From college dropout to corporate climber

Photo caption: Tim Larson, left, and Tyler Reese smile outside of Marco’s Pizza in Durham after Reese accepts his position as district manager.

The following is a story I wrote for John Robinson‘s Feature Writing class at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

He tapped his pencil against the old wooden desk, glanced at the stagnant clock and sighed. This was the moment Tyler Reese decided to officially drop out of his second year at Wake Technical Community College.

“I realized I had wasted a bunch of money and just kind of dropped out,” Reese said. “I hated school, I hated studying. I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to amount to something.”

Reese is among the majority of students who drop out of college within six years in the United States — many of whom have accumulated thousands of dollars in student loans.

Reese planned on getting his associate degree by taking part-time classes at Wake Tech for two years, then transferring to Appalachian State University — his father’s and sister’s alma mater — to finish the degree.

Instead of following through, Reese focused on delivering pizza at Marco’s Pizza — a job that he’d had for roughly four months before dropping out of school.

Reese began working as a delivery driver because the schedule was flexible and allowed him to continue his studies. After dropping out, Reese kept the job, he says, because it paid the bills and he could imagine a future there.

Reese’s parents, Paul and Sandy Reese, grew concerned about their son’s future, and hoped he would reconsider a postsecondary education.

But Reese stood his ground, content with the delivery job’s pay and hours, and within four and a half years he was promoted three times.

First, from delivering pizza to being a shift manager in Durham, then months later to the general manager of the Durham store and finally to the district manager, overseeing six different stores in central North Carolina.

To top it off, he’s only 24 years old.

“I honestly thought it would be a very long process,” Reese said, adjusting his classic black Marco’s Pizza baseball cap. “I didn’t see this coming down the road. I didn’t know what my opportunities with Marco’s would be.”

Typically, jobs in the food industry do not require college degrees, and many employees are able to climb the corporate ladder to riches without the burden of student loans dragging them down.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school graduates over age 25 who work full time averaged a $726 per week income in the second quarter of 2018, while college graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree over age 25 who work full time averaged a $1,310 per week income in the same time period.

That translates to roughly $38,000 per year before taxes for 25-year-old high school graduates and $68,000 per year before taxes for 25-year-old college graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Though Reese skipped his degree and started working full time at age 19, his salary corresponds with the latter at $64,000 per year before taxes.

Reese worried that without a college education he wouldn’t be promoted any higher than general manager.

“General managers don’t really make that much,” Reese said. “Obviously at my age, it’s a lot, but I just kept thinking down the road as a 40-year-old man making $35,000 to $45,000 a year, is that really sufficient? To me it wasn’t, and that’s why I always kept school in the back of my mind.”

But Reese’s worries vanished when he was promoted to district manager.

“I figure now I won’t go back to school,” Reese said with a grin. He paused, shook his head and laughed before his next sentence. “I figure I’ll go ahead and make millions without the student loan debt.”

Tyler Reese is the youngest of Sandy and Paul’s three children; his brother, Hunter Reese, is 28 years old, and his sister, Alex Reese, is 27 years old.

Reese was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated from Leesville Road High School in 2012.

During his senior year of high school, Reese started taking honors classes — something that he’d never done before. He says he felt compelled to take harder classes to prove his intelligence to his family.

“My dad and my sister went to App State and my mom was valedictorian at Adrian College. So I just wanted to prove myself and go to college,” Reese said.

Reese, who now lives in Morrisville, drives hundreds of miles each week  to inspect stores in his district, which often results in a 14-hour workday. And for the past four years he has consistently worked overtime, averaging 60 to 70 hours per week.

He credits his success to his customer service skills and work ethic.

His father agrees.

“He truly does want the customer experience to be the best possible,” Paul Reese said. “I believe the franchise owner and other Marco’s executives recognized these abilities and that underscored the decision to promote Tyler.”

Reese’s biggest advocate? His sister.

Alex Reese couldn’t be more proud of her younger brother.  

“How many people can claim [to be a district manager] at such a young age? Without his work ethic and passion, Tyler would not be in his current position,” Alex Reese said. “He set his eyes on a goal he wanted to accomplish, worked his way up through the ranks and achieved it.”

Reese’s strong customer service skills stem from his charisma and ability to be personable with anyone — especially his employees. On his days off as a general manager, he didn’t hesitate to throw on his Marco’s Pizza polo shirt and help out in-store when employees called in sick.   

Jordan High School student Joanna Vargas has worked at Marco’s Pizza in Durham for one year; she says she thinks of Reese as a role model. Reese’s new title requires him to divide his time equally between six stores, which Vargas says upset her.

“I was so happy for Tyler when he got the job,” Vargas said. “But I was sad to see him go [from working in Durham everyday to every week], because he trained me and I look up to him.”

In addition to his team’s support, Reese maintains a strong relationship with his customers. One Durham customer, Reese says, stopped by a local beer shop while his pizza was cooking and bought Reese a $20 gift card.

Other customers have asked Durham employees when their favorite former general manager would return.

“I’ve had a lot of customers ask me to come back because they miss me,” Reese said. “It makes me feel good.”

Marco’s Pizza Owner and Area Representative Tim Larson owns the Durham, Chapel Hill, Morrisville and Pittsboro locations. He plans to open eight more stores in 2019.  

Larson acts as Reese’s mentor, teaching him the ins and outs of the corporate business world.

“[Tyler] has a very strong work ethic. He is very coachable, which is what I was looking for — somebody I can groom to take over the business from an ownership standpoint,” Larson said.

Ownership? Already?

Larson laughs.

“It would be something where he would grow into the ownership of the business over years,” Larson said. “Ownership is gradual so it could be a matter of a small percent leading up to bigger percents over the course of years.”

Reese confirms his long-term plan is to own a Marco’s Pizza franchise in the next five to ten years.

“My ultimate goal is to take over [Larson’s] territory when he retires, and hopefully open my own franchise with Marco’s,” Reese said.

Considering Reese’s trajectory, that day could be just around the corner. Meanwhile, whether he’s sprinkling cheese on a pizza or analyzing a store’s marketability, there’s one thing Reese can attest to: Hard work really does pay off.

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