Chris Elliott drives improvement at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s to return the company to growth Featured

5:29pm EDT November 1, 2011
Chris Elliott drives improvement at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s to return the company to growth

Of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s 213 restaurant locations, Chris Elliott has eaten at 50 of them to date. He’s tasted every single item on the menu and is prepared to tell you what he thinks, good and bad. Yet that kind of honesty was harder to dish out last March when he joined the company as its new CEO. After eating at several of the restaurants, Elliott had the difficult task of sitting down with his franchisees to tell them candidly, your food isn’t very good.

“What franchisee wants to be told by a new guy, who they think doesn’t know anything about our brand: ‘Guys, I’ll be honest with you. The food is mediocre, and on top of that, the execution is very uneven from store to store,’” he says.

As a new leader, Elliott was also trying to build relationships with franchises in 23 states — consisting of more than 5,000 companywide employees. Understanding that they had faced several tough financial years prior, he knew that to execute a strategy that could reposition Beef ‘O’ Brady’s for growth, he first needed to win the trust and buy-in of his people.

“You have a new guy coming in, and the last three of four years have been very difficult,” Elliott says. “So it’s a matter of gaining the trust of the franchise community.

“I said, ‘This is what I see, and then based on my experience if we are going to move this business back to where you want it, back to where it belongs, back to where it deserves to be — we’re going to have to fix the food quality and we’re going to have to fix the execution. We get focused on those things and then we get after it. That’s what we’ve been doing in the last year.”

Engage people

When you are a new leader trying to gain perspective on where your company stands, a good place to start is by talking to the people in the company who have been there and understand the brand’s history.

“The first thing I do is sit and listen to what people have to say about the past, what they are passionate about as far as the brand is concerned and what they think the brand is all about,” Elliott says.

“You have this sort of window of opportunity when you come in new to company to establish this trust level that makes people comfortable in dealing with you, which makes people more likely to try and implement the things you ask them to implement.”

Because the company is 99 percent franchised, right away Elliott decided to create a ‘franchise advisory council’ to consult with him on decisions. Made up of a diverse group of 15 franchisees nationwide, the council has been vital in helping him gain a range of opinions and insights on how the business operates.

“I try to get a broad spectrum of people’s input to make sure that we fully vet the ideas,” Elliott says. “Sometimes a good idea is not meant for a particular system. So it’s not only finding the right idea, but making sure that you can actually implement the idea within your system. That’s why, for me, the more people I involve up front, the higher the probability I feel that we’ve made the best decision we can make.”

Furthermore, people are much more receptive to changes when they don’t feel like they are being bossed around. While Elliott knew major operational changes were in order across the board, he realized he couldn’t lead those changes successfully from a corporate office.

“There’s a natural dynamic tension between franchise owners and franchisees,” he says. “We own the brand, but they own the business. They paid for that business. So if they don’t feel like they are getting good leadership, good communication, good ideas and good business results from the franchisor, then they feel like, ‘I’ve got to save myself.’”

It would take relationship-building and strong, two-way communication to keep people from jumping ship and get everyone in the company moving together in a new direction.

“The power of a brand is in consistency,” Elliott says. “It’s everybody on the same team, everybody on the same page, everybody running the same menu and executing at the same level."

By showing people you want and need their help, you build a foundation for trust that helps them accept what you have to say.

“You involve them much earlier in the conversation,” Elliott says. “Collaborate with them on how to do it. Don’t come and tell them how to do it. Collaborate with them so it’s as much their ideas as your ideas, and that carries a lot more weight.

“I like people to challenge the ideas that we come up with and I look at a lot of different points of view to make sure we didn’t miss something. Almost inevitably you will if you don’t have that kind of organization where you are collaborating with the people who are actually going to wind up implementing your plan.”

To find out how he could improve alignment and engagement of his team, Elliott held private meetings with all 30 corporate employees as well as with franchisees on the advisory council.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m just here to learn what the issues are, what the challenges are, what’s been happening and how do we get better,’” he says.

“The human relations aspect of any business relationship is huge. It’s e-mail. It’s picking up the phone and calling. It’s getting out into the field and being present. There’s a lot of ways. Basically, we call it engagement. It’s one of the four principles of our franchisees.”

Elliott also began checking in more frequently on communication between franchisees and the corporate office, setting a more stringent expectation about getting back to franchisees, answering their questions and solving their problems.

“There were some silos in the departments and now that’s gone,” he says. “Everybody is working with everybody, communicating with everybody. The increased communication builds trust but also holds people accountable.”

Provide evidence

To convince people to take action on the company’s issues with food and execution, Elliott realized he also needed some hard evidence on where the company stood against competitors. To put the business’ strengths and weaknesses into a larger context, he and senior managers spent a lot of time initially studying the company’s competitors such as Applebee’s, Chili’s and Buffalo Wild Wings to clearly define the company’s niche in casual dining.

“You need to thoroughly understand the business that you are working in,” he says. “You need to really understand your niche.

“You benchmark your company against other successful organizations, and you demonstrate the benefits of the types of changes that you are proposing in ways that are meaningful to your employees, that would be meaningful to your customers and that would be meaningful to your franchisees.”

Elliott principally examined Buffalo Wild Wings’ restaurant concept, which is similar to Beef’s in many ways and offered some key insights into where the company could improve.

“We looked at them very hard,” he says. “We benchmarked sales volumes. We benchmarked the sales in day parts. We benchmarked the sales in particular items. We benchmarked everything you can think of, the initial investment, the profitability and all of that. It was a real eye-opener for a lot of our franchisees to see how other companies that are similar to us in a lot of ways do so much better in certain areas of their business.”

Then you look to your customers. In addition to working closely with his franchise council, Elliott visited many of the restaurants in person to try the food and listen to people’s ideas, concerns, attitudes and recommendations. He also communicated the importance of making decisions based on experience and data rather than just people’s opinions.

“Very early on I said to the franchisees, ‘This is not about what I want and this is really not about what you want,’” Elliott says. “‘What it’s ultimately about is what our customers want. So in any arbitration of what we’re going to do next, we’re going to let them tell us what they want to do next, what they like.’ That makes it easy for us to make a better decision. We always come to the table with the consumer data to support what we want to do next.”

The company has done more consumer research in recent months than it did in a whole year prior, using outside research firms to evaluate ideas, conduct segmentation studies and put on focus groups.

“Every time we have an idea to go out in the field and set up a field test, we test it for several months and gather the data and then come back,” he says. “That’s very time-consuming and it takes a lot of energy and a lot of resources, but that’s the only way to do it.”

Show results

Even if you get people to buy in to the value and vision behind making changes, winning them over long-term is a matter of proving to them that you can deliver success.

“When you come in and you say we’re going to do these things differently, and then it works, that helps build trust,” Elliott says.

“Once we have an agreement to move forward and are excited about where we are going to go, then it’s be persuasive. You can’t force a plan down people’s throats if you really want it executed. You’ve got to persuade them. That takes relationships. That takes communication. That takes some selling skills.”

Instead of ordering franchisees to switch from frozen to fresh marinated chicken tenders, Elliott convinced them to make the menu change by showing them the results of doing it differently.

“They went bonkers,” he says. “They didn’t think that was possible. So we actually had to go into the stores on Friday night during the busiest part of the night, set up a little station and do it to show the franchise community that ‘Yes, you can do this.’ And not only can you do it, they got to see how consumers reacted to the new product versus the old product.

“There are a lot of things that we did like that. We just recently changed out our burger. We had a good burger, but we went to a better burger. We went from a frozen steakburger to a fresh Angus burger. And that’s one of the reasons our sales turned around in May.”

After pulling the entire menu apart at the corporate office and spending about seven months fleshing out and testing ideas, Elliott estimates there are now 20 examples of ingredients or products that the company has already improved on or changed. The lunch menu now includes smaller portions and lower prices, and there is a stronger focus on efficient execution. Phase one of the main menu innovation launched in January 2011 with phase two implemented in August.

When one franchisee said to Elliott, ‘Why you would spend your time working on something that’s not broken?’ he tried to explain the problem behind that way of thinking.

“I said, ‘It’s not about it not being broken,’” Elliott says. “‘It’s about: Is it as good as it can be? Is it better than what anybody else has got?’ Because the way you’re going to get somebody away from these other customers is to have a better burger, not just a good burger.”

Today, the numbers speak for themselves. The company achieved positive comparable store sales growth in the first quarter of 2011 for the first time since 2006.

“It sort of opened up their eyes to the possibilities that exist out there when you do things a little bit differently,” Elliott says.

“That process of explaining why we were doing what we were doing and then seeing the results of it is beginning to get more and more franchisees on board.”

As people see the small successes add up, they can buy into bigger changes ahead.

“What people are seeing is we can effect positive change in a difficult environment, if we stick to our knitting, if we do some of the basic things better than other people are doing,” Elliott says. “That builds confidence in the franchise community and it also builds the willingness to not just listen to your ideas, but to get behind your ideas, push your ideas harder. It builds that bond of ‘Hey, maybe these guys do know what they are doing, and if we work together we’ll really get this thing on track.’”

How to reach: Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, (813) 226-2333 or www.beefobradys.com

The Elliott File

Chris Elliott

CEO

Beef ‘O’ Brady’s

Born: Montgomery, Ala.

Education: University of Georgia, BBA in accounting, 1977

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

Having my Starbucks Grande Bold coffee before I get started.

Who are your heroes in the business world and why?

Any and all entrepreneurs. It takes guts, determination and a belief in your own ability to step out and be your own boss. Where would we be without entrepreneurs? I wouldn’t have this job.

What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?

I play guitar and sing a little.

If you could have dinner with one person you’ve never met, who would it be?

Dead — Abraham Lincoln. He was a great storyteller and master politician. Alive — James Taylor. I love his music, and maybe I could get him to show me his technique.

Favorite part of the job: The whole act of drawing on your experience, assembling a team and the data needed to analyze a problem, then developing a solution that you find out later actually worked. In short: problem-solving.

Elliott on hiring good people: I’ve been doing this a long time and I can tell you if you have really good people working for you, life is good, and if you don’t, nothing ever changes. You spend all of your time managing people instead of managing the business. So a smart executive will hire really good people so they don’t have to spend all of their time managing people. They spend their time managing the business.