Mark McKee is an idea man and has been since his youth growing up in the Johnson County area.
“I was the kid who was always doing a lemonade stand but figuring out a different way to do it,” said McKee, a 1980 graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School. During his years at the University of Kansas, McKee took several ideas and developed them into business concepts. He also has used his creative juices to help further charitable causes working with his famous brother-in-law, Rob Riggle, on last weekend’s Big Slick benefit for Children’s Mercy Hospital.
In the business arena, McKee is leading the creative charge for Ace Café North America as its chief executive officer. McKee has set up offices for the internationally known brand in Overland Park.
Q: What is Ace North America/Ace Café?
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“Ace café is a lifestyle brand celebrating the passion for motorcycles, cars and rock ’n’ roll,” McKee said. “We are part restaurant, part live music venue and part motorcycle-car gallery. We host nightly car and motorcycle meets and events, live concerts. Weekends we do large festivals related to bikes, cars and music.”
McKee said the company dates back to 1938 in London. It later took off in the 1950s ad ’60s when British teens would jump on their motorcycles and ride from cafe to cafe to listen to the popular “new” music that was not played on the radio. The original location in London closed for three decades. Following a reunion tour that drew 8,000 people, the event continued for another decade before resurrecting the legendary Ace Café.
In addition to England, today there are Ace Café locations in Finland, Beijing and Lucerne, Switzerland.
“It’s a global brand,” McKee said. “We are not a theme restaurant and we are conscientious of that. … We are a venue where people can hang out.”
Q: How did you get into this?
McKee connected with Ace Café through a friend who was holding a motorcycle-building contest while in Sturgis, S.D.
“I wasn’t familiar with the brand and immediately Googled it and reached out to the office in London,” he said.
After a year of conversations back and forth, McKee joined the Ace team.
“We hold the exclusive licensee rights in North America and South America,” McKee said.
Q: Who else is involved in Ace Café North America?
McKee and a group of investors own the development rights for North and South America and all its brands.
“We own other brands including the Rockers brand and Stone Bridge Motor Co.,” McKee said.
All of McKee’s team came through networking over the years.
“Our CFO was the CFO for Margaritaville … and others had executive positions at House of Blues and Hard Rock Café,” he said.
Q: What is the first project you are working on?
Ace North America’s office is here in Overland Park, but Orlando will be the first location in the U.S. Its groundbreaking took place in April.
“The mayor renamed it a ‘ground shaking’ because we revved up 300 motorcycles and cars,” McKee said. “It will be on three acres in historic 100-year-old buildings. We will have Ace Café, a retail store out of Italy and … our own gallery where we will feature 30 vintage and custom motorcycles and vintage artwork that is motor related.”
McKee said the task at hand is educating the public about the Ace Café brand. The company has done a half dozen events around the country, including one in Hollywood that Jay Leno hosted that raised money for a military charity, and one at the international auto show in New York.
“We did an Ace Café exhibit and Billy Joel loaned us bikes for our event,” he said.
Q: What’s your business background?
During his freshman year in college, McKee created an advertising firm.
“One of my accounts was Pyramid Pizza and they were going out of business, and so a buddy of mine and I got a $12,000 loan and ran it from under the Hawk,” McKee said, referring to a tavern in Lawrence. “Then I expanded it around to college campuses in the Midwest.”
Ownership with Pyramid led McKee to other positions in the food industry, including one with Orion Food Systems developing brands. He also put together food ideas for military bases and convenience stores. McKee said all of those experiences were serving him well in his role with Ace Café.
Q: What are day-to-day operations like?
Though McKee is based in Kansas City, the rest of the Ace team is in Orlando.
“I am commuting all the time, McKee said. “We’re on the phone every day together. I’m down there almost every week … and occasionally some of them are here.”
Technology has made the distance almost insignificant.
“Many times I will be doing a Skype meeting looking at each other or looking at a spreadsheet together,” he said.
McKee has one support person in the Overland Park office, which is in a space owned one of his partners. Ace Café North America has six employees.
“I put a great management team together of really sharp guys and we’ve been at this for over four years,” McKee said.
Eventually, McKee expects the company to have 200 employees.
“Our corporate headquarters will be in Orlando. … Eventually, we will have a location in Kansas City but I can’t tell you when.”
McKee said good time management skills have been crucial to running his company.
“It is really about managing your time and doing the most with your time when you are together with your team,” he said.
Q: You have a family. How do you find that work-life balance?
McKee said it takes effort to make things work for his family, which includes three teen-age daughters.
“It is a bit of a balance and juggling schedules,” McKee said. “My wife is semi-retired now and that helps. … The time when I am with the kids I try to focus on them and spend quality time”
Q: What’s the greatest hurdle facing Ace Café North America?
“Probably the most challenging thing is keeping everyone focused on the tasks at hand so that we are all moving in the same direction,” McKee said. “That’s critical. The way I do that is twofold — by trying to set an example and by giving good, clear and articulate communication.”
McKee works to create a vision for his team, articulate the plan, provide the tools to meet the plan and provide leadership.
“It’s learning not to get bogged down in the small details and find people who can deal with them,” he said.
Meanwhile, it’s full speed ahead for Ace Café North America. Plans include bringing a charity aspect into the business equation.
“We’re going to create a mentoring program for at-risk kids restoring a car or a bike, auction it off and then put the money toward scholarships,” McKee said.”
IN A NUTSHELL
COMPANY: Ace Café North America
ADDRESS: 7227 Metcalf Ave, Overland Park, KS