Stritch graduate helping to keep business “better” for Cousins Subs
“Better Bread. Better Subs. Better Day.”
This is a slogan Stritch alumnus Justin McCoy, ’01, knows all too well as the vice president of marketing for Cousins Subs. He is charged with overseeing and building the iconic brand of this hometown sandwich shop, which was founded in 1972 by two cousins in Milwaukee.
Unlike Cousins founder Bill Specht, who left the East Coast for a slower-paced life in the Midwest, McCoy, who grew up in a small, northern Wisconsin town, left his quiet life in Shiocton to get a taste of big-city life.
“I wanted to get away and live in a bigger city after high school,” said McCoy of his decision to enroll at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee after a short stint at University of Wisconsin—Green Bay.
However, once he settled at UWM, McCoy struggled to find himself and felt the school lacked the structure he needed.
“It was too large and overwhelming for me,” McCoy said. “I had core classes with 300 plus students. It was hard to become connected in that environment and easy to slip into bad habits.”
And, at a young age with no guidance or structure, McCoy admits he had a difficult time staying focused.
“It’s hard to know what you want to do with the rest of your life when you are 19 years old,” McCoy said.
Knowing he wanted a smaller campus experience that was still near a larger city, McCoy then found himself at Stritch.
“My college career really started when I entered Stritch,” McCoy said.
The liberal arts curriculum at Stritch introduced McCoy to much more beyond the business scope that had been his focus at UWM.
“I took a speech class with assistant professor Cheri Frey-Hartel and it took off from there,” McCoy said. “That class and Cheri’s feedback showed me all the different paths I could take in communication arts. Creative writing, public relations, group communication, it all just clicked.”
Stritch also provided that extra layer of accountability and structure McCoy had been longing for.
“Teachers like Cheri knew how to get the best out of me,” McCoy said. “My ability to speak and present in front of people really flourished during my time at Stritch.”
During his junior year, McCoy secured an internship with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“You learn by doing, so internships are important because that is where you begin putting to use what you learned in the classroom,” McCoy said.
The Bucks pairing was a perfect fit for McCoy, taking into account his love for sports and his desire to gain experience working in sports marketing, event-day operations, and broadcasting.
“My dream at that time was to work in either the NFL or NBA doing something in sports broadcasting, PR or marketing,” McCoy said.
Throughout college, he paid tuition and bills by holding jobs in the banking and finance sector. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Stritch in 2001, McCoy considered a few different tracks.
“I contemplated grad school, either with a focus on sports management, marketing or broadcast journalism,” McCoy said.
But, instead, McCoy, who always wanted to live in a larger, warmer city, decided to move to Florida, where he remained in the banking and finance industry.
“I struggled doing jobs I didn’t like,” said McCoy, who never lost sight of what he really wanted. “Throughout my time in the finance industry, I always had part-time jobs in the fields that truly interested me.”
And whether those jobs were in radio or working part time for organizations such as the Milwaukee Bucks, McCoy kept a pulse on the marketing industry. Much like his college journey, McCoy was looking for a position that challenged him and made him grow in ways the finance industry didn’t.
After relocating back to his home state in 2005, McCoy applied for an entry-level marketing position with Cousins Subs. He got the job in January of 2006 and in less than 10 years, McCoy worked his way from an entry level position as a marketing specialist all the way to vice president of marketing for the company, now overseeing all of their creative, digital and brand management. As vice president, McCoy leads a team of eight who provide marketing support for more than 130 stores in four states. He is responsible for setting the vision and executing a solid marketing plan that encompasses advertising (print, TV and radio production), public relations, and the brand’s digital presence (website, social media).
His position at Cousins allows him to use many skills that he fine-tuned at Stritch.
“What I love about this job is that there is no typical day,” McCoy said. “I get to use everything I learned at Stritch. I took classes in all areas of the job I do today – from broadcasting and radio to creative writing and public relations, I use all of it in my day-to-day work.”
McCoy is very hands on and takes part in the entire creative process when it comes to marketing initiatives for the company. And when he says he has a hand in the entire process, he is not exaggerating. For example, when developing a Cousins’ television ad, McCoy has a part in developing the concept, writing the script, casting the talent, and he is present on the set during filming and throughout the entire editing process. He then oversees the distribution of each commercial and determines its various uses across their multimedia channels.
“I get to be a part of that entire process, which is exciting and not something you always get to do at a larger company,” McCoy said.
As part of the executive leadership team at Cousins, McCoy takes a seat alongside the president, CFO, and vice president of development, and serves as a vital part of that team which makes important decisions about the company’s growth and future. Much of McCoy’s work focuses on preparing Cousins for growth in new markets. He has been at the helm of many of the new systems and branding elements the company has implemented as part of its growth strategies. During the last year, he also has worked with the executive team to develop a new décor package for their stores.
“It is what Cousins Subs will look like moving forward,” McCoy said. “From the store paint colors and furnishings, down to the employees’ uniforms, everything that the customer sees when visiting one of our locations has been taken into serious consideration.”
McCoy keeps Cousins competitive by keeping the company current.
“We launched and developed two new websites during my tenure, including a mobile optimized site, launched online ordering, a comprehensive social media strategy and are now working on an app for iOS and Droid devices that allows us to better serve our customers in a growing competitive landscape,” McCoy said. “Most of what my team has worked on the last five years has been building the systems that will support the future growth.”
Since transitioning to the franchise model in the late 1980s, the success of the Cousins Subs brand rests heavily on the shoulders of its franchise owners. McCoy feels personally responsible for ensuring those owners achieve success as independent business owners and for the Cousins Subs brand.
“Just like any sports team – when you are winning, things are great. But when the team is losing, or in our case, when sales are down, I take it personally,” said McCoy whose work directly supports the franchise owners who operate the Cousins brand. “These are independent business owners. Their livelihood depends on how well my team and I do our jobs. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
McCoy’s next big project with the company is the launch of a corporate-wide loyalty program, a goldmine in the world of marketing.
“There is such a vast amount of information we can gather on our customers with a loyalty program while enhancing their experience with our product,” McCoy said. “If we see that a guest makes on average one trip a month to one of our stores for example, a loyalty programs allows us to track that and we can then send special offers to that guest encouraging them to stop in for an additional visit or order more product on that next visit.”
Perhaps McCoy’s proudest accomplishment to date at the company has been the development of their Make it Better Foundation, the company’s charitable giving program.
“Before Make it Better, the company had no formalized process for its charitable giving,” McCoy said. “I helped in developing the concept and then marketing the foundation. Today we are working on growing the foundation and creating further awareness of our commitment to the communities we call home.”
The foundation funds grants to organizations that support health and wellness, hunger, and youth education. McCoy sits on the board of directors for the foundation and recently launched its Wisconsin Sports Awards scholarship contest, which honors high school senior athletes throughout the state.
“The fact that Cousins is a values-based, family-owned-and-operated company was what originally attracted me to the company and is what has kept me here,” McCoy said.
And, like Stritch, Cousins saw the potential in McCoy, which is another reason he has remained with the company despite being part of a generation that switches jobs on average every four years.
“The family like environment and fact that I was promoted so quickly, showed me that the company wanted to invest in me by continually giving me more and more opportunities,” McCoy said. “I have found the right fit for me and am challenged everyday.”
McCoy is far from bored. His ultimate goal at Cousins is to help bring the brand to new markets.
“I want to be a part of the team that helps Cousins Subs become a nationwide brand within the quick-service restaurant sandwich category,” McCoy said.
Being a great father for his son also keeps McCoy busy and grounded.
“At the end of the day for me, it is all about that great work/life balance. That is what I strive for,” McCoy said.
Looking back on his journey thus far, he is thankful for Stritch.
“Stritch saved me in a lot of different ways,” McCoy said. “I came out of Stritch believing I could do anything. More than anything, that belief in myself and my talents has helped me tremendously in my career.”