Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 19, 2020

Goodwins share McDonald’s craving

AJ, 23, owns 3 locations while his dad’s count grows to 16

Ron Goodwin, left, and his son AJ Goodwin collectively own 19 McDonald’s in Chattanooga and beyond. They are pictured outside Ron’s McDonald’s in Ringgold. - Photo by David Laprad |Hamilton County Herald

Rob Goodwin began flipping hamburgers for $2.35 an hour for the McDonald’s on Ringgold Road when he was 16 years old.

Forty-two years later, he owns the restaurant where he began his career along with 15 other McDonald’s in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, making him the head of a multimillion-dollar company.

Goodwin did more than pen his own success story, he also paved the way for his son, 27-year-old AJ, who followed in his footsteps to become a McDonald’s owner-operator.

AJ achieved this objective at the age of 23, making him the second youngest person to reach that high mark in the company’s history. His portfolio currently contains three McDonald’s.

“Everyone says you have to go to college and earn a degree to be successful, but that could not be further from the truth,” AJ points out. “School is great and has its purpose, but you don’t have to do that to be successful. There are thousands of other opportunities out there.”

“Education is critical,” adds Rob, who completed less than one year of college. “We just happened to receive our education through a different venue.”

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Rob simply wanted to earn some spending money when he took the kitchen job at McDonald’s. Two years later, he was promoted to a salaried position at the restaurant, although he still saw it as a temporary engagement.

“I didn’t think it’d be a career. I was buying clothes for school, earning spending money and saving up for my first car,” he says.

But every two years or so, Rob would step up another rung on the company ladder. Eventually, he found himself working at the corporate level. Rob was in franchising and operations in Atlanta in 2003 when he learned that McDonald’s was selling three of its Chattanooga locations. The company gave him the opportunity to purchase the stores.

Rob says his story is not unlike those of most McDonald’s owner-operators.

“We start out as either manager trainees or crewmembers, and then the company teaches us to be business people. That’s how I learned to run a business. They paid for my training and gave me the opportunity to grow and succeed.”

A handful of key individuals shaped him along the way, Rob adds, including a manager who taught him how not to deal with employees.

“We did not have a positive relationship, but he held me accountable, and even though I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, I needed to hear it,” he notes. “He showed me where I was weak and taught me things I have never forgotten.”

Rob also matured under the positive and encouraging mentorship of a different manager. Again, this guidance was just what he needed at the time.

“When I first came to McDonald’s, I was probably the most timid, scared-of-my-own-shadow 16-year-old you’d ever meet. And he forced me out of my comfort zone. That’s when I grew. You don’t grow when you’re comfortable.”

AJ was 13 when he worked his first shift at a McDonald’s. Although all he could do at the time was pass bags of food to customers through the drive-thru window, he quickly discovered a desire to scale the company ladder like his father had and was soon skipping rungs as he endeavored to become the youngest owner-operator in McDonald’s history.

“Certain life goals motivated me, and I realized I could achieve those goals through McDonald’s,” he explains. “If you give 110% every day and you have the passion and desire to be successful, you will be.”

Similar to his father, AJ credits McDonald’s with teaching him how to run a restaurant. But he says his father has been the greatest mentor he’s known.

“He’s a humble person, so he won’t say this, but he’s an incredible businessman. His wisdom and the way he’s handled situations has helped me a thousand times,” he says. “You do have to forge your own path, but gaining his wisdom and learning from his experiences has been incredibly beneficial for me.”

AJ says the most important lesson his father taught him was to be resolute in his decisions while caring for his employees. “He’s firm in the way he runs his business but also nurturing,” he says.

Rob says this style of management does not always come easy because of the personnel challenges owners of fast food restaurants face.

“When we opened the Kimball location in ‘83 or ‘84, we gave the labor department a date for interviews. That morning, there were 250 people waiting to interview for a job, and we hired 90 of the best people on the planet. Today, it’s hard to get people period, let alone good people.”

Rob says he’s proud of AJ, though – not because of what he has but because of what he’s accomplished on his own.

“I gave him nothing; he’s earned everything he has. Did he have tremendous opportunities because of me being where I am? He did, and he understands and appreciates that. But he also knows he has to continue to earn it.”

AJ finds the fuel for each workday in the goals he’s set for himself. The first one he mentions is retiring his parents. (His mother is a co-owner with his father.)

“My father has worked his butt off to give us the life we have,” he says. “So, one of my passions is to retire my parents because they deserve to enjoy the rest of their lives. I’m working really hard to make that happen.”

AJ also wants to someday own 50 McDonald’s. He knows this will require buckets of blood, sweat and tears, but he’s prepared to make the investment.

“We’re not called owners, we’re called owner-operators,” he explains. “We’re not sitting on a beach drinking mai tais, we’re knee-deep in the business, working on it.”

AJ’s goals don’t end there. He also wants to expand his mother’s Murfreesboro-based nonprofit – Special Kids, a Christian therapy and nursing center for children with special needs – across the country. “One of my goals is to see one in every city in the U.S. before I die,” he says.

Hearing this, Rob finally shakes his head – not in disbelief, but in awe of the boldness of his son’s vision. “I took small steps to get to where I am,” he says. “But AJ goes from having one location to wanting one everywhere.”

Rob adds that his family’s charitable work through Special Kids demonstrates something important about McDonald’s owner-operators – that they are small-business owners who are simply trying to make a living and give back to their community.

“When the average person looks at a McDonald’s, they see a big corporation with deep pockets. They don’t understand that people like me own 90% of the McDonald’s in the U.S.,” he says.

With this in mind, Rob says “the coolest thing” to come out of his job flipping hamburgers has been the careers he’s helped others to establish. “I have some key employees with a similar story to mine, and I love that I was able to provide those opportunities for them.”

With Father’s Day around the corner, Rob is looking forward to spending time with all five of his and Catherine’s children and some if not all of their six grandchildren – none of whom belong to AJ, who’s single.

But he knows AJ has something special planned. “He always finds out what I’m into and calls me and says, ‘Hey, let’s go do this,’” Rob says with a smile. “He doesn’t like fishing, but we do both enjoy golf.”

“He tried to turn me into the next Tiger Woods when I was growing up,” AJ adds.

“We’re just simple people,” Rob says. “And we’re blessed.”