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Rochester Innovators Series: Joe Powers

Rochester Innovators Series: Joe Powers

Joe Powers, through business and philanthropy, has established himself as a household name in Rochester. Joe is the owner of Powers Ventures, a family-owned company with a portfolio of restaurant and catering businesses that now employs more than 150 people in the Rochester area.

But Joe’s path to success was not laid out before him. A dishwasher in high school, Joe opened his first restaurant, the Canadian Honker, at the age of 21. “I had no money at the time,” explains Joe. In its first year of business, the restaurant had 35 seats and brought in $500 per day. Now, more than three decades later, the Honker has served over 3 million customers and has cemented itself as a local landmark for residents and visitors alike. 

“The amazing thing about the restaurant is we’ve had 32 years of growth,” says Joe. “We’ve never had a down year. Our affiliation with St. Marys staff and patients is why I was absolutely love this place. I’ve had other restaurants, but this is really special here. You meet people from all over the world.” 

Outside of business, Joe is active in the community, having served on boards for numerous organizations including the Rochester Area Foundation and the Poverello Foundation. Additionally, Powers Ventures has committed to donating 10 percent of its net income to various charities and nonprofits in the region.

For Joe, whose roots in southeast Minnesota trace back four generations, it’s his way of passing on good fortune to the community that has fueled his prosperity.

“We should give back,” adds Joe. “The community’s been really great to us, why wouldn’t we?”

Joe recently sat down with us to discuss his career as an entrepreneur and his thoughts on the direction of Destination Medical Center. Minor edits were made for flow and clarity. 

Photo by William Forsman

You were only 21 when you started your first business. WHat made you want to become an ENTREPRENEUR at a young age?

I was dyslexic, so I really didn’t like school at all. And I would over-work, which most dyslexics have to do. Thirty-four percent of all the entrepreneurs in America are dyslexic. We’re a different breed. We can handle failure like nobody. A guy who gets straight As all the time: he fails once and he’s devastated. But a guy like me: I’m like OK, I guess that happens. I had to work my ass of to just get a C … So even at a young age, I loved making money. And it wasn’t the money. If anyone knows me, I’m not a money guy. But I like the game of making money. I like the drive.

describe your philosophy as a business owner.

I don’t like to micromanage. I have 22 managers in the company. If they want to make a decision, go ahead. If they want to ask my opinion, I’ll give it to them. All I ask is anything to do with staff, I want to know about — meaning if you’re thinking about disciplining a staff member, I want to know about it, if you’re thinking about letting somebody go, I want to know about it. Because it’s the most important part of our business. That’s we’ve built our whole model on. 

And it’s such a an easy model to do. Your greatest asset in your company is your employees. It’s not the furniture, it’s not any of that stuff. Because if you can’t deliver, you got nothing. So we spend so much resources and time on our employees. And with what we have, I don’t need to hire anybody. We don’t have a hiring problem, at all. That’s how I know we’re doing something good. My employees got me where I am today. There’s no doubt about that.

What advice would you give to a young person thinking about starting a business in ROchester?

I would say it’s an incredible community to start a business in. I always tell them: do your research, do a market study. Also, you better have already worked the field and know the field. I know people who have opened businesses and they didn’t even really work at it. And finally, you got to know your competition.

Is there one mentor who helped you as you were first starting your business?

My mentor was Gus Chafoulias. I went straight to the top. The guy’s like the greatest entrepreneur. He owns 62 businesses; a lot of them are small businesses. He invests. He’s helped so many small business people here … My father knew him, so I went, ‘can I just get a meeting with him?’ Now when I talk to young people, I always tell them to get the guts to ask. What are they going to say? No? Fine, go on to the next person. 

That’s how you learn. You learn from others. I’m not a genius. I didn’t invent anything. Mine’s just hard work, that’s all it is. We don’t do anything at the Honker that anyone else couldn’t do. We don’t do anything with our catering that somebody else couldn’t do. We just do it really good.

Now a couple years in, what are your thoughts on the progress of DMC so far?

We have people from all over the world investing in this community now. That didn’t happen before. But DMC kind of woke up all the other investors across the United States. So they’re coming in and they’re grabbing onto properties. The values have gone way up. I could whine about that or I could play the game.

And while all the focus is on the next 20 years, we need to remember where we came from. Don’t miss saying ‘hi’ to a person when you walk out the door, because they’re probably not from here. You want that friendly, comforting feeling here. That’s what I can do as a small business person.

You give quite a bit back to the community. Why is that important to you?

It really came from our faith and it really came from my father. He said, ‘I just want you to give back to the community, no matter what.’ So we’ve always given away 10 percent of our net [income] to the community itself. Our company gave away a total of about $120,000 last year. That’s everything from gift certificates to discounts for nonprofits to cash. And honestly, it’s probably — and I didn’t do it for this reason — the best business move I ever made in my life. We touch a lot of people along the way. Who doesn’t want to do business with somebody that does good for them? You feel like you’re a part of the family.

You built your business from the ground up. Does it give you pride watching your children take on roles in the business?

Yes, very much so. I think the next generation will do very well. And we have a lot of young people in our company right now that are interested in succeeding and growing in the company. So I’m careful on not making my kids the kids, if you know what I mean. We’re very careful in our company on that. My kids are not the highest paid people in my company and they won’t be, not for a while. You have to earn it.

Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.

Cover photo by William Forsman

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