Don Fertman's association with the Subway restaurant chain began 30 years ago without much fanfare when he was part of a fledgling rock band that wrote promotional jingles for the company. Little did he know at the time that he would play a key role in helping to build Subway into the world’s largest restaurant chain.
Over the last three decades Fertman ’76 worked his way up the Subway ladder as publications editor and writer, company photographer, public relations manager and, later, franchise sales manager and director of development. Last year, Fertman was named the company’s chief development officer. He oversees all aspects of franchise development—from lead generation to restaurant opening—for a company that, with his help, has grown from166 restaurants in 1981 to nearly 35,000 today.
Within months after his promotion he went on the road as an “Undercover Boss” for an episode of the CBS reality show. Though the producer’s first choice for the assignment was Fertman’s boss, Subway founder Fred DeLuca, the founder was too well-known. Fertman, with a little hair coloring and a goatee, stepped in to give viewers a look at the inner workings of the company.
“It was a fun experience,” says the man whose band, “The Crayons,” performed before hundreds of fans in every major East Coast city on a Subway promotional tour in 1979 and 1980. “I met a lot of terrific Subway employees and got a real taste of what it’s like on the front lines of our business.”
Fertman concedes that his freshman year at UNH—much like his Subway career—began quietly. Though he did well in high school, Fertman was a shy, withdrawn youth, unsure what he wanted to do with his life after graduation. His father, however, told him “go to school or get a job.” So in 1972 he signed up for part-time night classes and tried to keep a low profile. One evening his interest was piqued by a bulletin board flier advertising for students to help build a campus radio station. Fertman loved music, so he looked into it.
“When they said they were looking for students to ‘build’ the station, they were speaking literally,” he recalls. He spent the next several weeks wielding a hammer. Without it, others might not have even noticed him.
“I was a very quiet guy,” he says.
Fertman soon enrolled full time in the University’s nascent Communication department and became an on-air disc jockey for the new WNHU radio station. He befriended Bill Elander ’76 and the two musicians, along with other UNH students, formed a group called the WNHU Joke Band. It may have been doomed from the start by its silly name, but they played a few gigs before dissembling, and Fertman was hooked. When he graduated in 1976, he was making good money with another band, The Crayons.
“The Crayons were determined to become professional musicians,” remembers Fertman, the former orange Crayon, who chose his color as a nod to his nearby hometown, Orange, Conn. They got help from Dick Pilchen, an advertising and marketing executive with the Milford-based Subway sandwich chain, who gave them their break. He hired them to create a promotional jingle for the company and, during 1979 and 1980, dispatched them on a successful Subway-sponsored tour up and down the East Coast.
Unfortunately a music career wasn’t in the cards. Fertman was offered a job at Subway when The Crayons broke up, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“During my time at UNH, I was able to discover my potential in the field of communications, first as a performer, then as a writer, and today as a leader in business,” he says.“I credit my involvement in the birth of WNHU and the early stages of the Communication department with giving me the foundation and experience that I continue to draw on in all aspects of my career.”
His appearance on “Undercover Boss” shows how far he has come.
“Being ‘undercover’ for a few days made me a better boss and helped me understand what we can do to help our great employees take care of their customers and succeed,” says Fertman.
Posted Summer 2011