Football has played a major role in the life of Peter Cancro, founder and chief executive of Jersey Mike’s Subs , based in Manasquan, N.J. From Pop Warner leagues to playing for his high school team, the sport and the coaches he encountered taught him valuable lessons about teamwork and leadership—and helped him pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.
Cancro started working at Mike’s Sub Shop in the seaside town of Point Pleasant, N.J., when he was 14. Three years later, he bought out the owners. His football coach, who was also a banker, helped him get a loan to finance the deal. Cancro, who was president of the class of 1975 at Point Pleasant High School, was also the only graduate to own his own sub shop. He was an owner at 17, before he could legally use a slicer.
After graduating from high school, he married his wife, Linda, and they opened more outlets, changing the name to Jersey Mike’s Subs to stress the chain’s origins along the New Jersey shore. Cancro eventually formed Jersey Mike’s Franchising Systems Inc., and began franchising in earnest. Over the years, he has never forgotten the leadership lessons he learned from football and teaches those concepts to Jersey Mike’s managers and franchisees.
It’s pretty amazing that at the age of 17 you bought a restaurant.
Looking back on it, I really don’t comprehend it. I started working very early, mowing lawns when I was 10 and 11. It was not that big of a deal to buy when I was 17. I had worked there four years. I did not think of failure at that age. I did not have any worries.
HOMETOWN: Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.
EXPERIENCE: Began working in a local sub sandwich shop at age 14 and bought it three years later, before graduating from high school; built Jersey Mike’s Subs to a nearly 400-unit chain
PERSONAL: married; four children
HOBBIES: snow shoeing, running and playing tennis
Now you take things slowly, methodically. I sort of leapt back then. Along the way we lose the ability to leap. That’s probably a good thing.
Was it your high school football coach who helped you buy the restaurant?
No. My Pop Warner coach, Rod Smith. I played for him before high school. I was quarterback of the team, and we won the championship of that league.
I always stayed in touch with him, and he came to my [high school] games.
When the owner of Mike’s put it up for sale in 1975, I started knocking on doors, trying to raise capital. It was a Sunday night at 9:30 when I came over to his house.
He came to our annual meeting in May 2006. It was very emotional. He cried. I cried.
Did you play any college ball?
I hung up my spikes on Thanksgiving Day my senior year, after winning the championship, but I’ve carried on that [sports] mentality. You are not so much pushing people but pulling them along. Any great coach does not push. You show them the way and invite them in. That’s the way I was coached.
Were you ever a coach?
I coached my daughter’s soccer team and baseball [team]. The sports involvement is the same with music and activities out of school.
When you are a teenager and young, there are certain teachers and coaches that influence you. It’s neat to take that into business—the philosophy of acting as a team, yet celebrating individual victories, mentoring and coaching and giving back and supporting each other.