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Secret of success? ‘A lot of hard work,’ says MHV Sonic partner

RIDGELAND — Tucked behind the Sonic Drive-in on U.S. 51 is a neat yet unassuming brick building that serves as the headquarters for the McClain Harvey Vaughn Sonic Group (MHV). The interior is attractive without being ostentatious.

In Buddy McClain’s office, the principals McClain, Carey Harvey and Bruce Vaughn have gathered for this interview. There are no Armani suits here, just slacks and open-collared shirts. The talk is easy, casual, devoid of ego. In fact, one quickly realizes that the three men are reluctant to discuss their accomplishments.

Unfortunately for them, their achievements continue to draw attention. They are a trio of blue-collar guys who keep turning the heads of the white-collar world. That is what happens when your company is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. It is the type of success that is hard to downplay, though the partners try.

When asked about the key to MHV’s success, McClain answered, “Understanding and believing in people. And, a lot of hard work.” He then smiled, and waited patiently for the next question.

Cooking up success

McClain, Harvey and Vaughn may be reluctant to tell their story, but there definitely is one to tell, and it starts back in the latter part of the 1970s. A native of Houston in North Mississippi, McClain hired on as a manager-trainee at a Sonic Drive-in. He was a 22 years old at the time.

“I got into Sonic to make money, and to climb the ladder without being controlled by a big corporation,” said McClain, who was chosen as the 2005 Distinguished Entrepreneur by the College of Business at the University of Southern Mississippi.

By the early 1980s, McClain’s hard work was paying dividends, and needing help, he called Vaughn. The two men’s friendship was longstanding, the relationship going all the way back to the first grade in Houston. So, Vaughn spent little time reflecting on the opportunity.

“I thought about it for about two hours,” Vaughn remembered with a grin. “He had me frying onion rings that same day.”
MHV was officially born in 1984 when Harvey joined the two friends. Harvey is a Tylertown native, and had gotten to know McClain and Vaughn through Sonic. By this time, McClain and Vaughn had relocated to the metro Jackson area, and it was there that Harvey joined them. With that, they were off and flying, though it was not always easy and expectations were kept low. (MHV would not officially form until 1996, however.)

“We had no money, no capital,” Vaughn said. “We were probably bankrupt many times, but we made up for it all by working hard.” He added with a smile, “When we started, my goal was to have two (Sonics). Buddy wanted five.”

What the men got was much more. In August, MHV celebrated the opening of its 100th Sonic Drive-in in Clinton. It was a momentous event, so much so that Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson was there as well as president Scott McLain.

With that opening, MHV solidified its position as the third-largest Sonic franchisee in the national chain that encompasses more than 3,200 eateries. Only two other franchisees in Sonic history have owned 100 or more drive-ins.

MHV owns and operates Sonics in Alabama (14), North Carolina (19) and Florida (19). It operates 50 Sonics in Mississippi, nearly half of the 117 Sonics in the Magnolia State.

Projected annual sales for this year are approximately $100 million. And, it employs an amazing 1,300-plus workers.
“That’s a lot of W-2s,” Harvey said with a wry smile.

Driving business

While McClain, Harvey and Vaughn seem reluctant to take credit for their success, they are not shy about sharing it with others. The trio had nothing but good things to say about corporate Sonic. The system of managers sharing in the success and promoting from within, revamped look of the stores and menu and top-flight national advertising campaigns were a few of the things that draw kudos from MHV.

They also gave a lion’s share of the credit to MHV’s employees. “We have really good people who are partners with us,” Harvey said.

MHV requires all of their managers to live in the community where they work. That community spirit and opportunity to work up the ladder has cultivated a unique environment, particularly in the fast food industry.

“After Katrina, we had 62 restaurants closed. Of the 10 directly on the Coast, three were completely destroyed, gone,” McClain said. “Ex-employees came out of the woodwork to help us. It was amazing.

“Sonic has offered them a great opportunity. If you work hard, you’ll be successful, and people appreciate that.”
MHV is set to open yet more Sonics, perhaps as many as 50. The men are eyeing Florida, which has fewer Sonics than Mississippi but holds a much larger population. The men gave no time frame for when these new MHV Sonics might come on line, but they’re not much into numbers and fanfare any way.
“Success is happiness,” McClain said, “and we’re real happy.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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