White Castle balances seasoned success with fresh ideas

 

Beef consumption is declining, and other proteins are becoming more popular with Americans. So, what does that mean for White Castle System Inc., the king of the slider?

“For a company that is built on a 2-inch-by-2-inch square hamburger, we needed to recognize that trend, first of all, and then decide: Are we going to just ride that trend out or are we going to be proactive and try to get ahead of the game?” says Lisa Ingram.

As a result, White Castle introduced more products in the past six or seven years than it did the 90 years prior.

“That’s been a big focus for me personally in my leadership,” says, Ingram, who became president and CEO last year.

Ingram’s self-awareness of issues like declining beef consumption and her own leadership are adding value to the family business. At the same time, she is making an effort to let her team be part of the company’s future.

“In 2016, in my 360, there was some feedback that I wasn’t letting my team do their stuff, that I was getting too involved in the details and making decisions that they didn’t feel like I should be making,” she says. “And so I worked really hard in 2016 to not give my opinion or let my team give their opinion first and then support them.”

That’s just one example of how Ingram has grown as leader since she succeeded her father, E.W. “Bill” Ingram III. She also uses that self-awareness to surround herself with people who have strengths she doesn’t.

While her father respected different points of view, but emphasized decentralization, Ingram seeks to not only empower the team, but also bring them together to explore new ideas. She doesn’t want to pigeonhole the company into the White Castle way.

“We’re bringing in different perspectives to enlighten us and to help us grow and think and push us up out of our comfort zone,” Ingram says.

A few years ago, she hired an outsider to run restaurant operations. This was unusual for a company where the majority of staff started with White Castle as teenagers and worked their way up.

“I felt like to complement my skill sets, I needed a strong operations person that hadn’t been at White Castle for 20 or 30 years, and that could help mentor those individuals within White Castle that had been there awhile — a different leadership style, a different leadership philosophy, a different focus on different things,” she says.

Shaped from others

Change is inevitable under a new leader.

“Certainly there are people that really liked my dad’s leadership style and don’t like mine as much. Conversely, there are people that like my leadership style better,” Ingram says. “That’s just part of having a new leader, whether it’s your father or not.”

Throughout your career, you interact with different leaders, she says. If you’re observant and you want to grow, you pick what you like and that helps shape you.

Ingram initially didn’t want to be involved with White Castle. She worked for a Dallas wholesale distributor for five years.

“I was really proud of the fact when I graduated from college, that I got a job on my own without any help from my family or anybody knowing my family name,” Ingram says.

It gave her confidence. But when an opportunity came up at White Castle with the same title as her current position, she thought it was time to see if the family business made sense.

After another stop, this time for her MBA, Ingram came back to White Castle for good as director of operations in 2000.

Experiencing a variety of jobs allows you to figure out what you like, what you’re good at and what to avoid, she says.

“There’s definite value in having different opportunities that stretch you and grow you, and that can be within the same organization, or it can be at other organizations,” Ingram says.