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Chain LeaderChain Leader Live

The Learning Organization: Skillful Leadership
Chain Leader LIVE takes a look at how operators successfully execute and grow their concepts.

Best-selling author and consultant Jason Jennings knew how to grab the attention of the 160 restaurant industry executives who attended the second annual Chain LeaderLIVE Nov. 16 to 18 in Dallas.

Using research from his latest book, Think Big, Act Small, Jennings kicked off the conference with an illuminating keynote speech that offered important tips for improving leadership and execution. In his book, he profiled nine companies that have grown both revenue and operating profits by 10 percent or more for 10 consecutive years. One of those companies was Oklahoma City-based Sonic Corp.

Jennings shared the five secrets of their success: Great leaders and companies have a cause, master the art of letting go, completely satisfy the right customer, get everyone to think and act like owners, and see themselves as stewards.

Taking the Gold
Chain Leader itself bestowed prizes on the leaders of three successful restaurant companies: Phil Hickey, chairman and CEO of Rare Hospitality, won the Chain Leadership Award; Billy Downs (r.), owner and founder of bd’s Mongolian Barbeque, received the Protégé Award from Editor in Chief Mary Chapman, honoring a restaurant executive under 40; and Joe Lee, former chairman of Darden Restaurants, won the Legend Award.

Last year’s Chain Leadership winner, Rick Federico, CEO of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, offered his thoughts on restaurant leadership by tracing the development and ongoing operations of the popular chain. “The cornerstone of our business is employee ownership,” he said, adding that by increasing employee tenure P.F. Chang’s saw a “corresponding increase in sales and profits.”

Federico then joined Hickey, CEO Aslam Khan of Falcon Holdings and BJ’s Restaurants Co-Chairman Paul Motenko for a lively discussion of the skills needed to keep their brands growing. Khan, for instance, described how incentives for managers build the brand’s momentum. Federico recalled the lessons of his mentors: Grady’s founder Bill Regas had the unique ability to make people feel good about themselves because he always praised employees for their accomplishments, and former Brinker CEO Ron McDougal always held people accountable.

Lamar Hamilton could have used bosses like that. In the “Upstarts” session, the Minneapolis-based businessman described in painful detail the downfall of Bilimbi Bay, a three-unit, Caribbean-themed chain he and partners opened and closed within three years. One problem: They opened all three restaurants within three weeks. “I don’t recommend doing that,” Hamilton, who had no previous restaurant experience, wryly advised.

Same Old DNA
On a more successful note, at the “Restauratour” session, Bear Rock Cafe CEO Gary Bryant (r.) described how he and designer Bill Chidley of Design Forum went through a branding evolution. “The point was to keep the original DNA, but we needed to make the name more relevant,” Bryant explained.

Their solution: making the full-service units more sophisticated and less rustic. Today, the two added, the new design translates easily to new markets and is gender neutral.

The “Toque of the Town” session explored the culinary side. Corporate Executive Chef Bob Davis of Max & Erma’s humorously related the story of the TMC, a new tomato, mozzarella and chicken sandwich he developed that at first didn’t seem to fit in with the concept’s menu of signature burgers. Despite the “operational nightmare” it caused, servers and customers loved it. Afterward, Davis joined corporate chefs from Red Robin, Elephant Bar and El Torito for an interactive panel discussion with the audience.

Dinner Bell
Food was also a focal point Thursday evening when several local chains showcased their signature dishes. Guests feasted on such fare as Abuelo’s bacon-wrapped shrimp, Chili’s chili, and Which Wich’s turkey and roast beef sandwiches.

Informal breakout sessions on brand strategy, technology, finance and food safety gave attendees the opportunity to grill the experts at close range. At the Human Assets session, Chief People Officer Bill Streitberger of BJ’s Restaurants and Applebee’s John Prutsman, executive director field human resources, detailed the process of qualifying managers for promotion. Eat’n Park Vice President of Human Resources Karen Bolden talked about her company’s internship program, which teaches leadership skills to employees who are college students.

Those young people could be tomorrow’s restaurant industry leaders. To make sure they stick around, today’s bosses should keep in mind something Legend Award winner Lee offered: “[Darden] has provided me with more opportunities than I thought existed. My obligation here is to ensure the opportunities I received exist for other people.”

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