The Power List: The Builders

The Power List: The Builders

Part of the annual NRN 50 special report, The Power List profiles the 50 most powerful people who are leading and shaping change in the restaurant industry, as chosen by Nation’s Restaurant News.

Nation’s Restaurant News ranked only the top 10 most powerful people in foodservice [2] out of the 50 influential people who make up The Power List. The remaining 40 people on the list have been divided into groups highlighting the type of influence they have on the industry. Here, we feature The Builders: people who are taking restaurant brands to the next level.

Greg Flynn; founder, chairman and chief executive; Flynn Restaurant Group LLC

Entrepreneur Greg Flynn may not have set out to build a restaurant empire, but that’s how some have described his San Francisco-based Flynn Restaurant Group LLC.

Comprised of Apple American Group LLC [3] and Bell American Group LLC, Flynn Restaurant Group has a growing portfolio that includes 448 Applebee’s casual-dining restaurants — making it the largest Applebee’s franchisee in the country — and 138 Taco Bell and associated Yum! Brands Inc. quick-service restaurants. Through smart acquisitions and leadership, Flynn has led his company to become the nation’s largest restaurant franchisee, with projected annual revenue of $1.3 billion, according to company officials.

“The key to Apple American is a ‘state-and-federal’ model,” Flynn previously told Nation’s Restaurant News. “The states are run by ‘governors’ who are genuinely empowered to run the business. They can not only make operating decisions without going through me or the chief operating officer, but they can run it like it’s their business. They can make mistakes.”

A degree in economics history from the University of Queensland in Australia and a business degree from Stanford University, as well as experience overseeing his father’s two Burger King locations in the early 1990s, have contributed to the development of Flynn’s democratic leadership philosophy and his success.

Among his plans for 2014, Flynn expects to open 14 new Applebee’s, aggressively remodel the 62 quick-service restaurants his company acquired in August and look for more growth opportunities.

“We are always interested in growth,” he told NRN, “but only under two conditions: We must be running well what we already own, and the opportunity must be accretive to the brand.”

— Fern Glazer

Bruce Frazer

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Bruce Frazer, senior vice president of product marketing/R&D, CKE Restaurants Inc.

Few research and development gurus know what their customers crave as well as Bruce Frazer, senior vice president of product marketing and R&D at CKE Restaurants Inc., parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.

Under his leadership, the brands have rolled out a steady stream of big, beefy burgers and envelope-pushing items that resonate with the company’s core young male demographic and help the brands to compete against much larger quick-service foes and hard-charging fast-casual players.

Frazer, who has more than 20 years of marketing experience, joined the Hardee’s executive team in 2001 and two years later was tapped to lead planning, development and implementation of product marketing for Carl’s Jr., as well as CKE’s Green Burrito and Red Burrito brands.

As many burger chains focused on discounting, Frazer led Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s instead to focus on creating premium burgers and flavor combinations that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The line of hefty Thickburgers that he helped introduce in the early 2000s reversed a decade of same-store sales declines at Hardee’s and positioned the chain for growth, the company said. The platform launched such items as the Philly Cheesesteak Thickburger, with sliced steak, cheese and peppers, and last fall’s Buffalo Blue Cheese Thickburger, with hot sauce and tangy cheese. In addition, the Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich [5] — a limited-time offer featuring ice cream between pieces of the breakfast pastry — zoomed to cult status on social media and was selected for rollout nationwide.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s also have launched lighter fare in recent years, such as turkey burgers and salads, and have touted such quality cues as 100-percent Black Angus beef patties and hamburger buns that are baked fresh in the restaurants.

— James Scarpa

Aziz Hashim

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Aziz Hashim, president and chief executive, National Restaurant Development Inc.

If there were a standard for multiunit, multibrand franchisees, some say it would be Aziz Hashim.

In 1996 he left a promising career as an electrical engineer to found National Restaurant Development Inc. with the opening of a single quick-service unit. Since then, he has grown the Atlanta-based company to include more than 60 restaurants, including high-profile brands such as Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Domino’s Pizza and Checkers/Rally’s Hamburgers, as well as several non-foodservice retail concepts.

“His incredible track record of success, outstanding leadership and commitment to his diverse portfolio of brands make him the best of the best in the franchising industry,” Scott Hinshaw, Domino’s executive vice president of franchise operations, previously told Nation’s Restaurant News.

Many other franchisors and industry organizations also hold Hashim in high regard. For example, he was previously honored as an NRN Franchisee of the Year, Popeyes presented him with its Emerging Leader award in 2011, and Checkers named him its inaugural Brand Ambassador in 2010.

Those who work closely with Hashim credit his ability to effectively size up quick-service brands to the precision and analysis learned during his engineering training.

“Precision is a great way to describe it,” Wendy Harkness, chief talent officer and chief legal officer for NRD, told NRN in 2011.

While Hashim has used his unique abilities to shape the success of his own company, he is now poised to help shape the future of U.S. franchising as a whole, in his newly elected position as secretary of the International Franchise Association.

— Fern Glazer

Mark Mednansky

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Mark Mednansky, chief executive, Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group Inc.

For the past 15 years, Mark Mednansky has cut his teeth in the steak segment — literally — with a background that runs the gamut from the casual honky-tonk and peanut shell-strewn floors of Lone Star Steakhouse, to the white-tablecloth elegance of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House.

As chief executive of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group Inc., a post he has held since 2007, Mednansky oversees a trio of brands under the DFRG umbrella — Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Sullivan’s Steakhouse and Del Frisco’s Grille, which Nation’s Restaurant News named a Hot Concept in 2012 [8].

The company, which went public the same year and generated more than $230 million in revenue during its most recent fiscal year, operates some 38 units throughout 20 states. Last year, it ramped up expansion of Del Frisco’s Grille with openings in Houston; Dallas-Fort Worth; Santa Monica, Calif.; and the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill.

“As we look forward, we have the flexibility to continue to grow all existing markets, while the Del Frisco’s Grille concept will remain our dominant expansion vehicle,” Mednansky said. “We’re excited for the opportunities ahead of us this year.”

Following stints at Big Four Restaurants and Viad Corp. in the early to mid-1990s, Mednansky waded into the casual-dining steak segment as senior operations manager at Lone Star and was later promoted to chief operating officer of then-parent Center Cut Hospitality Inc. Lone Star Funds, a private equity firm, acquired the Sullivan’s and Del Frisco’s chains when it took Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc. private in December 2006.

“He’s done an extraordinary job building a strong operating culture, which turned out to be the foundation for the resumption of growth,” said Bryan Elliott, an analyst who tracks Del Frisco’s for Raymond James in Atlanta. “Hats off to the way he’s executed the people side of the business. He’s sustained high margins on the existing businesses before taking the hybrid of the two brands [Del Frisco’s Grille] and rolling out something successfully that was basically unproven at the time.”

— Bill Carlino

David Parsley

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David Parsley, senior vice president of supply chain management, Brinker International Inc.

In this age of volatile commodity prices, heightened food safety concerns and ever-faster product development cycles, the role of the supply chain executive has taken on heightened importance.

At Brinker International Inc., one of the country’s largest restaurant companies, the man helping to elevate that vital role is David Parsley.

Since he joined the company in 2011 [10], Parsley’s leadership in large-scale procurement, logistics management and quality assurance has proven to be a competitive advantage for Brinker, parent of more than 1,500 Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurants. He is a vital actor in the company’s day-to-day management and strategic growth, collaborating with peers in operations, research and development, and marketing, as well as vendors and distributors.

“David Parsley is legendary in our industry for his proven ability to improve profitability and reduce procurement and delivery costs,” former Brinker chief executive Doug Brooks said at the time Parsley was hired.

Parsley regularly reviews and analyzes product specifications, studies the locations and capabilities of manufacturers and distributors, and establishes more efficient commodity purchasing and freight cost-management strategies. As a result, he’s significantly cut costs while maintaining quality, often by winnowing the number of suppliers down to fewer and more efficient players, enabling lower negotiated costs based on higher-volume shipments.

The importance of his role isn’t lost on Parsley, who told Nation’s Restaurant News in 2012 that a commitment to building a strategic, safe and efficient supply chain can be the difference between success and failure.

“Supply chains compete, and companies that don’t recognize that will lose out,” he said.

— James Scarpa

Kevin Reddy

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Kevin Reddy, chairman and chief executive, Noodles & Company

With its on-trend concept, sound finances and steady growth, Noodles & Company has established itself as role model for aspiring chain builders in the fast-casual restaurant segment. So too has the man credited with piloting it to prominence, chairman and chief executive Kevin Reddy [12].
The newly public company — Reddy steered its hugely successful initial public offering last year [13] — has a healthy balance sheet, a national footprint and an experienced management team. Noodles & Company currently has 372 units, and the growth-minded Reddy told Nation’s Restaurant News last year, after the IPO, that it holds the potential to grow to as many as 2,500 units.
In fact, Noodles & Company’s revenue has grown from $170 million in 2008 to $300 million in 2012. Income from operations during that time grew from $2 million to $16 million, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Under Reddy’s stewardship, Noodles & Company is both growing its same-store sales and opening new units because of the broad appeal of the business proposition and guest experience.

Reddy has maintained a focus on the core concept — pastas, soups, salads and sandwiches that feature the flavors of cuisines from around the world — while exploring new initiatives to enhance the customer experience. The latter include plated desserts, an upgraded wine and beer program, modified table service in the evenings, and chalkboard-style menu boards with colorful food pictures. In tune with wholesome eating trends, Noodles & Company has also rolled out naturally raised, braised pork.

Reddy’s influence also reaches outside his company, as he shares business acumen and strategic thinking skills on a number of nonprofit and for-profit boards of directors.

— James Scarpa

Jim Schwartz

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Jim Schwartz, president and chief executive, NPC International Inc.

When Jim Schwartz became chief executive of NPC International Inc. 15 years ago, the Pizza Hut franchisee operated more than 600 units. Over the next decade, Schwartz doubled that number to 1,200 units in 28 states as the chain divested corporate units.

When Wendy’s did the same last year, NPC scooped up 90 hamburger stores in multiple markets across the country, diversifying the Overland Park, Kan., firm’s holdings across three brands, including WingStreet.

Schwartz’s confident leadership through two economic crises and one amazing growth spurt earned him a 2013 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. In a video profile, he talked about assessing business risks in an educated way by asking, “What are the true risks? … Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Here’s the risk. Here’s where we’re going,’ and the risk tends to take care of itself.”

According to a profile on Schwartz in Smart Business, during the most recent recession, he talked Pizza Hut into running a “$10 any way you want it” pizza when the company wanted to promote an all-natural premium pie. When NPC ran the $10 promotion successfully in its own stores, all of Pizza Hut followed suit.

Schwartz led the publicly traded NPC to a private buyback in 2001, and through a pair of sales to private equity firms. NPC is currently owned by Olympus Growth Fund.

During his E&Y award acceptance speech, he stressed that being an entrepreneur can be frustrating because risk takers are told “no” too often. Real leaders, he said, ignore such naysayers and surround themselves with great people who look for ways to say yes.

— Steve Coomes

Kevin Vasconi

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Kevin Vasconi, chief information officer, Domino’s Pizza Inc.

Though two-thirds of Domino’s Pizza orders still come via the telephone, chief information officer Kevin Vasconi is on a mission [16] to lure more customers to the digital side. Internet, mobile phones and tablets — even Web-enabled car computers [17] — are among the tools Vasconi is using to simplify and personalize ordering for a customer base that’s constantly on the go and increasingly dependent upon digital devices.

Before joining Domino’s Pizza Inc. in 2012, he was CIO at two automotive marketing firms, where he gained experience in digital customer engagement strategies. That history has come in handy as Vasconi pushes for technological innovation at Domino’s through e-commerce upgrades. Whether customer facing or back end only, he has said he believes that constant improvement to Domino’s customers’ digital experience will yield greater market share.

In January, Domino’s revealed its cutting-edge Easy Order platform, created in partnership with Ford Motor Co. Drivers whose cars include the new feature can place pizza orders using voice commands while driving. And while not quite as sexy, his initiatives in the area of responsive Web design upgrades will provide vastly improved navigation for customers, regardless of the type or size of their digital devices.

To Vasconi, the most effective technological efforts link all parts of Domino’s business, from its robust back-end platform to its universal point of sale system and its digital supply chain. Combined with an e-commerce platform that engages customers and harvests data in real time, he’s making Domino’s an industry leader in technological innovation.

— Steve Coomes