Back to Basics – the film

This is the post that inspired our film, Back to Basics. Check it out at http://www.backtobasicsthefilm.com

I originally wrote this entry about 8 months ago. It was inspired through a visit that I made to a very large public company in the restaurant community. I left the name of the organization off the post, so as not to make anyone feel bad. But truth be told, I left their facilities feeling very sad. I hope you enjoy the post below:

Journal Entry – August, 2011

I am so fortunate to have been provided the opportunity to serve as CEO at MonkeyMedia Software.

It’s my job to provide direction for the company, to help steer it to a hopeful but uncertain victory.

I get to meet great leaders and the people they serve. In each case, in companies both large and small, there are fantastic people trying so hard to please their customers, their managers and their owners. Everyone is working hard.

As I travel to boardrooms, I am amazed at the cultural differences that differ from company to company.

Many of these companies have been hit hard during these recessionary times. Yes, the food business has suffered in recent times.

I find it so interesting, that when a business is in decline, and cost cutting continues to be one of the main initiatives, the fear that is cultivated for the surviving members of the team is overbearing. Devastating, scary and quite frightening really. Emotions run high, work is piled on, and projects are under-resourced. Hiring freezes paralyze them; is anything getting done?

You can walk down the hallowed halls of these buildings, that were once filled with entrepreneurial spirit, the culture of growth and a true belief system. As the years have passed, Wall Street has stepped in. Although we should also feel grateful to Wall Street for providing us with financial vehicles for growth, I feel that at the same time, it is appropriate for us to be angry with them for killing the entrepreneurial spirit while focused on shareholder value.

After all, during these last 6 or 7 decades of growth our ancestors had to believe, right? Otherwise, how did they get up in the morning and go to work? Their passion was alive! Where else do you get the fuel from if not from believing? Wasn’t it hard times for them too? Hasn’t it always been hard?

For me, it is sad to see the “ghosts in the walls.” The words and images of a growing culture. One that had direction, hope and prospects for the “sky is the limit”.

As I walk down some of these halls, the once vibrant philosophical management style, has now turned over 3 times in recent years. You can sense that the mission statement so proudly displayed on the walls during the building years, are now just empty words in this time of decline. Nobody even reads the words. They are just invisible and part of the background noise. The words are not relevant, not being lived. The management teams in their ivory towers have stopped walking the talk. They have simply focused on share price, with no sense of any real higher purpose. It’s not their fault really because they too are just trying to feed their families. They are people too. Victims of Wall Street as well. They are forced to abandon suffering markets and focus on new growth opportunities overseas. Shouldn’t they fix their challenges at home first? Don’t they have a responsibility to their adoring brand fans? Their employees and franchisees? The people who have mortgaged their homes and depend on the success of these businesses? Where is their moral compass?

I feel as if the words I am reading on the walls, were written by past leaders who are now just “Ghosts in the Walls.” Just ghosts. Not the haunted kind; just the forgotten kind.

Well, I can tell you, there are companies that are trying hard to fix themselves. Leadership with new blood. Even so the battle is uphill as the future remains so uncertain. But hasn’t it always been uncertain? Isn’t that just the way it is? After all, nothing good can last just as nothing bad can last. It is forever changing.

One thing that worries me. We are forgetting all the good people who came before us in these workplaces. The people who experienced the early years. The entrepreneurial years. The exciting years.

And so, now that times are tougher, we sometimes remain disrespectful to our ancestors. The ghosts in the wall, as I see it. These people of the past made great contributions. They were relevant in their time. They worked hard, just like you and I. Their stories were bought by Wall Street who used their brand equity to grow bigger. But at what expense?

So why is it that instead of setting market trends, we don’t have the guts? We accept that the economy is bad and that there is nothing we can do about it. So, we show up to work, hoping it will change on its own, or even worse, we think new leadership will know what to do. We watch as they run for the hills and open new stores in emerging markets because Wall Street demands it. We follow them because we believe they know what to do.

Well guess what? They don’t know what to do! When a business is sick, it is sick. To bring it back to health, you have to change it; and quickly.

Well, it’s tough for anyone to fix broken companies, with broken promises. Distrust runs high.

I urge you to listen to the voices of the ghosts in the walls. That’s where the answers are. The ones that were there before you.

Our company ancestors have seen it all. They too rode the wild roller coaster of business. So, honor them. Tomorrow when you go to work, try and connect to your company ancestors. Ask THEM the hard questions.

I promise you they will tell you the answers. Just look on your walls. Read the old signs, the aging clippings and the wins and milestones that were celebrated over the years. Also, make sure you refer to the failures, there is alot to learn there. Reconnect with the culture, the passion, the spirit. The early days. Go back to the basics. It always works.

Now is the time for change. To get smarter, more committed, retrenched. How else do we manoever through the mired complexities?

As my friend Tom Feltenstein often says, change is good, you go first!

Only the entrepreneurial companies will survive. Just look at our great brands that are succeeding today. Behind each of them, is a great entrepreneurial leader. For them, there never was a “recession”. For them, it’s just a time of change, just like any other day at work. They don’t focus on share price. Just on their passion and beliefs.

They listen to and consult the ghosts in their walls.

Thanks for stopping by today.

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!

Blown away by the quality of leadership in our multi-unit restaurant community

Last week in Scottsdale, Arizona I had the good fortune of attending the Restaurant Leadership Conference for 2012. I had so much fun, especially with sharing my dream about Ray Kroc in this Video!  For those of you that missed it, just before the Bill Strickland presentation, I’ll share it here just for fun.  I’ll come back to Bill Strickland in a bit.

So, I have to say, that I am blown away by our community!  Really blown away! I think many of the attendees were.  And so, as I returned to Vancouver, It really got me thinking.  I mean, REALLY got me thinking.

Here’s the thing.  Of the 30% of attendees that I was lucky enough to meet, to greet and to make some acquaintance,  I felt that the quality of the our conversations were insightful, optimistic, kind and generous.   Those conversations were a gift for me on a personal level.  These gatherings are so important for all of us, because the food business is about people.  Making connections.  Intellectual, spiritual and emotional.  It’s just about the people.

So I started thinking more about that.  I really started to zero in on the quality of the  Keynote Speakers this year. Not that previous years have been anything to sneeze at; but this year, it was different.

Indra K. Nooyi, Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo 

Joshua Olshansky Managing Director and Head of Consumer Retail Practice, Golden Gate Capital

Herman Cain Former President/CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Former Chairman, NRA

Howard Stoeckel CEO, Wawa Inc.

Ronald M. Shaich Founder and Executive Chairman of the Board Panera Bread

Edward H. Rensi Former President & CEO, McDonald’s USA; Co-operator, Tom & Eddie’s.  

Seeing that this was a Leadership conference, I studied these leaders.  I observed, I listened and I learned.  I saw how each of them really connects with their audience when they are speaking.  They spoke with high energy, intense belief and a passion towards a higher purpose in their work.  It was fascinating for me to watch.  I was mesmerized.  Impressed.  And most of all, I was learning.  

“That’s it!”, I thought to myself.  “It’s the learning!  The intellectual connections!  The idea of advancement!  Of making our industry better, so we, as people can be better!”.  Well, at least that was part of it for me.

So I started thinking more about that. 

Then I thought about the followers under these great leaders and within that following is yet even more leadership.  As a matter of fact, each facet of our business operations needs to have solid leadership.  And so, I started to wonder where exactly that begins and ends, from an organizational perspective.

Then I thought to myself that not all people can be or even want to be leaders.  Or do they?  I mean, if leadership remains a key theme throughout the entire culture of our organizations, then clearly if we can be leaders in our markets, then all of the people who work for us will feel like leaders.  So, it’s not necessarily about individuals as much as it is about whole organizations, industry’s and communities.

I want to call out two particular things I learned from the conference.

1.  Ron Shaich spoke on the topic of Conscious Capitalism.  Ron’s message struck me hard.  It’s brilliant and he has taken this perspective and applied it to the Panera Cares concept.  Here is a video that I found on Ron’s fantastic and creative effort towards making a difference in the communities he serves.

When I heard this perspective, I felt like I was watching a master, an artist.  I was watching a man that had so much trust in the human spirit, that he risked his neck on a new idea.  One that everyone called crazy.  And guess what?  It’s working.  The communities are embracing this new economic model and while that is happening, less privileged people are eating great food at Panera.  Getting respect and the end result is that these communities are healthier and those that are suffering from hunger, are getting food.  This approach to our community issues is not only brilliant, it serves shareholders as well.  This presentation really blew me away at the conference.

2.  The second most important presentation for me was from Bill Strickland.  Bill was so effective in his presentation, that he had most of the room shedding tears.  Why?  Because of his authenticity in his mission and his ability to connect with the human emotion.  For those of you that missed Bill’s presentation, I am including a clip that I found.  

I was so moved by Bill Strickland’s work, that I decided to learn more about his education perspectives.  He is building a facility in Vancouver and my plan is to get involved, from the beginning.  To bring purpose to others, to wake with intention and to be involved in impacting the human emotion in a positive and purposeful way.  

I took away a feeling of hope from these speakers.  That in fact, we can do more in our professional careers to make a difference.  To really make the world a better place instead of just living to increase shareholder value.  I love that idea.  Build it and they will come.  If you look after your customers, and you create the right environment, behaviour will change.  Profits?  Well, according to Ron and Bill, if you don’t focus on them, and you just focus on your “higher purpose” as an organization, the money will come.

I woke up very grateful to these two leaders today.  I want to thank them both for the gift they gave me in Scottsdale last week.  I encourage each of you to learn more from these great human beings.