Monday, November 07, 2005

Is Len Roberts coming back?

Whether you loved or loathed him, chances are you remember Len Roberts, one of the industry’s standouts during the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Now come indications, as reported in today’s Nation’s Restaurant News, that you could see him back in the business, albeit in a tangential role.

Not surprisingly, the possibility carries some complications, not the least of them being Roberts’ day job as executive chairman of Radio Shack. Controversy dogged Roberts during his relatively brief foodservice career, though he always sported a white hat. At the height of his prominence, as the franchisee-adored CEO of the Arby’s roast-beef chain, he was fired by then-owner Victor Posner for recommending consideration of a $200 million purchase offer. Although historical documentation is sketchy, Posner might have been Saddam Hussein’s role mode for governing Iraqi. The financier, a convicted felon, was so brutal and tyrannical that shareholders and franchisees both tried to force him out. Roberts got the boot first.

He turned up at the helm of Shoney’s not long after the family chain had been hit with a landmark racial-discrimination lawsuit. Similar suits against other restaurant chains would follow, but at that point the industry had never seen anything like it. The action could have irreparably damaged the southern chain’s reputation, while miring it in a lengthy court case that would have likely ended in devastating damages being levied on Shoney’s. Roberts instead negotiated a settlement for $105 million and took bold action to change Shoney’s culture.

Not long afterward, he was packaged out. A page-one Wall Street Journal article suggested that Roberts had annoyed Shoney’s old guard by agreeing to the settlement and pushing too hard for anti-discrimination measures. Insiders told a different story, about Roberts alienating long-time executives with his New Age-sounding theories and programs. They also questioned the need to keep a high-paid franchising specialist in the corner office when the company was discontinuing its licensing efforts.

Roberts was subsequently hired to head Radio Shack, the string of electronic-gizmo stores. He moved up the rank to become CEO of its parent company, a job he relinquished this past May. He has remained executive chairman.

The possibility of a return to the business surfaced a few weeks ago when a newsletter speculated that Roberts was leading a buyout of Radio Shack. He refuted those reports, though he acknowledged that he had been asked by several equity firms to join them with the express purpose of identifying restaurant and retail acquisition candidates.

In an e-mail to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Radio Shack’s hometown paper, Roberts reportedly said he would not leave Radio Shack to join an equity firm. Nor would he risk a conflict of interest by participating in such a deal.

But, he reportedly said, he would be willing to help with the due diligence, and might even serve on the board of an acquired company.

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