Well done

Don’t even think about eating at one of Cameron Mitchell’s restaurants on New Year’s Day. No one will be there to prepare your surf and turf.

“I don’t want to work on the holidays so I don’t expect anybody else to. I wouldn’t ask people to do something that I wouldn’t want to do,” Mitchell says. “We also give people personal days, and in the restaurant business, that’s very rare.”

The founder, owner and president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants says the hospitality industry may focus on the customer, but his business — which features seven concepts with 15 restaurants, plus the Cameron Mitchell Catering Co. — takes a different approach.

“Our associates come first in our company,” he says. “We take care of our people, our people take care of our guests, and our guests take care of our company. We look at it as more of a triangular relationship.”

So how does Mitchell, whose company brought in $118 million in 2007 revenue, employ such great people at his company?

“We get the same people everybody else gets, we just treat them great,” he says. “That’s what separates us a little bit from some other folks.”

Mitchell follows a theory of two-way-street management: If it’s not good for his1,200 associates, it’s not good for the company, and if it’s not good for the company, it’s not good for his associates. The goal, he says, is for everybody to work harmoniously with each other — but that’s not to say Mitchell avoids conflict. An employee once described Mitchell as the most demanding and best boss the employee had ever worked for.

“That was the ultimate compliment,” he says. “That says I’m demanding and hard-driving, but I’m caring and want to have fun at the same time. To me, that’s the best of both worlds. I have the innate ability to push someone to the edge of the cliff, and they have a choice: They can jump and fail,or they can turn around and face me, and then we’ll walk back from the edge of the cliff together.”

Mitchell says demanding excellence is inherent in the nature of successful leaders.

“I don’t think you can get to the championship game if you’re not demanding,” he says. “Good coaches push people to better themselves more than they ever thought they could do, and that’s what I hope to be able to do.”

The ability to create an entrepreneurial vision for his company is another strength that sets Mitchell apart from his peers.

“I try to paint the vision for everybody I can,” he says. “I’m extremely goal-oriented, and the more I can talk to employees about our goals — where we’re going and how we’re going to get there — the more people start to believe in that, including myself. One of my skills is being able to look at what I want the end picture to be and determining the steps we need to take to make that picture happen. A visionary is able to put all those pieces together.”

Corporate decision-makers often find themselves working in their business rather than on it. In this scenario, Mitchell compares himself to the commander of an aircraft carrier.

“I don’t allow myself to be down in the engine room or the radio room,” he says. “That’s not to say that I don’t step foot in those areas, but I spend the majority of my time on the bridge because that’s where I can see where we’re going and chart our course.

“In the beginning, I had to focus a tremendous amount of my time on the details. As the business has grown over the years, I’ve handed that ball off to someone else.”

Mitchell learned to be comfortable in delegating the details to his leadership team, due, in part, to some advice his mother heard in a speech given by the late Dave Thomas [founder of Wendy’s International Inc.]: Surround yourself with great people.

“I’ve studied some of the great companies out there, like Southwest Airlines, and I try to create that atmosphere and energy for our own people,” he says. “With Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, I just happen to have my name on the front door, but this business and its success has been built on the hard work of thousands of people over the years. I’dbe a fool to think it’s all about me; I’m just one cog in the wheel.”

HOW TO REACH: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, (614) 621-3663 or www.cameronmitchell.com