Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Brain Drain

Rally ‘round, folks, because the world is trying to steal our women. And by “our,” I mean everyone in the restaurant industry, male and female. This is meant to elevate women, not to maintain old stereotypes by treating the gender as delectable chattel.

The industry is far along in its effort to smash whatever subtle mindset maintains the discrepancy between how many women work in foodservice and how few you can find in top-level jobs. A review of that math: Females account for more than half the trade’s workforce. Yet they occupy the corner office in just a handful of the industry’s biggest companies. Indeed, a bit of industry history was made yesterday when Kerrii Anderson was named Jack Schuessler’s successor as CEO of Wendy’s, making her the first woman to lead a Top Five chain. And she’s only serving on an interim basis.

The new math: Roughly one in four hospitality businesses is now owned by a woman, according to the National Restaurant Association, which helped to fuel a 20% increase in female ownership of all businesses since 1997.

Yet an emerging dynamic could slow that trend. The restaurant industry isn’t the only business looking to diversify its executive suites. To make matters worse, the complexity of foodservice makes it a choice training program. Is it any surprise that the trade is being raided for its female executive prospects?

The industry was give a sharp reminder at the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s annual conference in Dallas a few weeks back. The closing night was hosted by Debra Gmelin, a.k.a. Dr. Deb, a onetime Coca-Cola and Papa John’s executive who secured a doctorate in leadership. She’s clearly a talent, but no longer ours. Now she works for Humana, the huge healthcare insurer.

That brain drain was underscored by the absence from the conference of a strong hopeful for the CEO’s job at the biggest of restaurant companies. Claire Babrowski, a former strong supporter of the WFF, was seen by many as a CEO-in-training for McDonald’s. After Jim Skinner got the job, Babrowski left the business. Now she’s working in a high-level position at RadioShack Corp., where she was just named acting CEO of the electronics-store chain.

The same thing has happened with some of the industry’s most promising minority members. Allwyn Lewis had the WFF attendees on their feet a few annual conferences ago, when the young African-American recounted some of his eye-opening experiences as an up-and-coming star at Yum! Brands. Now he’s leading the Kmart retail chain in one of the more head-turning turnaround of recent years.

You can’t deny success to talents like that. It’s just a shame that foodservice, the very trade that fostered their potential, can’t provide a more enticing opportunity.

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