Nation's Restaurant News: Restaurants can find exec talent in many places

Nation's Restaurant News: Restaurants can find exec talent in many places

When I began my career as an executive recruiter in the early nineties, consumer industries didn’t venture afield for talent. If Taco Bell needed a head of marketing, it looked at the top players from Wendy’s or McDonalds. Few bothered with other leading brands like Gap, Wal-Mart or Hilton Hotels. As someone who focused on specialty retail, I confess to adhering to a similar philosophy.

Then, in 1998, I brought in Ken Montera from KFC to run operations at Bath & Body Works. He has since been promoted to Chief Stores Officer for both Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, both of which are part of Limited Brands. By breaking this invisible barrier, my colleagues and I at Berglass+Associates completely shifted our view of talent. We realized that building great brands requires the same set of skills regardless of industry.

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Gradually, we based more searches upon what executives could do, rather than where they worked. As it turned out, companies who searched for talent in parallel universes - such as retail, restaurants, hospitality or fitness - not only drew from a broader pool of talent, but gained an advantage by bringing in leaders with a fresh perspective.

With the rise of globalization and branding power, the concept of “inter-industry” play has only grown more relevant - no more so than in the case of restaurants. Once populated almost solely by local operations, the restaurant universe is now comprised of globally-recognized brands, ranging from fine dining to quick service. In this rapidly changing - not to mention fiercely competitive - environment, only brands sophisticated enough to explore beyond their universe will thrive.

Searching for talent in unfamiliar industries sounds a bit daunting. How can anyone guarantee that an innovator in designer jeans will have the same impact on casual dining? As I always tell my clients, successful hires hinge upon something that we, as an executive search firm, already possess: A deep understanding of their business and clear vision of how it must grow.

After spending over a decade working with restaurant chains, here are a few key trends where, I believe, outside leadership would provide a much-desired edge:

Whether at Wendy’s or Emeril Lagasse, diners demand consistently good food. When loyal clientele order, say, Shrimp Scampi at their favorite spot, they expect it to taste exactly the same as last time. Delivering such reliable quality is no small feat for a restaurant chain spanning Hong Kong to Miami. A simple plate of Shrimp Scampi requires training multiple kitchen staffs how to prepare the dish identically. It also means seamlessly coordinating a seafood shipment from Asia with garlic from California. One misstep along the supply chain could cost a restaurant its reputation.

As Valerie Davisson, head of human resources at Brinker International Restaurants, mentioned to me recently, “We have to have an impact on every step from ‘farm to fork.’”

By overseeing each of these operational steps for YUM Brand restaurants, Aylwin Lewis earned the CEO spot at Sears Holding Company in 2005. Since then, he has taken his retail store experience back to restaurants. As chief executive of Pot Belly Sandwiches, Lewis is now building the Chicago-based sandwich shops into a national franchise.

In addition to high quality food, consumers want their meals served in a timely manner. Thanks to the latest influx of technology, restaurants can now provide service speedy enough to make George Jetson blink. Of course, such capabilities only deliver under the leadership of someone with technological expertise, a quality often lacking in the restaurant universe.

Last spring, Garden Fresh Restaurants plucked Eric Rosenzweig from PETCO, as its new Chief Information Officer. A smart move considering Rosenzweig spent over 15 years building the technological infrastructure needed for the pet food chain to become an efficient multi-platform brand. His skills should come in handy when Garden Fresh - best known for its buffet-style Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes restaurants - rolls out quick service Souplantation Express.

The technological revolution won’t stop at service. In the coming years, social media will redefine how brands build relationships with their consumers. Twitter and Facebook already allow restaurants to communicate with people in their living rooms.

Many restaurants approach Web-based marketing dubiously, mainly because, thus far, it has done little to enhance their brands. After all, e-commerce cannot raise revenue for a business that revolves around an on-site experience, and websites generally do nothing more than provide menus and directions to nearby locations.

Social media doubters, however, may reconsider after subscribing to Tweets from Chick-fil-A. In July, followers of the chicken sandwich chain were invited to attend events like Cow Appreciation Day, where those who dress like a cow receive a free meal. Enthusiastic attendees can RSVP via Facebook - alerting their friends to the festivities - or spread the word further on Twitter. Expect even more engaging tools for interaction as social media becomes the norm. Also, look for more leaders capable of innovative strategies to emerge as dining-oriented websites, like and Yelp, cultivate a new generation of savvy tech marketers.

Thinking globally is another must. With the United States market nearly saturated, the areas ripest for expansion are usually abroad. Tomorrow’s top restaurant leaders must know how to translate their brand in such a way that is palatable to different cultures.

For intance, last May, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro announced its entrance into South America. The news comes as part of an ambitious initiative of R. Michael Welborn - the chain’s head of global branding who hails from the banking industry - to introduce its elegant-yet-affordable dining experience to Asian food fans across the globe. Thus far, P.F. Chang’s has a presence in the Middle East, South America, Mexico and Canada.

Unfortunately, successful leaders rarely come begging for work. The only way to attract talent is to make it a priority. That’s why Smashburger, an emerging quick service brand with 500 locations, recently brought in a head of human resources to build upon its 40,000 employee base. Like other up-and-coming chains, Smashburger knows that businesses cannot be built upon novel menu items, like gourmet burgers and fried pickles, alone.

Only strong, visionary leadership will create lasting brands.

Matthew Berglass is president of Berglass+Associates, an executive search firm focused on consumer goods companies. He has worked with clients including Chili’s, Sears Holding Corporation, Gilt Groupe, and Equinox Fitness.

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