Best Places to Work 2017

Houston's Most Beloved Bosses in 2017

Our readers nominated their favorites, and we asked them their management secrets.

By Nicki Koetting, Alice Levitt, and Katharine Shilcutt December 4, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Gerald Freed

Freed, a native of Laredo, Texas, founded Freed Advertising in Sugar Land 33 years ago. His 22 employees work hard and play hard, too—there’s a cantina in the office, complete with a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville margarita maker. And Freed has learned a lot after decades in the sometimes-crazy world of advertising.

On his management philosophy: “We treat people with respect and understand that they have a life. It’s kind of more of a family feeling here, but it’s not a dysfunctional family. Everybody is ready to go to bat to support other people and fill in where needed. We operate a—I won’t say it’s a loose ship, but it’s a flexible ship. In the end, I think happy people become productive people, so I do what I can to make them happy. And in turn, they tend to make me and the clients happy.”

On his advice for other bosses in his industry: “Listen to your employees and understand that a good idea can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to be just a writer or a creative director that comes up with a great idea. Keep up with what’s going on in the industry, read what you can, talk to your people regularly.”

On whether he’d do it again: “I feel blessed to have gotten into this business when I did. There’s been a lot of changes, and there’s just a handful of us that were here 10, 15 years ago. It’s been a hell of a ride, and if I had to do it all over again I would do it all over again. And I think that’s the most telling thing.”

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Russell Ybarra

The President and CEO of Ybarra Franchising Group is the kind of Houstonian who signs off from phone calls with “Go Astros!” His Twitter bio ends with the words, “I <3 my wife & family.” In other words, few of us know as nice a guy. And the 2,000 folks who work for Ybarra at his company’s headquarters and at his eateries—Gringo’s, Jimmy Changa’s, and food truck/caterer The Lunch Box—have it good.

On whether he always wanted to be a restaurateur: “No, not really. I was 31 and had actually gotten out of the restaurant business when I opened Gringo’s. We owned a restaurant property that had failed and leased it to two other businesses. They failed as well. We had an obligation to the bank, that’s why we opened. We never imagined we’d be here. The first day of business we made $580. This year we made more than $100 million companywide.”

On the travel opportunities for employees: “Obviously, over the years, the success of Gringo’s has allowed me to enjoy a really nice lifestyle. I really enjoy sharing that with our team members. We do a management retreat every year to Mexico. We generally take two managers per location to Cancun or Playa del Carmen.”

On breakroom treats: “We keep our breakroom fully stocked with lots of goodies and snacks. We also do a catered lunch from a different restaurant each week.”

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Brenda Love

Love Advertising may have just moved into an expansive new home in Timbergrove—a converted warehouse that contains everything from a gym and nursing room to a sparkling commercial kitchen—but founder Brenda Love well remembers back in 1979, when the agency was a one-woman operation, founded with $500 and a handful of clients. “I so appreciated that first person I hired, because it meant they were going to take something off my shoulders,” laughs Love. “I didn’t have a receptionist for seven years; a receptionist was a luxury to me! So yeah, I appreciate our receptionist.” And that appreciation extends to every one of her 60 employees. Over lattes in her light-filled office, Love shared her thoughts on leadership.

On her hiring philosophy: “It’s about hiring the right people for the job. Hire nice people. Don’t hire people and tell them to be nice; hire nice people.”

On problem-solving: “I’m not about blaming when something goes wrong; I’m about how to solve a problem. Bring me a problem and bring me what you think we should do about it. We can figure out how we got there later.”

On helping employees succeed: “When someone has complaints about somebody’s work, the first thing I say is: Are they failing us or are we failing them? And half the time we’re failing them. Did you train that person? Did you sit them down? Did you show them? Did you make sure they understood what they were supposed to do? You’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt. There’s two sides to every single story.”

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Jess Hughes

When Jess Hughes opened her first Citizen Pilates studio in 2015, it was with years of experience under her belt—in the oil and gas industry. After 18 months in her new business—and opening a second location—she realized that running a boutique fitness studio required a big shift in her management philosophy. “A few of my instructors started to leave,” says Hughes, and exit interviews revealed a pattern of unhappiness with what they perceived as overly assertive leadership. “As you grow as a leader, you have to stop and go, The same things are happening in my business. They all left on the same terms; they were frustrated. You have to literally sit down and go, Oh, it’s me.”

After this tough realization, Hughes embarked on a mission of change. “I just did a huge personal assessment and said, I have to pull back a little bit and realize I’m no longer in a very strait-laced oil-and-gas environment that’s dominated by men.” She asked her mentors and staff to help her change course. Now, thanks to her focus on employee satisfaction, Hughes says, people are “beating down the door” to work at Citizen Pilates—and just in time, as they’re opening two more studios very soon and will be adding more instructors to the 12-member staff.

On valuing employees: “Arianna Huffington once said to me [at a conference]: ‘Are you treating your team better than your clients?’ And you think, Well, why would I do that? My team doesn’t pay money to take classes; my team doesn’t make the studio money. And then you stop and you go, oh, wow—they do. If you can’t recognize that as a business owner, then you’re gonna have a rude awakening. This is my family—this is my team—and if I don’t have these human beings in this studio, I don’t have a business. Your team should be treated better than your clients.”

On creating a positive environment: “You want to lead by example. Smile. Ask someone how their day was. Be nice. I’m all about recognition: gift certificates to Lululemon, gift certificates to Juice Girl. I think that getting those little surprises of unsolicited thank-yous to your team goes a long way.”

On when to let your Type A side out: “I’m a control freak. But guess what? I have full control over me. I don’t have a lot of control in this world, but I have control over what I say, how I say it, when I say it.”

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