Friday, November 16, 2007

Who gets the top job?

Two days, two telling indications that marketing may be the preferred path to the corner office during these trying times for casual dining. Add the appointment of another one-time marketer to the presidency of Mimi’s Cafe and you have a Johnny Cochrane-gauge argument that old hands at snagging sales are the chain chiefs of choice during a downturn in customer counts.

Yet, as a speaker stressed Wednesday during the People Report’s annual summit in Dallas, the era of the specialist leader is waning elsewhere in the business world. As consultant Rand Stagen put it, you can’t dominate the game today if all you have is a killer forehand swing. Today, at least in fields outside foodservice, the person with first dibs on the corporate jet is the one who’s closest to a renaissance chief, with talent across a number of disciplines. And that includes such superhero skills as brainstorming whole new business lines, or spotting a door to opportunity where others see a wall. The example he cited was Steve Jobs, a one-time animation-company exec who took over an ailing computer firm and forever changed the music industry, with the television business now eying him as the guy in a hockey mask at an abandoned summer camp.

So is this just another crazy uncle in the attic for foodservice? One of those peculiarities, like embracing the internet more slowly than several tribes that still wear huge plates in their lower lips?

Hardly. Or maybe not exactly. The situation does underscore a kink of the business. But the quirk in this instance is not a time lag. Restaurant-chain boards may be giving an edge to marketers in filling the corner office, but a foodservice marketer isn’t your typical slogan-hatching ad or promotions vet. Marketing has seeped well beyond the cubicles with all the whacky stuff on the walls to infiltrate such departments as design, operations, sometimes recruitment, and certainly whatever brain trust drafts overall corporate strategy. It’s like the bass line that drives a hit song.

Clay Dover got the nod to head up Metromedia Restaurant Group, the parent of Bennigan’s, after spending much of his time at that concern in marketing. But his knowledge clearly extended beyond the traditional boundaries of the discipline. Awhile back, I wrote a column that lamented casual dining’s transformation from the Rolling Stones into Debbie Boone. Its rock-and-roll spirit had been neutered into dentist-office music, a process business gurus would tag as homogenization. Dover dropped me a quick e-mail expressing his agreement, then spelled out Bennigan’s intended direction in a few dozen words. It was the view of a person thinking far beyond marketing, all the way to gene splicing. We’re not talking about a zippy ad slogan and market-speak about demographics. His comments hinted at a chief’s pride and vision.

Similarly, Bruce MacDiarmid rose to prominence as a marketer for Chevys, which hit gold by trademarking the descriptor “Fresh Mex” as part of its name. Clearly it was a brand where marketing influenced the whole system, a point verified during the People Report conference by Mike Hislop, Chevys’ former CEO. Now the CEO of Il Fornaio, Hislop revealed that he only took the top job at Chevys after securing a guarantee that marketing would be interwoven into his corner-office strategy, which had been forged by his first-hand experiences in operations. With the marketing department elevated to that role, is there any doubt that MacDiarmid was involved in a lot more than crafting ad strategies?

On Tuesday, he was named president and COO of the 82-unit Black Angus steakhouse chain.

I don’t know Tim Pulido, the longtime industry veteran who was named Mimi’s new president on Tuesday. Most recently, he was leading the attempt at a comeback by the venerable Shakey’s Pizza chain, and earlier served in an operations role at Pick Up Stix. But perhaps it’s not coincidental that his resume also lists a stint as chief marketing officer of Pizza Hurt.

You can almost see a path worn into the carpet between Marketing and that big office in the corner.

1 comment:

  1. Funny how this flies in the face of what SHOULD happen-that a true operator should takes the reins-not someone who came up through marketing, but someone who actually worked in the field, such as an area director, then DO, then VP of Ops, then SVP, etc, etc. AS a restaurant pro, I would be reluctant to support someone who came from the marketing side and more willing to support someone who had been in the trenches...or am I reading this blog wrong?