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Passing The Torch – Our Next Generation of Leaders

This post is about a great person. A leader in our community who works hard for his “wins”. He deserves all the success that comes his way. He deserves it because he has worked his way to the top of his game by simply showing up to play every single day. Ladies and gentlemen, I write to you today about Jeff Drake, President of Go Roma Real Easy Italian.

However, before I tell you more about Jeff, allow me to share with you my reasons why I feel his story is so important for our next generation of leaders, specifically in our multi-unit restaurant community.

This past week, I got very lucky. I got into a car accident. Not only did I avoid major damage to my rental car and personal injury by some act of good fortune, there was also little damage to the other car as well. Thankfully, nobody got hurt and it served as a reminder to me, that life can be short. Be careful out there. Things can change quickly.

Of course, I could list a thousand reasons of why I was so lucky this past week. But that wouldn’t be interesting to anyone.

What I do think is interesting is the wisdom that was imparted to me on a phone call with one of our great leaders of the last century, Jon Luther Sr. (It was the first time we spoke). Like I said, it was a lucky week.

I tried to read everything I could get my hands on about this man’s outstanding career that has spanned decades in our multi-unit restaurant community. I wanted to call him “Sir”; but he just wouldn’t let me.

“Jon is just fine”, he told me. And so, that’s what I did. I called him Jon.

I have to share with you that my conversation with Jon was one of the most inspiring of my entire career! After all, he is one of the greatest turn-around experts that our industry has seen in the last 50 years. He has influenced and shaped organizations such as Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits, Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robins, and Delaware North. He has served in leadership positions at Marriott and Aramark and he is the current Chairman of Arby’s.

I asked for the call with Jon, because I learned about his passion for leadership. I felt compelled to share some ideas with him and because he is so generous and kind, he agreed to take my call. Like I said, it was a lucky week.

By the end of our call, Jon and I agreed (as I am sure so many of you do), that something unique and special happened in our foodservice community beginning in the middle of the last century. A generation of young leaders flourished and planted the seeds for what has become a $650 Billion industry in North America. Lucky for all of us, Jon Luther Sr. was one of those young leaders. He and his colleagues helped us to collectively become the largest employer in the private sector in North America.

So, this got me thinking. What about tomorrow’s leaders? Who are they? How will we know when we see them? Is there a way to not only spot their natural ability, but can we also groom them and nurture them in some formal method. Clearly, as a community we have enough experience to know what our leaders need to look like.

Of course, we all know that today’s great leaders such as Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Ron Shaich (Panera), Hala Moddelmog (Arby’s), Jim Vinz (Le Duff America), Dave Wolfgram (Forklift Brands), Don Fox (Firehouse Subs), Jeff O’Neill (Einstein Bros.) and Cheryl Bachelder (Popeye’s) were teenagers during the days of Ray Kroc, Ed Rensi, Jon Luther Sr., Dave Thomas, Rich Melman, and Norman Brinker.

Certainly, there are hundreds more names that I could list here. But this list is not the story. I mention these leaders to simply illustrate a point.

Jon and I discussed this idea. There are so many to talk about, to write about. Each has a story to tell and each is more amazing than the next. That’s the story! It’s the details that matter! It’s not about share price or money. It’s about amazing people doing amazing things.

Just like those before them, today’s leaders are ALL amazing. As life progresses quickly, they are becoming the next generation of mentors for those that are 10 and 20 years behind them.

“Who is coming up behind today’s leaders?” I asked Jon. “What are we doing as a community to capture their stories?” I asked.

There is a project here. An important, community based project. It’s academic. Not promotional. It’s authentic AND critical. If we don’t do it, the details will get lost. And these details are far too precious to us as a community. Because, we need to study and learn.

In the next 10 years or so, today’s leaders, will step aside for tomorrow’s leaders. That’s the way life is. I believe our community needs a thoughtful and solid succession plan. We need a qualified institution to train, nurture and develop tomorrow’s leaders for our industry. It’s important for the planet. Otherwise, we will end up with mediocre brands with little to no higher purpose.

Jon and I agreed on this idea.

And so, as Jon and I continued our discussion, we thought about the idea of “passing the torch” to future generations. We need to plan.

Just in my own network, I look at people like Al Bhakta of The Chalak Group. Watch this guy. He’s building a $1 Billion Dollar Business. Is he even forty yet? Check him out on this list of who’s who.

Think about people like Kevin Reddy (Noodles and Company), John Pepper (Boloco), John Clay (Bread and Company), and Kat Cole (Cinnabon).

Oh, there are many others as well, but the list is too long to cover in this blog post. My point is that something big needs to happen here. All of these leaders need a place to hang their hats and take part in a succession plan. It’s a community issue.

I decided to focus the balance of this essay on one very special person. Because to my good fortune, I have had the pleasurable experience of working closely with him for the last six years.

This brings me back to where I began this essay. “Passing the torch” to a great man like Jeff Drake.

“Why Jeff?” you ask. Well read on and you will see. But first, watch this video interview with Jeff. He was so busy, so engaged in his people and his work that we had to do the interview via Satellite. Great leaders like Jeff are very, very busy.

You see, just like all great leaders, Jeff Drake is a lifelong learner. More than that, he is kind, generous, smart, and he lives every single day with purpose.

Jeff began his career in our industry after graduating from college in Des Moines, Iowa. Early in his career, he worked closely with the likes of Rick Bayless at Prime Steakhouse and he learned a lot.

On his path, he met Daniel Leader, a passionate artisan bread baker and Jeff developed a passion for bread. He loved the authenticity of hand made bread. The way it tasted. The way it smelled. He was enthralled by the science and the art of artisan bread making, at a time when the artisan bread business was just a grassroots cottage based business.

To Jeff’s good fortune, he met another amazing man by the name of Dave Wolfgram. Dave was with working on a little known concept at the time, with only 4 stores. Corner Bakery was being developed under the umbrella of Lettuce Entertain You and the leadership of Rich Melman.

Well, Jeff listened and learned. And then, as they were chipping away each day, the Corner Bakery brand was transitioned to Brinker, under the leadership of another iconic man by the name of Norman Brinker.

With this transition, came a fantastic opportunity for Jeff. He was asked to head up catering! Yes, catering! It was a ground up thing. He worked on the systems, developed some IT infrastructure and built the business with Dave Wolfgram. Well, what an opportunity for such a young man to be able to work under the leadership of these great people.

During his time at Corner Bakery, Jeff led the charge for what was the 2nd and 3rd prototype for the concept. “We bring the food to you.” Jeff told me.

That was his passion, his vision. He knew he had a great product and he was fortunate to have this fantastic group of mentors that believed in him. Well, it took an incredible amount of commitment and hard work, but by the time Jeff was done with his time at Corner Bakery, there were now 40 units in Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and southern California.

By this time, all 40 of the Corner Bakery Units were now converted to the 3rd prototype that Jeff and Dave had envisioned. They were just hard working people, trying to get it right.

Well, like any great leader with natural ability, Jeff continued his lifelong learning. He moved to Washington DC to look after the Eastern Seaboard. And that became his last stop at Corner Bakery. It was time to move on.

In his next venture, Dave Wolfgram and Jeff Drake partnered on a fast casual concept called Go Roma Real Easy Italian. At the time, GESD Capital was looking for a new CEO for Boudin Bakery and Dave was being groomed for the job.

And so, GESD Capital acquired Go Roma and the management team as part of the new arrangement, and Jeff once again was deeply ingrained into the artisan bread business. Jeff became COO at Boudin and held that post from 2005 to 2007 and helped to prototype the new Boudin SF, which would become the new footprint for the brand.

Time passed and Jeff wanted to take his young family back east. He was offered the helm as President of Go Roma.

Of course, Jeff was not only enthusiastic, he had energy, experience and had learned from the best in the business. He was ready to be the head of his own ship! Well, as any great leader knows, things never go as planned, and what happened next was not only difficult, but most people I know would simply shrivel up and pack it in. The recession came. And with it, came tough days.

So, “What did you do?” I asked Jeff last week.

“We circled the wagons,” he told me.

This is an answer that any great leader would give. Go back to the basics. Focus on the vision. Take care of your people. Roll up your sleeves. Make difficult decisions.

And so, he focused on his real estate, reduced his G&A expenses and rallied his team to become leaner. He re-invented his organization. There was no easy path, but Jeff knew that from watching his mentors.

“What was the worst part of that experience?” I asked.

“We lost some great people” he shared with me sadly. “But we did what was necessary to weather the storm.”

Of course you did Jeff. Because that’s what great leaders do. They are accountable, just as you are. That’s what makes you so great! You are following in the footsteps of your mentors, your elders. I am proud of you for sticking to your guns.

“What was the key element that got you through the recession”, I continued on.

“I just focused on my communication to my key stakeholders” he retorted.

You see, all great leaders, like Jeff, do this naturally. They lead by example. They communicate well and they tell the truth, even when it hurts.

Jeff shared with me that one of the things that he is most proud of in his career, is that he did not lose ANY of his key people during the downturn. He kept their hopes high, reassured them that he was not going to bail on them and he led his ship. He included them in the results, incentivized them to work hard and provided them with ownership of their responsibilities as he empowered them to continue on.

He gave his team all the credit when I spoke to him. Because that’s what great leaders do. They don’t take the credit. Not ever.

Great leaders can only become great if they surround themselves with great followers. Great people. You see, Jeff learned from the greatest leaders that our industry has ever seen. These are Jeff’s mentors.

Jeff told me that he has been blessed to spend time with Richard Melman, Norman Brinker, Doug Brooks, Jim Vinz and Dave Wolfgram. I stopped him there because his list just kept going. “Blessed”, there’s that word again. Great leaders feel that way.

He sees his leadership responsibility today as focused on helping his team to prioritize.

“What you measure, is what you improve”, he told me.

He also told me that it’s his responsibility to set his team up for success. He focuses on promoting from within. He helps his people step up. He is an opportunity provider. He cares about his people, his customers and his brand. He has a positive attitude and is a student of life.

Jeff Drake is a solid person. He understands how his customers interact with social media. He understands technology. He treats his vendors with respect. He gets a lot out of his relationships by taking care of everyone. He keeps people whole. He is a master at that.

Jeff is a voracious reader. He believes that the restaurant business is a “business of evolution”. He is always looking for ways to innovate. He studies other industries as models and tries to bring new ideas into his business.

His commitment to self-improvement is awesome. He reads magazines like Lucky Peach, The New Yorker, Fast Company.

“To be an effective leader, I need to get better every day. I need to interact with people that are really good at what they do”. He shared with me.

There’s that natural leadership quality again.

“I look for genius and brilliance in my people every single day” he continued.

Of course you do Jeff. Jon Luther Sr. would agree with you.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Jeff Drake any day to be on the list of the next generation of leaders that will change the food industry. Why? Because he is focused on his higher purpose of making the world a better place just by doing what he loves.

Jeff, thanks for all you do for our industry. You deserve all you have! Thank you for being a great and generous leader. For those of you reading this, keep an eye on Jeff Drake. He’ll be running a $1 Billion business one day. I am certain of it!

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