Each spring, just as spring training is wrapping up, Scottsdale is the scene of the Restaurant Leadership Conference. It’s neither the largest, nor by most measures the most frenetic of the key restaurant conferences; the first title must go to Chicago’s NRA extravaganza, and arguably the second goes to the well-run, but adrenaline-filled, RFDC in Las Vegas (the adrenaline perhaps unavoidably due to the locale as well as the deal frenzy which seemingly grips many of the participants each November). Still, the RLC has proven valuable for many of its participants; its size and pace allow for both casual catch-up conversations and meaningful meetings in addition to the presentations.
Ah, the presentations ... perhaps the complaint I hear most often about the RLC is that it’s so well sponsored, many of the presentations devolve into infomercials from those who’ve paid to be here. There’s some truth to that, although many of us learn from infomercials, so it’s not all bad. On the other hand, there are always some memorable presentations and keynotes, and this year we were blessed with two.
Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, gave one of the most holistic and all-encompassing discussions I’ve heard in some time of how to manage (or at least set forth to manage) a company in our time. The following are paraphrases, but I believe they’re consistent with her comments: she was blunt (“There’s no such thing as work-life balance for senior execs”), practical (“If I want to develop a manager, I have to think about how to fit his/her professional growth against the needs of the family as the children are moved to different schools”), and incredibly aware of the need for mutually beneficial partnerships (citing the examples of Sabra, the Doritos Locos Taco and Mountain Dew Coolatta, among others).
She also acknowledged the tendency of successful companies to listen to themselves, almost always with bad outcomes. Her “four necessities” are intended to combat that insular behavior -- Open Eyes (the ability to see your business as outsiders see you), Open Ears (listening to your partners for good ideas -- and criticism), Open Mind (question everything, act on new information, make necessary changes even at the risk of disrupting the home team), and Open Heart (performance with a purpose in mind; make a life as well as a living). Near the close, she mentioned another of her guiding principles: Always Assume Positive Intent when dealing with someone whose view is different from yours, a message we could all take to heart in these charged political times.
Just when I’d decided her presentation was the high point of the conference -- and was thoroughly satisfied -- along came Ron Shaich, co-CEO of Panera, who totally rocked the house. Ron’s entire presentation was on Indra’s fourth necessity, which he retitled Conscious Capitalism. Using the growth of Panera as a model, his thesis is one which has been stated many times in many ways. I’ll risk paraphrasing it, perhaps in a way he wouldn’t endorse, by saying “That business which exists to profit is rather likely to profit less than that business which exists to excel.” In Ron’s framework, that striving to excel includes not only fulfilling a need for the customer in the best way possible -- quality ingredients, quality environment -- but acknowledging that the only way such a success is sustainable is by taking care of all the components, including the team. They’re central to sustained success, and must be nurtured to insure longevity, consistency, and profitability.
Make no mistake: profitability is important to both these speakers. In fact, the last of the four “rules” of Panera is that “Profit Provides Possibilities”; if there’s no profit, there’s no sustainability. However, rather than the profit being the desired target, it’s the tool which permits the next step -- the reinvestment in the brand and the people, the further development in unique and relevant products and solutions which insure the company STAYs on top. And, to finish on a note specific to our industry, Ron acknowledged that all this reinvestment needs to be focused in the people, products, and facilities at the restaurant level. Everything derives from the unit, which is where the business either succeeds or fails in the consumer’s mind.