Elie Maalouf pilots HMSHost to the top

2010 Golden Chain winner

Elie Maalouf says he finds work fun, which may account for his success at HMSHost Corp.


“It is an incredibly fun business to be in,” said the Bethesda, Md.-based company’s president and chief executive. “When you combine travel, which is an intrinsically fun activity, with dining and shopping, food and chefs, airplanes and bars, all of those things — individually or together — are fun for people.”


At the same time, though, Maalouf has proven he has the right stuff to run one of the largest airport concessionaires in the world. 


Maalouf, who joined HMSHost, a division of Milan, Italy-based Autogrill Overseas Inc., in 1997, was tapped to head up the firm in 2005. During his time with the company, it has opened restaurant and retail shops in 111 airports in 13 countries and 101 travel plazas across North America. 


In 2009, HMSHost generated sales of more than $1.78 billion at its U.S. operations.


Maalouf said he is proud of the fact that the company has doubled its size since he came aboard as vice president of business development 13 years ago. But he noted that his real enjoyment comes from the fast-paced, rapidly changing nature of the business.


In order to address the public’s changing tastes and desires, HMSHost has been at the forefront of a number of airport concession innovations, Maalouf said, adding that it’s important to be first in introducing new concepts and options to the marketplace.


“Constant change is a necessity,” he said. “You always have to envision the trends, consumer patterns and desires, and lead with them. There is never a static moment in our approach.


“We were first to bring gourmet coffee and signature chefs to travel venues,” he said. “We were first to bring authentic local concepts and healthful, certified organic items to travel menus. It hasn’t always been as perfect at first as we wished, but we pursued it until it was.”


The company also has been among the first to bring authentic, popular, international foods to its U.S. airport operations, Maalouf said. This summer, the company partnered with Chicago chef-owner Rick Bayless to open an outpost of his Frontera Grill Mexican restaurant at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. 


HMSHost also is beginning to offer Hissho Sushi, a Japanese concept that features freshly made sushi at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C.


“We have learned from our international and Asian experiences, and we are leading with the authentic Mexican foods we are bringing to Chicago and fresh-made sushi [to Charlotte],” he said. “These are wonderful experiences that haven’t been tried before, but we are confident we will succeed.”


Vince Modica, the company’s senior vice president of restaurant portfolio, supply chain and standards, said one of Maalouf’s primary goals is to safeguard HMSHost’s role as the leader in the airport concessions segment.


“Elie’s goal, as it relates to my area of responsibility, is to ensure HMSHost maintains its undisputed leadership in restaurants and products in travel venues,” he said. “He assures alignment by having quality goals for service and products that cascade throughout the organization so we are all working toward the same objective.”


Title: president and chief executive

Company: HMSHost, Bethesda, Md.
Annual systemwide sales: $1.78 billion, domestic

Publicly traded? No

No. of locations: 111 airports worldwide, 101 travel plazas in North America

Check average: varies by concept

Career highlights: celebrating 13 years with HMSHost Corp.; overseeing the doubling of the company’s size during that 13-year period; integrating more of HMSHost’s business into international locations
Hometown: McLean, Va.
Education: Virginia Tech, bachelor of science; University of Virginia, master in business administration,
Personal: married, three children

Hobbies: soccer, tennis

Despite his high-flying position as HMSHost’s leader, Maalouf said the company’s many successes largely are due to the work of his entire team and are not solely of his own making.


“I struggle with taking credit for anything we’ve accomplished,” he said. “I don’t do anything individually. This is not really an organization of individual accomplishments. There is very little you can do alone. We’re extremely interconnected by the nature of what we do.”


Maalouf himself acknowledges that the decisions he makes often are calculated risks, and says he never really knows for sure whether airport diners will accept a certain concept or idea.


“I don’t always know if a new concept or menu will work, but I have to use my experience and gut to make sure we elevate the business,” he said.


It was that experience that served him well when the economic downturn was at its worst and the air travel industry was suffering. Not only were fewer people traveling, but those who did were dining out less frequently at airport restaurants.


Maalouf, however, made good strategic moves that helped the company hold its own at a time when others in the segment were not faring as well.


“We know our industry quite well, and I think we had a fairly good read at the beginning of the economic downturn on how it would affect travel and our customer base,” he said. “But we were not imprudently aggressive in the beginning like some others might have been. 


“We were diversified across food and retail,” he continued. “This is one we foresaw to some degree, and while we didn’t have a crystal ball, we were able to adjust our expansion plans accordingly. Now we’re adjusting to take advantage of growth that is returning.


“The important thing is not to exaggerate optimism in an up cycle or pessimism in a down cycle.”


Bill Casey, HMSHost’s vice president of restaurant development, said Maalouf’s steadfast attention to customer service really has refined the company’s focus.


“Every decision my department makes regarding what restaurants and chefs we want to partner with in airports and motorways first must fulfill the requirement that these restaurants are what guests prefer,” he said. “We always focus on Elie’s imperative of making the traveler’s day better.”


Another of Maalouf’s strengths, Modica added, is his familiarity with business and industry trends, which gives him great insight and perspective into growth opportunities. 


“This has allowed us to take a multidimensional approach that promotes local customization of restaurants and creative internal concept development, combined with national brand strength to offer the most desirable mix of restaurants for the traveling public,” he said.


Maalouf said the company intends to open more stores this year than it did last year, and will focus on such concepts as upscale burgers and frozen-yogurt shops — brands that have attracted the consumer’s attention in a big way.


“You have to stick with fundamental innovation, new restaurant menu ideas and great people,” Maalouf said. “That’s what makes it all happen.” 



Contact Elissa Elan at [email protected] [3].

Read more [4] about the 2010 Golden Chain Award winners, including exclusive online content and content for subscribers.