Mrs. Fields’ co-CEOs bring multitasking to the C-suite

Mrs. Fields’ co-CEOs bring multitasking to the C-suite

SALT LAKE CITY —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

When Mrs. Fields emerged from bankruptcy in October, however, its board of directors decided to keep the two-CEO setup. Together, Ward and Lauck lead the company, which is the franchisor of 325 Mrs. Fields’ Original Cookie units and 550 TCBY [3] locations. In addition to serving as chief executive, Ward remains chief legal officer and head of international development, and Lauck oversees operations of the two brands as well as product marketing and the company’s retail and gifting divisions. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“In a company as lean as we are—and [we] need to be in these tough economic times—it makes sense to do multiple jobs,” Lauck said. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

With escalating food and labor costs and declining customer traffic and spending, operators are learning to do more with less and share more responsibilities, even within their executive ranks. Multitasking, splitting assignments and even a co-CEO model can be effective ways to run an organization if communication lines are clear and everyone understands who is doing what, operators and industry observers say. Executives also must be willing to put egos aside for the good of the company. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“The only way it works is if people are crystal-clear on how their roles are different and it’s clear to everyone else so there is no confusion in the organization,” said business consultant Pat Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” “The only thing worse than an overly hierarchal organization is ambiguity.” —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

When employees are not certain who is in charge, they may shop around to get the answer they want to hear from an executive, Lencioni said. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“You must be crystal-clear and closely aligned,” he said. “Otherwise people start dialing for yes. They search for someone to agree.” —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

At Mrs. Fields, Ward and Lauck retained the responsibilities they already had, so employees understand who is doing what, the co-CEOs said. Ward has been with Mrs. Fields for 17 years and Lauck for the past five. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“Our roles are clearly defined and communicated,” Ward said. “Our offices are right next to each other, and we meet together daily. Employees don’t wonder, ‘Is this a John question or a Michael question?’ There is none of that.” —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Lauck and Ward had recommended the co-CEO concept to Mrs. Fields’ board of directors when former chief executive Stephen Russo resigned this summer. The board agreed to try it on an interim basis. After the company emerged successfully from bankruptcy only two months after first seeking Chapter 11 protection from creditors, the co-CEO positions became permanent. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Mrs. Fields had filed a prepackaged reorganization plan with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware in August that called for the company to restructure its debt by exchanging $195 million in bondholder debt for $87.5 million in cash, $52.5 million in new notes and 87.5 percent of the of the company’s new stock. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

While uncommon in the restaurant industry, having two chief executives is similar to the partnerships seen in law firms and advertising agencies, Lauck said. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Lauck and Ward modeled their positions much like an ad agency, where one partner is in charge of creative and the other accounting, said Lauck, who began his career in marketing positions at General Mills and Pizza Hut [4]. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

At Mrs. Fields, Lauck has responsibility for operations, while Ward manages the support functions, such as human resources, legal, purchasing, distribution and information technology. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Larry Flax and Richard Rosenfield were partners in a law firm before they founded California Pizza Kitchen [5], the 240-plus-unit casual-dining chain based in Los Angeles. They chose to share the CEO title, rather than use the more traditional setup of a chief executive and a president. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“Rick and I were always partners,” Flax said. “We were law partners for 34 years. We always felt that was the obvious answer. Although we work together on everything, we have our areas we really like. I love to mess around with food. Rick has always been more of the numbers guy. If someone has a question on our economics or numbers, they can ask me, and I’ll ask Rick.” —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Executives who share titles need to have some chemistry between them, as in any partnership, Flax said. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“There are a lot of businesses out there, more in the private sector than the public, that are run by great partnerships,” he said. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Sharing the chief executive title can work if executives leave their egos at home, he added. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“We never worry about disagreeing,” Flax said. “It’s not about who is right, it’s ‘let’s find the right answer.’ If we have a disagreement, we hash it out to come up with a solution. We’re both looking for the right answer, not looking to be right.” —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

Ultimately, the CEO job is less about titles and more about getting the work done and moving a company forward, Ward and Lauck said. —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.

“You don’t have the luxury to sit in the corner office waiting for everyone to do the work,” Lauck said. “You have to roll up the sleeves and get up and do the work as well.” —While Michael Ward, chief executive of Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, spent much of his time earlier this year in bankruptcy court and with other lawyers as the snack company reorganized its debt, John Lauck, who is also chief executive of Mrs. Fields, managed the company’s daily operations.