Sam Covelli recognized for success and service

By Denise Dick


A business succeeds or fails based on the choices made by its owner.

“I tell my employees, ‘The next person you hire is the most-important decision you make,’” Sam Covelli told students and aspiring entrepreneurs Wednesday.

Covelli, owner and chief executive officer of Covelli Enterprises, Warren, was honored at Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration. He was a recipient of the Beta Gamma Sigma Medallion of Entrepreneurship.

Only four people in the country received the award this year. The medallion honors people who combine innovation in business with community service.

Beta Gamma Sigma is a the largest international business honor society, founded in 1913. It has inducted more than 775,000 students around the world.

YSU nominated Covelli for the award.

Betty Jo Licata, dean of YSU’s WCBA, also pointed to Covelli’s community service.

The company has donated millions to Mahoning Valley charity organizations.

The Panerathon, a 10-kilometer/2-mile run/walk, has raised more than $1 million over five years for the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center At St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital.

Covelli said employers should hire people with good people skills and provide them with the tools and training to succeed.

Covelli Enterprises, founded in 1959, employs about 35,000 people. Covelli owns 300 Panera Bread restaurants, including eight in the Mahoning Valley. The company is the single-largest franchisee of Panera and O’Charley’s restaurants. He is the country’s fourth-largest restaurant franchisee.

In 2012, he added Dairy Queen to his businesses. He owns nine, two of them on the Ohio Turnpike.

In 1998, Covelli sold his McDonald’s restaurants to open the Panera stores. Not everyone believed it was a wise move.

But Covelli picked up on a trend of a certain population wanting a new style of restaurant.

He called it fast casual.

Covelli’s first Panera opened in Boardman, and on opening day, he started to question his decision when it had no customers.

“I was sweating bullets at that time,” he told the audience.

Later that day, business boomed.

When he started, Panera Bread stock was $5 per share. Today it’s $177 per share.

Most new restaurants don’t succeed, and Covelli said that’s because of the type, location, the people hired or the price charged to customers, he said.

It’s about value – and that doesn’t always mean low price, Covelli said. He lists cleanliness among the most-important qualities of a restaurant.

“I love to take every customer into our kitchen,” the entrepreneur said.

Covelli also stressed to the students the need to sell themselves to be successful in business.

He has a passion for the work that he does.

“We will stop growing if we have to cut corners to make the bottom line,” Covelli said.

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