook. Paul says the only food he really learned to cook was roast beef.

"Work was my wife. I had kids. I had work, and that was enough," he says. "Thank God the business turned around enough that I could spend time with the girls."

Paul was single for 25 years until he met Grace, who worked at Georgia Power Credit Union.

They were married a year before she died of ovarian cancer.

The disease was a surprise. She went to the doctor to check some bloating, and the cancer was found. Chemotherapy didn't work. She died in February 2006.

"That's been tough, so the business has at least kept a smile on my face and kept me going," Paul says.

Oren says an article about the brothers might attract women to Paul.

"He keeps teasing me to find somebody," Paul says.

"He can't make it on his own," Oren retorts.

Oren has been married to Nancy for 12 years.

He was married to his first wife, Jill, for 26 years. They couldn't have children.

Oren was 49 years old when his adopted son was born. Jason is now 21 and a student at Augusta State University.

His arrival into the Trefz family was sudden.

Oren says he opened up the phone book one day in the mid-1980s and wrote 52 letters to the obstetricians in the city. There was only one reply, an old doctor in North Augusta who said that he wasn't sure whether he could help but that he would keep Oren's name on file.

"Seven months later, he called on Monday: 'Are you interested in a baby? Well, one is going to be born this afternoon, and we'll bring it over to your office on Wednesday.'"

Oren says he ran out to Kmart and got paint, a bed, bottles and everything else he would need for the baby.

That Wednesday, Oren and Jill Trefz had a son.

"He was super-excited. All of a sudden it was in your lap," Paul remembers.

If you live long enough, you'll know what you're supposed to do with babies, Oren surmised.

Neither Oren nor Jason has met the birth mother. They have had no interest, either.

"We know the mother was taken care of because her mother and grandmother were involved in the pregnancy" - that's all Oren knows.

Oren and Jill later divorced and shared custody of Jason.

Oren says his son came home from school when he was 14 and told his father that a 14-year-old could make up his or her own mind about where to live. The next weekend, Jason went over to his father's house and never left.

"They watch. They don't listen. They watch. They watch the way you treat your wife, treat your grocer. There isn't such a thing as quality time. Any time is quality time," Oren says.

Jason says his father would always read to him while growing up.

"He would also cut out some business articles, like from Forbes, and put them on my table," he says.

Oren has plenty of words of wisdom regarding fatherhood. He didn't get to be a father until late in life. He grew up without a father for most of his.

Oren was 8 and Paul was 5 when their father was killed in a traffic accident.

"The beauty of today is that we know Mom taught us the difference between right and wrong," Paul says. "Today there seems to be a gray line that people can't figure out."

She was the financial secretary for Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church.

"Took the job because it was across the street from the grade school that Paul and I went to," Oren says.

That way, she could walk across the street and keep and eye on her sons.

"They had a gym at the church, and Oren and I were on the basketball team. We got to play right after school, shoot in the gym and wait until Mom got off work," Paul says.

What really straightened him out, according to Owen, was a stint in the Army between high school and college, serving in Korea after the war.

The sergeants instilled some discipline, but it was following Mom's orders that has worked as a business model since 1970.

"You have to do what your mother told you. You don't lie. You don't cheat. You don't steal. You always err on the side of the little guy," Oren says.

Not just sauce

If you're a new franchisee with Arby's, there is a good chance Mr. Biondi, the franchise vice president, will suggest you visit the Trefz brothers in Augusta.

In all the company's quality evaluations, the highest percentiles will be in the row of Trefz & Trefz.

"You go into the back of one of their restaurants, there is no one in the Arby's chain that is more systemized than they are. They've got a clipboard or something on everything," Mr. Biondi says. "What is unique ... whether they have new or old restaurants, they really connect from an employee-customer standpoint."

Mr. Biondi says Arby's will launch an intracompany hospitality initiative next year.

"We would like to think we have hospitality now, but we really want to put a lot of weight behind it. I guarantee (the Trefz brothers) will be a role model for us." he says.

Paul brought that expertise to Arby's for more than seven years while sitting on the company's operations council, composed of key franchise operators.

"We're old school, so to speak; manners are a big thing to us," Mr. Diaz said.

Oren points to the smile on store manager Deborah Giffin's face.

"We have one thing that the other fast-food restaurants don't have," he says.

What the other restaurants have is hamburgers, which is the top-selling fast-food item. Because Arby's sells roast beef, it is in a specialty niche among the chains.

Another secret of success is owning the property for their stores.

"You can subsist on a lower volume if you don't have any rent to pay," Oren says. "It is harder to be happy than it is to make money."

Paul says they have closed 15 stores over the years because they didn't make money, but they have 24 now.

"We're garbage collectors," Oren explains. "We took over from a college professor in Columbia. That's how we got out there. He wasn't making payments, so he asked if we would take over his stores."

Then there was a solicitation from the owner of the Charlotte franchisee to buy him out because his sons were in trouble.

Oren says Paul and Mr. Diaz have been able to keep the turnover rate at about 100 percent, a staggering number to those not accustomed to the reality of fast food. The national average is 300 percent.

Higher pay with a chance of earning an extra $1 per hour on workers' wages is one secret.

There are 520 employees spread out over the three-state area.

"Stability makes the job a lot easier," Mr. Diaz says.

Paul says they've gotten offers over the years to buy other stores, even franchises in other companies.

"We know what we're doing in roast beef," he says, so there is no sense in venturing into the unknown.

Oren says he borrowed a philosophy from Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motor Corp., called "permanently dissatisfied." Oren says he's never complacent and is forced to always want a little bit more.

When Mr. Diaz says Oren is the hard-nosed brother, he isn't kidding. Oren fired his second wife, Nancy, who was an accountant.

"I remember that. She was mad and yelling," Jason Trefz recalls.

Family doesn't work at Arby's, explains the president, so they don't get preferential treatment - well, except for Paul. Oren says that rule extends to his son and to Paul's daughters.

"He'll joke around with you, but when it comes to business, he's hard. Business is business," Jason explains.

He doesn't have plans to follow in his father's footsteps, anyway. He has plans for a career in construction, specifically in developing subdivisions.

Kristi works for a Realtor. Robin works for an insurance company.

Oren says there are no plans to pass the business down to the next generation. They'll sell it all when they are finally ready to stop.

"We're two guys on different ends of the pole, but we get along great together," he says. "That's what it is all about."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

Oren Trefz

Born: July 10, 1938


Title: President


Career: Worked for Procter & Gamble from 1962 to 1976, started Trefz & Trefz in 1970.


Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration from Ohio University.


Family: Wife, Nancy; son, Jason

Paul Trefz

Born: July 22, 1941


Title: Vice president


Career: Worked for Procter & Gamble from 1966 to 1970, began operating Trefz & Trefz Arby's restaurants in 1970.


Education: Studied business administration at the University of Cincinnati


Family: Daughters, Kristi and Robin; two grandsons

Comments (5) Add comment
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Robertstill
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Robertstill 09/03/07 - 07:09 pm
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I know all Oren's

I know all Oren's secrets.

Bob Still

karenchris30904
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karenchris30904 09/03/07 - 10:12 pm
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love working for arbys in

love working for arbys in the late 80 it was my first job and i loved it

fedupcitizen
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fedupcitizen 09/04/07 - 11:07 am
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I love hearing success

I love hearing success stories. Good job guys.

Johndon1933
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Johndon1933 09/06/07 - 08:52 am
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Wish we had an Arby's in

Wish we had an Arby's in North Augusta!!

Hearts for Animals
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Hearts for Animals 05/25/09 - 08:33 pm
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Paul is a friend of

Paul is a friend of mine...they don't come any better than him.

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