Julianne Hanner, Hanner Enterprises

Julianne Hanner’s self-described “quest” for a McDonald’s franchise started with uncertainty in the airline industry.

“McDonald’s really is the gold standard for franchises, it has the best return on investment, too. So we really went for the gold ring, it turned out to be the golden arches,” Hanner said.

They had moved to Western Washington from California after her husband, Robert, retired as a Navy pilot.

While he was working as a commercial pilot for Northwest Airlines, they began looking at a way to start their own business. NWA eventually merged with Delta Airlines.

“When we went in for the interview, they told him he would need to resign his position,” Hanner recalled.

Her husband was convinced he could do both, but McDonald’s wasn’t. When they asked if they could apply in her name, the high school teacher was told she didn’t have enough management experience.

“That kind of ruffled my feathers a little bit,” Hanner said. “I didn’t let that discourage me. It kind of riled me a little bit.”

A year later, she tried again and was accepted into Hamburger University, leaving her teaching job. Hanner completed the 24-month training program in 14 months, learning about product handling, equipment and finances.

“It sounds like you’d drive up and there’d be an inflatable hamburger on the roof. It’s just a world renowned, high-tech university,” she explained.

Her first store, in Omak, Wash., was built from the ground up in about 90 days.

“It’s very satisfying to do something like that,” she recalled of building the restaurant. “It’s very satisfying and very fun and exciting.”

But the Central Washington location was a long commute for her husband, now working for Delta. In 1996, they had the opportunity to buy five restaurants in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties from a retiring owner. Hanner Enterprises now owns the two restaurants in Aberdeen, one in Hoquiam and one in Raymond.

Going from one store to five overnight was a whole different ballgame. Instead of managing her restaurant, she had to build an infrastructure, coordinating with managers and transitioning from the way the previous owner did things to her own style.

“It takes a while to transition to where you really get over all the speed bumps,” Hanner said. “I really didn’t know my name for about 18 months.”

After the WalMart expansion is complete, she’ll have updated or renovated all five of the restaurants. For now, five is probably enough to manage, but Hanner said she’s always open to the right expansion.

“We’re always looking for opportunity to expand. The challenge we have is we’re kind of hedged in here on the Harbor. We’re kind of limited in what we can pick up that already exists, but we always have our feelers out to find the perfect spot in East County. But it would have to be perfect,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to serve the community, but these days it’s really difficult for a small business like this to remain viable. … It really has to be perfect to make money.”

The notion of a McDonald’s as a small business may sound strange, but Hanner said the franchises really operate that way.

All three of her daughters worked in the restaurants growing up.

“That’s something that’s kind of hard for people to understand sometimes,” she said. “I answer to the megacorporation, and I definitely support them financially, but for me it’s a small business. It’s a family-owned small business.”

The former teacher has brought something of her old profession into her restaurants: Hanner has participated the past several years in a pilot program from the state Department of Labor and the Association of Washington Business to help her employees save for their educations.

“It’s a real simple concept. It’s matching funds for our employees to go into an education fund for anything they needed. What was unique about this fund is they could use it for a computer, they could use it for books,” offering more flexibility than many grant programs, she explained.

The contributions go into Lifelong Learning Accounts, or LiLAs, (see below) and right now there’s a $30 cap per month on matching. But that helping hand has made the difference for a number of workers.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a student that starts with me at 16 years old have their first two years paid for — depending on their contribution — and that’s happened,” Hanner said. “They employees are just so appreciative that we would care enough to do that.”

PanelTech in Aberdeen, Vaughan Chopper Pumps in Montesano and HaloSource near Raymond are also listed as participating employers.

Hanner, Vaughan and HaloSource were the first three businesses in the state to sign on to the program.

“It’s really a testament to Grays Harbor and the business people of Grays Harbor, they have such big hearts here,” Hanner said.

Hanner said she’s been talking with Congressman Derek Kilmer about bringing the program to the national stage, and she’s been working with other McDonald’s restaurants in the area.

Hanner serves on the national board for the company, and said she brings feedback from Harborites to that level.

“The people on Grays Harbor have an influence on the national McDonald’s calendar whether they know it or not. I bring my experience and what people think and what they talk to me about and what they like to eat,” she said.

She said her favorite part of her work is meeting people all over the country, from other people who own franchises to people working at the national level.

“I really appreciate that part of my job. When we started Newman’s Own dressings I got to meet Paul Newman. Who meets Paul Newman?” Hanner said with a laugh. “I’m proud to be part of the McDonald’s family. It’s a great company, there’s great people that work in McDonald’s, McDonald’s always does the right thing and that’s important to me.”

Lifelong Learning Program

The program became the first in the nation to be formally recognized in state statute. The Lifelong Learning Accounts use no state funding, but the law defines the accounts funded through employee-employer contributions.

Unlike tuition reimbursement programs, which are usually dedicated to improving current job-related skills, LiLAs cover the costs of education outlined in a plan developed by the employee. In addition, LiLAs provide career planning assistance to participants.

For information about expansions in the program, email tsweeney@wtb.wa.gov.