Bill Ingram has been at the helm of White Castle Systems Inc. for 35 years, and when he steps down as CEO at the end of the year he will leave a lengthy list of accomplishments.
The quick-service burger chain more than tripled in size under Ingram’s leadership while maintaining a slow, methodical expansion strategy and avoiding the trappings of franchising. Ingram proved that customers would buy a restaurant’s food from their local grocery store. And White Castle started serving breakfast all day — before a certain Illinois-based burger chain marked by golden arches.
But perhaps Ingram’s biggest accomplishment — as well as that of his three sisters — was his ability to transition oversight of the 390-unit chain to the next generation.
On Jan. 1, his daughter, Lisa Ingram, will become the fourth generation of Ingrams to lead the venerable chain. That’s a rare accomplishment: The further away a family business gets from its founder, the less likely it stays in the family. Only 3 percent of businesses make it as far as White Castle, according to the Family Business Institute. Even fewer make it to the 100-year mark, which White Castle is six years away from.
“We know that these kinds of transitions are pretty difficult in a lot of cases,” Bill Ingram told Nation's Restaurant News in an interview. “You hear about all kinds of horror stories of family businesses being broken up. We worked pretty hard on it the past few years.”
“We’re family. We like to hang out with each other and enjoy each others’ company,” Lisa Ingram said. “So many businesses never make it to the third generation, let alone the fourth generation. We’re honored. And we owe a great deal of gratitude to my father and his sisters.”
Bill Ingram’s grandfather, Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, started White Castle in 1921, selling hamburgers for 5 cents apiece from small, prefabricated porcelain buildings designed to look like castles.
White Castle became the country’s first quick-service burger chain, using standardized cooking techniques to ensure that customers always received the same burger regardless of where they bought it. That consistency would help the chain survive the Great Depression and World War II.
Billy Ingram’s son, E.W. Ingram II, succeeded his father as CEO. Bill — E.W. Ingram III — started working with the family business in 1972. He became president in 1980. The company had just 120 locations at the time and was largely concentrated in the Midwest. It still has restaurants in only 10 states.
“I was the one family member interested in working for the business in that time,” Bill said.
Under Bill Ingram, the chain grew by about 10 to 15 locations per year, he said. He also cultivated an environment that encouraged experimentation — good ideas were always tried, even if most of them failed.
“It’s a good idea to try new things,” Bill said. “A lot of them have not worked out so well.” One of his ideas was to develop smaller, express locations with only drive-thru windows and more limited menus to reduce the cost of opening a new unit. Customers rejected the idea.
But customers didn’t reject another idea: Selling frozen versions of White Castle Sliders in grocery stores.
Restaurants simply didn’t sell branded versions of their products in grocery stores in the 1980s when Bill, on trips to White Castle restaurants, heard from customers who would use newly popular microwave ovens to reheat frozen Sliders.
That evolved into a decision to start selling frozen Sliders directly from grocery stores. Because Sliders are cooked with steam, they reconstitute well in the microwave, and the grocery versions of the burgers proved popular, as they are the same as they are in the restaurants.
Thoughtful leadership transitioning
Today, the company has three manufacturing plants, and grocery sales represent a quarter of White Castle’s total revenue. Many other restaurant companies have been working to mimic that success.
“He didn’t listen to the supposed experts who said it couldn’t be done,” Lisa Ingram said. “It’s been a good business for us.”
White Castle has also cultivated a strong culture that encourages restaurant managers and other employees to stay with the business for a long time. One in four employees have been with the company for 10 years or more. “We’re very, very proud of that,” Lisa said.
“The average restaurant’s turnover is pretty high,” Bill said. “If you don’t have any continuity at the top, it’s hard to maintain traditions, and it’s hard to implement changes unless you have people who’ve been with the company for a while. We’ve worked hard to encourage longevity.”
Family members have also joined the company. While Bill was the only one of his generation who wanted to work for the family business, several other members of the family now work for the chain.
But employment for family members isn’t a rite of passage — they have to spend time working outside of the business and meet certain qualifications before they can work there.
White Castle has been equally thoughtful in its leadership transition.
The first step the company took, Bill said, was to invite outsiders to the company’s board. “We went like, 85 years, with a board of all insiders,” Bill said. “In an organization as old as White Castle, those changes are pretty meaningful.”
White Castle’s board, including Bill Ingram and his three sisters, also had the next generation figure out who would lead the chain in the future. They worked with a family advisor, found their strengths and looked for roles for each of them. They then put together a plan, which the board approved.
“It started with the third generation being good parents and instilling good values,” Lisa said. “They taught the importance of the family being humble and working together to come up with solutions for the greater good, not necessarily for the individual.”
Lisa, who graduated from the University of Texas in 1993, began with the family business in 1997 and ultimately worked her way up to chief operating officer before she was named president in 2013.
Lisa Ingram said White Castle would likely maintain its methodical growth pace. For now, the chain is focusing more on remodeling existing locations rather than building additional locations.
For the most part, she said, there will be few changes. “My father has been a great mentor on how to transition roles,” she said. “My day job is really not going to change. He’s been letting me and the whole executive team run the business in the way we’ve run for the past several years.
“We know what customers want and how to make them happy. If we do those things, we will be successful in generating sales and investing profits back in the business.”