Emphasizing people over profits has helped Svenson’s fast-casual pizza chain succeed

Bellevue-based Mod Pizza opened its first restaurant in 2008. Since then, the chain has grown to include more than 200 locations across the United States and the United Kingdom. However, while fresh, made-to-order pizzas in a self-service setting are what Mod is popular for, people are at the heart of this Eastside company’s mission.

Mod Pizza

Before opening Mod Pizza, Scott and Ally Svenson spent 11 years living in the U.K. and building companies there. During their time abroad, the husband-and-wife team founded Seattle Coffee Company, a chain of gourmet coffee shops they eventually sold to Starbucks, as well as Carluccio’s, an awarding-winning Italian deli-café.

After deciding to return to the U.S. to raise their sons, the Svensons were eager for their next adventure but had no intention of opening another restaurant. It wasn’t until a friend recommended they take a look at the pizza industry that the couple decided to give it a second thought.

“We (looked into it) somewhat reluctantly,” Scott Svenson said, “and over about a year’s period became convinced that we should really explore applying the fast-casual service format — which had so much success — to pizza, where it had not been applied before.”

It was 2007 when the Svensons founded Mod Pizza and began exploring what they wanted their new business to look like. “Ally was very clear,” Svenson said. “Her perspective at the time was the last thing the world needs is another pizza chain. If we were going to dedicate ourselves to building the business, we needed to define success in a way that really spoke to us and inspired us. And it really wasn’t about the pizza or the number of stores.”

As they began building their third company, the Svensons’ previous successes afforded them the liberty to focus on their core values. “It really came down to this idea of using a business … to make a positive social impact,” Svenson said. “So, we decided to focus on using the business as a platform to make a difference in the lives of our employees, and through them into the lives or into the communities in which we operate.”

With this approach, Svenson, who acts as CEO of Mod Pizza, said his company doesn’t measure its success by the number of stores it has or the amount of revenue the company generates; it measures success by the number of people it impacts. “What we use to measure our success is the number of people we employ and therefore the number of people we can impact,” he said.

From providing financial support through a special fund for employees who have fallen on hard times, to giving back to local charities and nonprofits, the Svensons have made their employees and the communities they serve their No. 1 priority.

“The thing I enjoy the most is hearing the stories of the people in the business that we’ve been able to impact in a positive way,” Svenson said. “Our culture is very important to us. We talk about the fact that our culture travels through stories, so when I hear stories of people whose lives have been impacted or influenced in a positive way by Mod, that makes all of the hard work and sacrifice worth it.”

With three successful businesses under his belt, a degree from Harvard University, and experience working in executive-level positions for companies such as Starbucks, Svenson has learned a lot over the course of his professional career. Here are three lessons that have stood out:

1. Combine the pursuit of building a successful business with making a positive impact. “In our case, it’s a social impact. Having the business stand for something that’s more than just profit. And I think that’s so powerful because, one, I think it’s needed in our society today, and, two, if you get it right, it’s an incredibly motivating and energizing source of cohesion between your team, and it also can attract and engender loyalty from your customers in a way that a pure for-profit company never could.”

2. The power of expectations. “I think one of the things we’ve learned is that people will generally live up to your expectations. And keeping that in mind and really thinking about what that means — for us, it meant giving opportunities to a lot of people that many others have turned their backs on. We’ve given opportunities to a lot of second chancers: people that have come out of prison or had trouble with drugs and alcohol and otherwise had run into some challenges. I tell you, if you believe in them more than they believe in themselves, it’s incredible how they’ll perform.”

3. The growth mindset. “There’s a wonderful book written by an author called Carol Dweck. It’s called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It talks about the fact that successful people quite often have what she calls a growth mindset — a mindset that views challenges, setbacks, and failures as opportunities to learn and grow. People who look at challenges and setbacks as opportunities to get better and improve are the ones who generally are the most successful, and so that’s something we’ve embraced as a company, and my wife and I have embraced.”