Jane Grote Abell looked fear in the eye and reinvigorated Donatos

Jane Grote Abell, chair, Donatos Pizzeria LLC

When McDonald’s Corp. bought Donatos, something new was added to the mix, and Jane Grote Abell remembers it well.

“I never knew what it was like working in fear until we were under the Arches,” she says.

Business was off in 2002-03. McDonald’s tallied a record low for its stock. Rumors hit the streets that Donatos would be sold off or closed.

Abell was senior vice president for development/franchising and human resource chief, having worked for the family business since she was 11 years old. And she wanted to continue to work at Donatos.

“I tried to maintain focus on what we needed to do in the restaurants to serve our customers and keep our doors open,” Abell says. “It was a very painful time in my life.”

One time at 3 a.m. she needed inspiration, so she turned to a copy of the poem, “Desiderata,” that her father Jim Grote had given her a few years earlier.

“I don’t know why, but a light came on,” she says. “‘Desiderata’ is about how to live your life. I remember sitting back in my chair saying to myself, ‘Wow. All of the times I had talked to our managers about not working in fear I was doing it myself.’”

Her human resource background was telling her that when the leader starts working in fear, the entire company picks it up.

“They feel it,” Abell says. “It’s intuitive. Everybody starts working in fear and you become paralyzed. You can’t make decisions, and you become paranoid. It became a fear of not being about to carry on our mission and promise the way that we believed we could. Unfortunately, although I should say fortunately looking back at it, I think it was a great learning experience for me.”

The next morning, she began to change her thinking so she could lead the company through tough economic times and onward, diversifying its portfolio and increasing the number of franchises. Here are some of the keys to Abell’s success to overcome the fear factor and get the 5,000-employee company back on track.

Communicate to alleviate fear

Any type of change can cause fear. To address those fears, it requires a lot of communication and being able to put the human aspect into the company.

“Employees need and want to know the people they are working for, so for me, it was about putting the face behind the brand again,” says Abell, now chair of the $189 million Donatos Pizzeria LLC. “I spent 90 percent of my time out in the stores with our people, putting the heart and the soul back into our business again. I think the most important thing you can do in these cases is be visible and be transparent as you possibly can.”

Not having a person behind the brand name can have a negative effect on employees. This perception needs to be reversed.

“People will be working for a paycheck instead of for their passion, a career, what they really wanted to do in life,” she says.

Communication needs to be rooted in the culture of the company.

“I think culture is the most important thing that you can stay close to or manage because it really is a shadow of your leader,” Abell says. “I was the chief people person, and you can imagine the shadows that cast.

“Unfortunately, if you don’t trust your environment, and you don’t trust the people that you work for, then it’s easy for good people to start working in fear.”

Let employees know that you hear their concerns.

“If people don’t trust that you’re really going to listen or that you’re looking out for their best interests as well as the best interests of the company, they’re not going to tell you where the pitfalls are,” Abell says. “They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, that’s a great vision. I’m going to work toward it. But here are all the obstacles in between.’

“They’re not going to tell you those things, so you have to have humility and be able to sit around a round conference room table so there is no power or authority and employees can really express themselves and trust the environment to say, ‘We can do this but here are all the obstacles.’”

Resolving the concerns about major changes pays big dividends. Among the first to voice support likely will be longtime employees who still believe in what the company stands for and still carry the torch for it.

Maintain open communication, even in hard times. Such was the case in 2002 when Donatos decided to pull out of the Atlanta market, closing 23 sites.

Being proactive in terms of helping employees helps put the company in the best light possible when eliminating positions.

“We set up a career fair and called other restaurants,” Abell says. “We had four or five companies at an expo, and all our managers attended. We had every manager employed by the end of two weeks. We also gave them severance packages. We had our hourly associates given severance packages, as well. We all spoke to our managers in a meeting before the restaurants closed so they could hear it from us and not hear it on the street.”

Lead through change

Donatos was bought by McDonald’s in 1999. Abell and her father bought it back in 2003. In both cases, the changes required strong leadership to keep the business going. Abell has identified the traits a leader needs to be successful: character, conviction, courage and compassion.

When you have a strong leadership corps, fear won’t become a problem.

“First, you have to have leaders in your organization that have strength of character ― honesty and integrity,” she says. “You can always do what you say you’re going to do, but doing it when you say you’re going to do it is important.

“Be a place where you can bring your principles to work with you, and that you can be yourself. That’s character, and it’s really being authentic with who you are, all the time, at work and at home. That’s a really important trait for a leader.”

The second trait, conviction, is about having passion for what you do and loving what you do ― or you may as well not do it.

“I tell our managers that if you really don’t love serving people, if you really don’t love coaching and teaching the hourly associates, then that’s OK; you can’t work here,” Abell says. “You have to love it. If you don’t wake up excited about your job, then this isn’t the right place for you. I encourage people to find what their passions truly are. You have to really love what you do in order to be successful.”

The third trait is courage, which can take many forms.

“Too often, people have character and they’ll have conviction, and they’ll have passion, but they don’t have the courage to do anything about it,” Abell says.

“I believe in having the courage to dream, the courage to act on that dream, the courage to confront others, and the courage to be confronted, which is a more difficult one sometimes.

“A really big one is the courage to see your current reality,” she says. “It’s being honest in where you’re at as a business. Have the courage to listen to people. Have the courage to love. We’re in the people business. If you don’t love people, then you really probably shouldn’t be in the people business.”

The last trait is compassion. Compassion is being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, being able to be approachable and having the ability to listen to other people and their perspectives on an issue.

“One of the best pieces of advice that has been given to me over the years is that in business, you can take away a person’s job, but shame on us if we ever take away their dignity,” she says. “That goes back to making the tough decision, but doing it with a balance of your head and your heart and being compassionate when you do it.”

Treat other people the way that you want to be treated ― the Golden Rule.

“Whether they’re working for me or whether I’m working for them, I want to be in an environment where there’s trust,” Abell says. “That’s probably the most important thing about compassion.”

Once you are able to address the challenges that present themselves in managing people through difficult times, it’s critical to keep the rest of the ship on course through choppy seas.

“The wonderful thing about tough times is it makes you continue to improve and be innovative and to look as yourself differently and objectively,” Abell says. “When you’re an owner and you face tough times, you end up focusing on the long term, not the short term and an exit strategy. Then you’re going to make some decisions that help you for the long haul.”

Find new opportunities, perhaps even partnering with companies.

Donatos founded Jane’s Dough Foods during the recent economic recession to sell take-and-bake pizzas at Kroger’s. Some franchise partners took a different look and saw the products as competing with the restaurants. However, a solution was reached: Share the profits from the take-and-bake products with the franchise partners.

Jane’s Dough Foods is currently in 1,400 points of distribution.

“This is a wonderful and exciting opportunity ― so here we are running great restaurants, and I don’t say I’m running great restaurants, our managers run great restaurants, our people run great restaurants, and we also have the opportunity to expand our business through Jane’s Dough Foods,” Abell says.

“You have to be flexible with your plan,” she says. “You can’t just write a five-year plan and say this is where we’re going ― everybody charge ― without constantly taking a look at it. You’d like to say look at it every three months but in this state and environment, you’ve got to look at it every day.”

How to reach: Donatos, (614) 416-7700 or www.donatos.com

The Abell file

Born: Columbus, Ohio

Education: The Ohio State University, majoring in organizational design and communications

What was your first job?

Working at the Thurman Avenue Donatos at age 11. I can’t say I remember getting paid. My dad taught us to work harder than anybody else. We worked in the summers. We worked on the weekends, after football games. It was our life, and I loved it.

What’s your definition of success?

I think success for me is intertwined between personal and professional ― that we’re able to grow our business and fulfill our destiny with our mission and keeping our soul and the spirit of Donatos alive through growth. Any time we don’t feel like we’re able to do that, then we need to retract and make sure that we’re able to grow, keep the light shining, keep the spirit alive and keep the culture healthy. That’s success to me. And it’s not about numbers, it’s not about bigness; it’s about doing it the right way.

What was the best business advice you were ever given?

Hire people who are smarter than you are.

What is the best business advice you can give?

Don’t let fear enter the culture, and to be aware enough to know it’s there. Allow people to make mistakes. And have humility.