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The Power List: No. 4 Neal Aronson

The Power List: No. 4 Neal Aronson

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.

Neal K. Aronson, founder and managing partner of Roark Capital Group, has over the past dozen years built the private equity firm into a restaurant investment powerhouse known for acquiring, holding and building its brands.

Since founding the Atlanta-based firm in 2001, Aronson has added 14 restaurant brands to the firm’s investment portfolio, including last year’s additions of CKE Inc., parent to the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s quick-service brands, and Miller’s Ale House, the 65-unit full-service chain.

Roark manages $3 billion of equity capital with less than 50 staff members. The firm’s restaurant portfolio includes 29 brands that operate in all 50 U.S. states and in 68 nations abroad. Together they total more than $15 billion in annual systemwide sales. In Nation’s Restaurant News’ latest annual Top 100 report, which covered 2012 annual results, Roark was the third-largest private equity firm — behind Bain Capital and Sun Capital Partners — in terms of aggregate foodservice sales from corporate stores and franchise fees. When the next Top 100 ranking takes account of Roark’s 2013 acquisitions, the results will no doubt be shaken up.  

Aronson’s investment philosophy — and the name of his firm — were born from the fictional Howard Roark, the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel “The Fountainhead.” In the novel, Roark was an architect rewarded for avoiding trends and fads and instead focusing on the tried and true.

“We hope to invest in outstanding companies in partnership with exceptional operating executives, regardless of conventional wisdom or the latest trend,” the company states on its website. Roark also says it stands by investments and management teams “in good times and bad, as long as the fundamental long-term opportunity remains intact.”

Roark’s restaurant investments include Arby’s, Corner Bakery Cafe, Il Fornaio, McAlister’s Deli, Miller’s Ale House and Wingstop, in addition to the concepts the company owns under Focus Brands: Carvel Ice Cream — which was Roark’s first acquisition in December 2001 — Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon, Schlotzsky’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Seattle’s Best Coffee. Roark also has invested in several non-foodservice brands.

In an interview following the acquisition of Corner Bakery in 2011, Aronson explained how the brand fit with Roark’s strategy.

“We think it’s the right people, the right brand, well-positioned, and we think it has an opportunity to have large-scale but thoughtful and controlled growth,” he said.

That investment also included Roark’s first full-service restaurant acquisition, Il Fornaio. At the time, Aronson said Roark had been eyeing the full-service segment for some time. Roark expanded its position in the segment further in 2013 with its addition of high-volume Miller’s Ale House.

In addition to his responsibilities as Roark’s managing partner, the company said Aronson has remained active with Arby’s, Corner Bakery and Focus Brands.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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