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How I Made It: Amit Kleinberger

Overseeing more than 370 Menchie's Frozen Yogurt franchises, Amit Kleinberger has the taste of success.

February 23, 2014|By Soumya Karlamangla
  • Amit Kleinberger, CEO of Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, gained leadership skills in the Israeli military.
Amit Kleinberger, CEO of Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, gained leadership… (Menchie's )

The gig: Amit Kleinberger, 33, has been the chief executive of Menchie's Frozen Yogurt since 2008. From his company's headquarters in Encino, he oversees what has become the world's largest self-serve frozen yogurt franchise, with more than 370 stores.

The stores serve sweet and tart flavors of yogurt, with a choice of candy, fruit and nut toppings. There are about 50 Menchie's locations in California.

An early start: As a kid, Kleinberger saw the 1987 movie "The Secret of My Success," which stars a young college grad — played by Michael J. Fox — navigating the corporate world in New York City. Kleinberger said even though the movie wasn't meant for children, he loved it and it sparked his interest in business.

Kleinberger was born and grew up in Jerusalem. Even in his childhood days, he was an entrepreneur. In middle school, he took party supplies to school and sold them to other students — especially around the holidays, he said.

"I used to make pretty good money for it for an 11-year-old," he said with a laugh. "You can call it my first business."

Learning to lead: When he turned 18, Kleinberger enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces.

"I was intrigued by leadership. How does it work? What is it?" he said. "Military is what I consider to be the world's finest institution for leadership."

He served three years as an active-duty sergeant in a combat unit, and was deployed in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. He said he learned from his commander that the best way to lead is by example.

The road not taken: In the early 2000s, Kleinberger moved to Santa Monica. He recalled toying with the idea of becoming a defense attorney, and enrolled in Santa Monica College. But in his first semester, he opened a cellphone equipment business that took off.

"I started making great money," he said. "So I literally woke up, dropped out and started building my brand."

Menchie's: After owning and selling several business, Kleinberger became CEO of Menchie's in 2008. A husband-and-wife team had opened the first store in 2007 in Valley Village and were looking to franchise. They partnered with Kleinberger, who took over their Encino office.

In the six years since he took over, the company has grown from the Encino operation to a franchise operation of 377 stores, with an additional 500-plus expected in the next three years. About 5,000 people now work for Menchie's, and stores are all over the United States and in about 20 countries.

Kleinberger said they tailor their stores to match a country's preferences. In China, for example, toppings for yogurt include lychee gummy worms and dragon fruit.

Though the business has expanded, Kleinberger said he wants to keep the headquarters in L.A. "I felt that it was important to connect and stay in Encino, because we started here," he said. He and his wife, Carrie, who teaches at Agoura High School, have settled in Encino.

What keeps him going: Kleinberger says he's fascinated by the concept of franchising and how it pervades our daily lives. Whether you're eating in a restaurant, sleeping in a hotel or getting a haircut, you're probably interacting with a franchise.

"It's an industry that's a backbone to the American economy," he said.

Kleinberger said the company's biggest competitor is Dairy Queen, because it owns the largest market share of retail outlets in frozen desserts. But, he said, Menchie's has an edge over it and other frozen dessert stores, including big international yogurt chains such as Yozen Fruz and Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt.

Other chains "all sell a product and focus on that," he said. "We sell an experience of making people smile."

More, please: Since he first tasted Menchie's, Kleinberger's favorite flavors have been Red Velvet Royale and Cookies 'n Cream. He gets them both every time he visits a store.

'Undercover Boss': In October, Kleinberger starred in an episode of the television series "Undercover Boss." With his CEO identity disguised by the company's standard lime green polo uniform, he worked at various locations and at the California dairy farm where the milk for the yogurt originates. As a result, he said, he's tried to spend more time in stores, connecting with customers and employees.

Advice: Kleinberger said his father taught him the key to success is hard work and doing the right thing for people around you. "I think success will chase you, if you do the right thing."

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

. "I think success will chase you, if you do the right thing."

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

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