Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Rest in peace, Norman

A day I’ve long dreaded has come to pass: Norman Brinker, one of the most extraordinary persons I’ve had the privilege to interview, follow and know, died this morning at age 78.

It was a stroke of luck for the restaurant industry that Norman chose our business to make his mark. Had he chosen retailing, he no doubt would today be mentioned in the same breath as Sam Walton. Had he focused on the military (he served in the Navy), people would talk about Nimitz, Nelson and Norman. Whatever path he chose, he’d have been the Babe Ruth, just as his love of horses translated into a slot on the Olympic equestrian team, or his boyhood business of raising spaniels would have been the lifetime measure of success for most people.

But Norman seemed destined for restaurants. He learned the business from Jack in the Box while stationed in San Diego for the Navy. That led him to Dallas, where he opened an everyday sort of place called Brink’s. It would be a prototype for what we now know as casual dining.

But that was just the warm-up. He decided to launch a non-pretentious restaurant where your average middle-income family could have a steak and a few drinks without going broke. Because a movie called “Tom Jones” had left the nation infatuated with Merry Ole England, Norman called his place Steak & Ale.

The concept was such a success that Brinker would sell the multi-unit brand and a spin-off, a pub group called Bennigan’s, to The Pillsbury Co. for the sort of fortune that leads to private jets, Riviera retreats and ample time on the golf course, if not a course of your own. But Brinker made what he suggested was a bad choice, agreeing to work for Pillsbury, essentially a flour company, in its Minneapolis headquarters.

He never spoke warmly of that post, which was unlike him. Instead, he’d glow as he’d talk about some of the young restaurant execs he’d spotted for Steak and Ale. Among the talent he nurtured were future standouts like Dick Frank, Lane Cardwell, Dick Rivera, Wally Doolin, Chris Thomas, Bob Basham, Hal Smith, Rick Berman, Jeff Campbell and Herman Cain.

It was dealing with those sorts of talents, inspiring them to build a business, that appealed to Brinker. So he stepped down from his high-falutin Pillsbury job to buy a start-up concept called Chili’s. It’d be like a U.S. senator resigning his post to become the mayor of his 200-person town because that’s what he enjoyed.

And if that ex-senator had been Norman, cities from all over the world would soon be taking notice of what he was doing in Podunk, because he had a gift for leadership. Chili’s became, well, Chili’s, then Brinker International, a titan of casual dining.

But Brinker never lost his connection with the ground. He’d often recount how he’d stand outside a Chili’s in Dallas and ask the exiting customers if the place was worth a visit. It became such a ritual, he said, that people started recognizing him.

He became one of the richest men in America, yet never lost the spark, the uniqueness, that prompted some of the best in the business to follow him into whatever endeavor he set for the team.

As one explained it, “Norman would point at a mountain and say, ‘Look at that mountain! I bet it’d be great to climb that mountain. What do you say we climb that mountain?’ And before long you’re saying, ‘yeah, let’s climb that mountain. I really want to climb that mountain. Let’s go climb that moutnain!”

My wife would tease me that Brinker was my superhero, and she was right. We journalists are supposed to remain neutral, and I maintained that objectivity in covering him and his companies, even when the news or analysis wouldn't have been well-received. He was, after all, extremely human.

But you couldn’t help but feel that urge to climb a mountain when you were with him.

So I’ll celebrate Norman with my two favorite memories of him, both of which underscore his humility and uniqueness.

One came to light when I was dispatched with a team of Nation’s Restaurant News reporters to Brinker International’s headquarters, where we were to spend about three days interviewing executives for a full-issue profile of the company. As team leader, I gave myself the plum of profiling Brinker and shadowing him a bit.

When I approached his office that first morning, he was standing by the desk of his longtime assistant, Margaret, watching something on a VCR. I could see it was a tape of a high school marching band.

“I just can’t get enough of it,” he explained. An employee’s child had competed in a band contest and had brought in a tape to show the boss. Brinker was watching it over and over, analyzing and relishing it as much as the employee, who stood nearby, beaming.

Here was the chairman of a multi-billion-dollar public company, spending hours watching a high-school marching band on tape, as proud as any parent. You could tell he was sincerely interested in the competition, the child, and the parent.

As the day progressed, he would periodically wonder aloud about what prompted teenagers to work so hard, what had motivated that marching squad to give up mornings, weekends and evenings to drill. You could see the wheels turning. He was trying to figure out how to glean an insight and apply that lesson to Chili’s motivation efforts.

The other story was an anecdote he told at MUFSO, where he had a standing gig as the moderator of a CEO’s panel. It was magical to watch him, in part because of the brilliant off-the-cuff observations he’d serve up.

This time in the late 1980s, he was talking about how important it was for a CEO to get into a chain’s stores and see what was really going on. Why, just that past Saturday, he explained, he and his buddy Sam Walton had spent their day in a Walmart, standing at an end-cap to watch the people shop.

Two of the richest men in America, each a business icon who forever changed his trade, spending their Saturday in the household cleaners aisle of a Walmart to watch factory workers, housewives, mechanics and clerks. Brinker offered the anecdote off-handedly, as if there was nothing unusual about it. And for him, there wasn't.

I, for one, shall miss you terribly, Norman.

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