Less humble leaders may have a hard time caring about the “little people.” For Brian Wogernese, no voice is too small. Though the cofounder and president of Neenah, Wis.-based Cobblestone Hotels will see his 50th property open in 2015, he has remained focused on pleasing the undervalued and overlooked since taking up the role of franchisor in 2008.
“We don’t answer to Wall Street,” he says. “We answer to the franchisees.”
Concerned with small-town needs and personal touches, Wogernese is not your typical CEO. But for a man who has been climbing the corporate ladder for more than 20 years, his leadership method should come as no surprise.
Starting as a friendly face behind a front desk, Wogernese transitioned to management and later to building hotel franchises with his family in the early ’90s. He has been around the block enough times to understand what composes a successful hotel franchise. He applied this knowledge when he and cofounder Mark Pomerenke were looking to buy a franchise in the niche market of placing midscale hotels in 3,000- to 7,000-population towns.
“We had a handful of towns that we felt didn’t need more than 31 rooms,” Wogernese says. “We went to all the brands and asked, ‘Would you put your name on this?’”
There were no bites. Becoming franchisees to economy brands was an option, but the pair had a different vision. “We were shooting for a $80-$90 average daily rate, and that’s hard to do with economy,” Wogernese says.
So, he and Pomerenke decided to put their name on a new brand instead. “We weren’t left with many options,” Wogernese says. “Over the course of a couple months, we came up with a name and a logo and just decided to make our own little brand.”
Where there were towns too small for the Holiday Inns and the Hampton Inns of the world, Cobblestone filled the void.
“If there are only 3,000 people in the town, they just can’t justify it,” Wogernese explains. “There’s a certain amount of business going into those small communities—corporate, family—and they don’t want to stay at the economy scale, they want that midscale feel. The little towns all feel that they should get the big brands. This was kind of the answer—filling that midscale need, just not building 70 or 80 units.”
Starting from scratch meant that Wogernese could take his experiences as a franchisee—both good and bad—and treat his own in the way he would want to be treated.
“Our only basis for doing this was we had been franchisees of other brands, so we knew what they did,” Wogernese says. “We knew how we felt as franchisees. We’re attuned to making sure we’re sensitive to mandates and how it affects the investors. Is there a return? Is it just to create more franchisees? Or is it really in the best interest of the investment group?”
The first Cobblestone Inn and Suites opened in 2008 in Clintonville, Wis., complete with a beer and wine bar, flat-panel TVs, and granite countertops—big-city accommodations in a little town. It was never in the plan to develop a portfolio with nearly 50 hotels, which include Cobblestone Hotels’ two other brands, Cobblestone Hotel and Suites and conversion brand Boarders Inn and Suites, let alone in such a short time span.
“When we launched this thing in 2008, it was just the two of us. We figured that was just what we were going to do for the rest of our lives,” Wogernese admits with a laugh. But they were not alone for long. Eager developers were willing to work without the promise of long-term employment. Many are still with the company. What was once a group of five employees has turned into 43 and, in order to maintain quality control, Wogernese has had to exercise restraint with new hires.
“We want to make sure that as we’re growing, we’re still as good as we told people we would be years ago,” he says. “Keeping that personal touch is really a big piece for us.”
At Cobblestone’s first convention three years ago, 20 people attended. At the 2015 convention to be held in March, 300 attendees are expected. But it’s clear that no matter how many people Wogernese speaks before or how many hotels he builds, he will always stay true to his roots.
“To stand in front of that many people, when this wasn’t really a career path for me—I was always the guy on the other side, either the franchisee or the manager, listening to someone in my position—I’m proud but humbled at the same time,” he says. “You want to stand up there and make sure you still relate to them, that you’re not just some guy up there who’s in charge, just pointing directions.”