Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Who wants a CEO's job? Not some CEOs

This has been a day of eerie coincidences. Bombshell developments required us to change the top story on our website three times in roughly eight hours. In each instance, a big-name restaurant chief was leaving a sizable multi-chain company, to the gape-mouthed surprise of everyone else in the business. Russ Bendel from Cheesecake Factory, Ken Keymer from the parent company of Village Inn and Bakers Square, Clay Dover from Bennigan’s operator Metromedia Restaurant Group—each seemed firmly entrenched in the job, if for no other reason than the ink on his business cards had barely dried. The longest-serving among them (Keymer) had logged a mere 13 months in the job; the most recent to stake out the corner office (Dover) had been there just six months. (Bendel, for the record, had only nine months’ of wear on his office chair).

All persevered for far less than the three to four years that studies have pegged as the average time of service for a corporate top executive. It’d be easy to attribute the simultaneous changeovers at three radically different companies to sunspots, global warming or the behind-the-scenes meddling of mutant Steinbrenner offspring, were it not for another trend emerging in restaurant-executive employment.

Last week, we reported that Phil Hickey, the former CEO of LongHorn and Capital Grille parent Rare Hospitality, had bought the four-unit Jocks and Jills sports bar chain. Phil has the sort of resume that would make every headhunter in the country want to have him on speed-dial, regardless of the industry they served. And when Rare was sold to Darden last year, securities filings indicated that Hickey recieved enough of a payout to make work an option, not a requirement. Yet what does he do? He opts for something entrepreneurial.

Similarly, David Goronkin resigned last December as CEO of the Famous Dave’s barbecue chain to take the top day-to-day management job at Redstone American Grill, a start-up from the same concept creator who hatched Champps.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Bendel told Nation’s Restaurant News that he resigned as president and COO of Cheesecake’s restaurant division to pursue “an entrepreneurial opportunity.” He wouldn’t say what it was, but noted that he’ll be switching to the new undertaking in a matter of weeks.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to understand why executives might stay in a top restaurant job for a shorter stretch than they did in the past. Metromedia’s Dover, for instance, readily acknowledged that he opted to leave because of disagreements with the company’s owners. The times are grueling, investor patience seems to have shortened, stakeholders insist on an active management role, and we’ve reached the age of the plug-in executive, where a chief may be brought in for a very specific task. Vicorp stressed that it chose Harem Ouf to succeed Keymer because of the newcomer’s experience in bringing companies out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, where it slid during Keymer’s watch. (Keymer, for the record, said he would retire at the end of the week).

Restaurant executives can be ground up and spat out in no time in an environment like the present one. The job is so grueling that it's hard not to be dissatisfied--with the individual who's trying to fulfill it, or with the situation itself. No wonder so many seasoned pros are assessing the task of running a big public restaurant company and deciding it’s not for them. They’ve decided to forego the pressure, lessen the hassles, and get back to doing what they enjoyed. Why waste your fruitful years dodging bullets?

Regardless of which party opts for a CEO or president’s exit, there’s little doubt that the foodservice revolving door is going to spin a little faster in the months to come. We were actually investigating reports today that a top executive had left a fourth well-known restaurant company, but couldn’t get a confirmation from the concern itself. But stay tuned. He's likely to be one in a parade of executives who find themselves arising from a hot seat in the near future. By their employer's choice, or theirs.

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