Jeffery Keys (’96) is president of Diversity Food Brands LLC, a consolidator, operator and licensor of food service brands with a primary focus on concessions common to airports, motorways, college campuses and hospitals. DFB is minority-owned and ACDBE-certified in multiple states. Keys was a founding partner of United Enterprise Fund LP, a private equity fund that promoted and financed minority business ownership of franchise restaurant companies. Keys led and managed a number of investments and provided both financial and operational expertise to UEF’s portfolio companies and other businesses. Prior to UEF, he was a vice president of credit at FMAC, a specialty franchise lender, where he participated in over $2 billion in franchise transactions.
Read what other African-American alumni and students have to say about career and education in Black@Anderson's 5 Questions
Interview by Diamon Lockett (FEMBA ’18)
Q: How did you get started in your industry and why are you passionate about what you do?
I started in restaurant operations when I was very young, working in fast food places like Pizza Hut before getting my undergraduate degree in economics. It was when I was taking economics courses that I developed an affinity for finance. I became a commercial banker for Wells Fargo after leaving Berkeley and I worked my way through until I came across a company that did specialized lending for franchising, which gave me the opportunity to continue to do finance but also revisit some of my experiences in restaurant operations. I worked with this specialty company that gave me tremendous exposure to a number of different brands and operating systems and to being a lender. It gave me access to detailed financial information, so I was able to understand at a very, very detailed level what the opportunities were, the different brands and franchises.
I stayed in the Los Angeles area for several years after my MBA. Then I was lured out to New York to begin a career in private equity, putting together a first-of-its-kind private equity fund that was going to focus on increasing minority participation in some of the major franchise chains and brands. That was definitely something I wanted to do; it was finance, operations, and it gave me the opportunity to increase visibility within minority ownership. I had learned, at the time, that it was going to be a great wealth-generating system in franchising. It combined a lot of things that I believed in and was very passionate about. So, I packed up and left for New York, and we invested almost $50 million in these franchise concepts. I was one of the founding partners of this private equity fund, called United Enterprise Funds. It’s small in comparison to the billion-dollar funds that you have today but, at the time, it was considered a medium-sized fund, and it was the first to specialize in that space, with or without the minority component. We just didn’t have a lot of private equity in the franchise restaurant space.
I did that for about 10 or 15 years until I decided to leave and form Diversity Food Brands, which includes Le Petite Bistro and Sandella’s Flatbread Café. We focus on airport concessions and high-traffic venues like corporate offices, parks and colleges. Most of our revenue comes from supplying propriety products into our licensing system. So, it’s not a typical career path ― from operations to finance to entrepreneurship ― but I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities, some of which presented themselves and some of which I’ve had to create for myself.
Q: How did business school influence your professional choices?
It’s the Anderson culture that I took with me when I graduated, in that I had the desire to create an environment where I could do something that I loved and surround myself with people who shared that vision and passion. A lot of the confidence came from Anderson because you can’t be a wallflower at Anderson. They have a way of pulling you out, putting you in the spotlight, boosting your confidence and showing you that it’s okay to take risks and not fear failure. Of all the skill sets I picked up specifically at Anderson, I learned not to fear failure and not let it stop me from branching out on my own. I credit Anderson for that because the way they teach and involve the students and the emphasis they put on students’ individual growth and leadership continue to pay dividends for me.
Q: What is the most important skill we should be teaching our students today?
I’d have to say it’s patience. There’s so much emphasis on instant success that I think it encourages people to take shortcuts and pursue activities with very poor planning. I think we need to teach people to take the time to think it through and understand that most of your learnings come from the journey. So, really plan it well and be patient because success will come. It doesn’t have to be overnight. It took me 30 years to be an overnight success. So, just be patient.
Q: What’s your one-sentence definition of success?
Having enough victories to feel accomplished, but at the same time enough losses to keep you humble; enough friends to keep you distracted, but enough enemies to keep you focused.
Q: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
I’ve gotten a lot of advice. Some of it has served me very well and some of it has not. But, I think some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten is from my father when I left for school. I was 18 and trying to figure out what I was going to do. My father started as an engineer and was getting into marketing, and the advice he gave me was, “Do something that you love. A job without passion is a cycle of imitation.” So, just do something that you enjoy and compensation will come. The worst thing that you can do is spend 20 years doing a job you hate because you thought it paid a lot. You’ll find out that the cost of that job is much higher than what you earn.
Q: What’s the one change you’d like to see happen in business today?
That’s an interesting question. The world is constantly changing and I do think sustainability, recycling and becoming eco-friendly has to be the way that businesses evolve. Fossil fuels are a finite source of energy, so we need to be thinking more about the environment and considering the impact of the things that we do and the impact it has on the planet. It’s so much more visible today than it was when I was a student. I think it’s a burden that’s definitely shifted and it’s definitely going to fall on this up-and-coming generation to clean up the mess. I’d like to see the best and brightest of our new leaders in business really make a commitment to reshape this industry so that it’s more eco-friendly. At Diversity Food Brands, we have brands where we sell proprietary products and so we try to do things like use recyclables, biodegradable plates and napkins, and cut down on landfill. It is expensive, and that’s why it’s difficult for many small businesses to make the commitment. We still have plastic in our supply chain because it’s expensive to [adopt alternatives], which is why I’m hoping that the next generation comes in to lower the costs and create better options. We try, but it’s easier said than done. There’s a cost that not everybody can afford to pay.
Q: What are the lessons you have learned from being a person of color in leadership?
The truth is, it’s complicated. On one hand, you want to embrace your ethnicity so you can have an impact on that corporate environment; so that you can interject your DNA, which is what diversity is all about. Diversity allows conversations to take place in the workplace that otherwise wouldn’t, and that’s very important because if you just have a room filled with people who look and think the same, it’s never going to evolve. One thing that’s great about business is it crosses physical boundaries, nationalities, religions, etc. Business is a great unifier. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to get marginalized by your ethnicity. You don’t want to be in a box or put yourself in situations where you’re called on for the “minority” answer. You want to represent and participate in the bigger environment. It’s a balancing act, you don’t want to abandon your ethnicity but you also don’t want to be put solely in that minority box.
Q: Would you like to share any final thoughts?
Network! There’s an old saying: “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” I personally resisted that for a long time, which may be why it took me 30 years to get to where I am today. No matter how you get the job, you have to be capable in order to keep it. So whatever advantage you can take to get the job, take it. Know your professors and know your classmates. Take the time to make those connections. When you’re trying to land that job, someone you know who already works there, or someone who can get you an interview or walk you in, could make the difference between getting or not getting that opportunity.
Diamon Lockett is VP of FEMBA relations for the UCLA Anderson Black Business Students Association