Mike Busley Interview
(The Grand Traverse Pie Co.)

Grand Traverse Pie Co. Logo

Mike and Denise Busley of Traverse City, Michigan have made quite a name for themselves and their pies.

They’ve received national attention from The Food Network, Home and Garden Television, Business Week, and U.S. News and World Report to name just a few media outlets.

The Grand Traverse Pie Co. is regarded as a premier destination for great pies.

Mike Busley talked with us about his pie business and how he launched it.

Q – Mike, before you got involved in the pie business, you spent 16 years as a Business Manager in the aerospace industry. That doesn’t sound like a bad job. Why did you leave?
A – It was a good job. What happens like in a lot of businesses, the long-term security and job satisfaction were not what they once were, meaning through a series of mergers and buy outs-----it wasn’t the same co. anymore. It was clear that I was going to have to be transferred, moved to probably Denver or Albuquerque or maybe the Bay area to continue to have a career with that company. We liked San Diego and didn’t want to move to any of those places so we decided if we’re gonna move; at the time the economy in San Diego wasn’t that great, it was o.k.-----I was approaching my 40 th birthday, what do I want to do? Maybe it’s time to do something different. So I thought wouldn’t it be neat to own our own business and live in a real cool, rural, fun town that’s not all that expensive and crowded. Focusing more on the quality of life than the quantity of dollars. So, I was not happy with the direction the co. was going. We went from San Diego with General Dynamics when I started there, having a campground for the employees, a sailing club, a park to all that being sold off for the real estate. We went from 20,000 employees to 250. So, the remaining few were feeling pretty vulnerable. So, we just decided let’s move back to our roots and try something different. Imagine if the co. had maintained the same posture as the first 50 years of its existence I might not have made that decision. We went through that cycle where the defense budgets were being cut, the department of energy budgets were being cut and that’s where a lot of our funding came from. So the upper management just decided to start selling assets ‘cause they’ve got shareholders to worry about. They had to do something to bring cash into the business. The employees aren’t really at the top of the priority list. I think that’s true whether you’re in the banking industry or different retail mergers or airlines. Look around now, most industries are kind of that way, versus the 70’s when you got in with a co. that was your career. Your quality of life was kind of integrated with your career. That’s not really the case I think. We figured we’re gonna make it on our own terms.

Q – How much did you know about the pie business before you went into it?
A – Well, really nothing. I’d never made one. But, we visited a pie co. in Julian, California which is a small tourist town. A lot of folks from San Diego drive up into the mountains, and spend the day in the beautiful mountain air and a lot of gotcha tourist shops around and one of ‘em was a pie co. It smelled great. The folks working there seemed to be having a good time. All the customers were happy. When you get away from your job on vacation, everything looks better. This business looks like something these folks are enjoying. It was a family owned and operated business. I’d seen some of their pies in the larger markets down in San Diego. They got a wholesale business. They got a retail business. They must be doing o.k. So, I just called the owner one day and asked if I could come up and talk to her and pick her brain on her business. A lot of ‘em won’t let someone that close. I mentioned I’m thinking of doing this in Michigan, which is a long way from Julian, California so it wouldn’t be a threat. Can I just talk to you? Liz Smothers who is the owner of the business said yeah, come on up. So, the family, Denise and I and the kids went up and spent the afternoon and at the end of the afternoon she said I’ll train you. So, to try and fill in the void of not knowing how to make pies, you’re someone who’s been in the business for 15 years, who knows all about pies, her mom was a pie-maker, a baker from day one, would teach us the recipes, the process, what kind of equipment we’d need, what space we’d need, all of the details we’d need that we didn’t know-----for a fee. So, it became something that maybe isn’t a fantasy. Maybe I could learn this. Then coming back to Traverse City, because I didn’t know if Traverse City would be a city that would support this business, but doing a little research on the demographic and the regional dollars spent back here, and tourism, cost of living-----I love this town! There’s trees and water and the Great Lakes are right here, hills. It’s cheery country. So, where Julian, California is apple country-----we grow most of the cherries for northern Michigan. So, we figured we could make a name for ourselves with cherry pie the way they did with apple pie. It’s beautiful. There’s cherry orchards and wine up here. We’ve got a growing wine business up here. It’s just beautiful. It’s really just a gorgeous place to live. But, the question was, can a business survive up here? Doing a little research I think it will. So, that’s kind of how we went from just dreaming about something, which I think a lot of people do, to where fortunately through that meeting with the owner of the Julian Pie Co. who could actually teach us to know what we had to know to get started.

Q – How’d you get the financing in place to launch this co.? Did you use your own money?
A – Some of my own.

Q – How expensive was it to get this business off the ground?
A - About 200K. That’s what it took. We’ve been in business ten years. We’ve developed our concept to where we’re more of a bakery-----café now not just a pie co. It’s about 400K to start a shop these days. But, we are now franchising and we’ll have eight shops by the end of the summer (2006), with another six on the burner. So, we’ve kind of taken our concept over the last 10 years and worked it and tried to improve on it based around pies by doing lunch and breakfast and doing catering and fund-raising and corporate gifts, internet. Try to build our business that way.

Q – Are there enough hours in the day to do what you have to do? You must have a lot of help!
A – Yeah, there’s folks. There’s probably 25 people now in the business. System wide we have over 200 in terms of people who are wearing Grand Traverse Pie Co. hats in different areas of Michigan, in different pie shops. They’ll be almost 400 by this time (June) next year-----(2007). So, the next thing is, what makes me feel good about it is, these are good jobs, Michigan’s kind of hurting right now. We’re a growing business featuring Northern Michigan products and featuring Northern Michigan tourism. So, it’ll help drive visibility to our area. To get started I brought a few pies back with a business plan and met with some bakers. I had to have some equity, but the majority of it was an SBA loan that one local bank here that had the faith and wisdom to think that this was going to make it. So, there were 2 key people. There was Liz who trained me and my wife, and there was Dan, our banker who had the faith to make the loan happen. Otherwise, without money-----it’s just a dream.

Q – How many hours did you have to put in, in 1996-----and how many hours are you putting in today?
A – Probably 12-14 then, and 10 now. The tasks that I’m doing have changed completely, you know, from making the pies to trying to oversee the operation that’s franchising, fund-raising, catalog development. It’s almost back to the business manager role that I came from, now versus the pie-maker when I started out. But, that’s o.k. It’s challenging stuff and it’s for our own family business. So, I’m much more motivated. It’s something you don’t even figure-----hours of the day. It’s not even a dimension that matters anymore. Whatever it takes to do right for the business. It’s like Howard Shultz says-----do the right thing, whatever it takes.

Q – Why did you name the co. Grand Traverse Pie Co?
A – We put a lot of thought to that. Traverse City is the city. Grand Traverse County and the whole region is referred to as the Grand Traverse area. So, we didn’t want to be just a Traverse City Co. We wanted to be identified with the whole area. The Grand Traverse Bay is 2 blocks from our shop. Grand Traverse is a term very common up here and it just seemed to fit. Looking at the name and if the name were ever to go beyond the regional level, the word grand is a nice word. It’s like Great Harvest Bread. Grand Traverse. Even if you don’t know Grand Traverse Bay, Grand is a nice word. That’s kind of what we were thinking.

Q – Since you’re franchising this business, does that mean you’d like to grow it like Starbucks or McDonald’s?
A – No.

Q – You don’t want to be that big.
A – No. Not at all. People have read our story and come to us and said, hey we want to do this too. Our franchisees are people that somebody took an early buy-out from Ace Hardware Corporate and they didn’t want the corporate world anymore. Somebody got caught up in the Sears-K-Mart merger and they worked for K-Mart and didn’t want to move to Chicago. So, we have corporate folks that were kind of in my shoes, that read your story, and said can you help us do that too. So, we’re trying to find the right model, so that we can help people. And that feels good. Sure it’s good business. We’re going to realize the benefit of that someday if it all goes well, financially, but it’s helping people transition their lives too. At first I was not for franchising. The whole term turned me off, because it conjures up McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, but there’s different ways to do franchising. I went to a few conferences and learned about it and hired some consultants. We were kind of like the anti-franchise, franchise ‘cause we’re still making pies from scratch in every store. It’s not like its being shipped and frozen and drop it in a fryer like McDonald’s does. The challenge we have is to create the products we create in every store, not just to fake it. We want to do the real thing. It’s all made from the individual ingredients at the store level right there. That’s something a lot of franchises shy away from. We want to do it the real way, in every location. It’s more challenging.

Q – How do you insure quality products at every location?
A – I put the burden on the training and selection of the right people. That’s what our co. is about. We’re confident in the long run that will be our discriminator. Why will people want to go into a Grand Traverse Pie Co? Whether it’s the environment we’re creating with the warm colors and the up-scale look or whether it’s just the fact that you can see people. It’s all open. There’s no walls. The kitchen is right in plain view. You walk in the shop and you see people making pot pies, cherry pies, making muffins. It’s all done in the open. That’s who we are. We don’t want to hype what we’re doing.

Q – What’s the market for your pies on the internet? Who are your customers?
A – Well, a lot of just private folks. Whether it’ folks that have visited our area that want to send the pie home when they’re not there or a gift to their friend who used to live here. So, it’s the individuals for gifts, individuals for their own pleasure and a lot of corporate gifts. We’re working with a co. out of New York that we’re going to ship I think 2,000 pies this year (2006). They’re a real estate investment trust. As they obtain new clients they want us to send the pie to them. They’ve actually developed a box which co-branded with us and them and some collateral marketing material that goes in each pie and we’ve had several of these kind of clients. So that’s a big part of the business as well, the corporate client that wants something different for their customers.

Q – How do you feel your engineering degree and the experience you have in the aerospace industry prepare you for the pie-making business?
A – Well, I think the experience I got at Hughes, General Dynamics and Lockheed-----I wouldn’t trade it in for anything, because we were dealing with some major programs. I guess the value to me was the people I was able to work for, and learn from. We had some seriously talented people that I was able to work for directly. You’re talking Wharton School, Yale, Ivy League, just really sharp folks that had tons of experience in leading large projects and large groups. Just to be around those people and understand how they handle the day to day operation or a major crisis that was just the mentoring that went on there. I was very fortunate to be in those situations, as well as the actual learning from a business stand-point how business operates, how relationships are formed with contractual or financial agreements, what’s important out on the factory floor with quality and productivity. All those things are related to small business as well. I just spent several years learning them on a very large scale. But, I felt that someday this training would help me in whatever it is I decide to do. I think it was more of working with the caliber of people you find in these businesses. It was just irreplaceable.

Official Website: www.gtpie.com

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