Thursday, November 19, 2009

Raiding retailers for restaurants' new stars

If recent executive changes are a telltale sign, the restaurant industry is losing faith in its ability to revive sales. Companies determined to crack the formula have looked past the trade’s own talent bench in recent weeks to fill vacancies with code breakers from the world of retailing.

The new CEO of Outback and Carrabba’s parent company was previously focused on selling perfumes, cosmetics and holiday ornaments. Liz Smith, formerly president of Avon Products, seems an unlikely candidate to head OSI Restaurant Partners, a company long led by men who’d worked their way up from restaurant-level jobs. But OSI noted that Smith had experience in running a highly efficient company. They didn’t have to explain that Avon, almost purely a sales company, is light on payroll and structure, heavy on incentive-based performance.

Officials also mentioned that Smith had to keep Avon in touch with customer preferences if its product line was to stay relevant, a skill some say has languished inside OSI’s headquarters in recent years.

A talent for embellishing a brand was similarly one of the characteristics cited by Dunkin’ Brands in explaining why it’d reached outside the industry for its new “chief global customer and marketing officer.” John Costello, a veteran of Home Depot and Sears, “is one of the most talented marketers and brand builders in the retail industry in America," crowed Nigel Travis, CEO of the Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins parent. Indeed, Costello is a member of the Retail Advertising Hall of Fame.

The selection underscores that Dunkin’ is less a restaurant than a to-go bakery with extensive food and beverage options. It’s more of a retail storefront than a place where you’d go for dinner, or at least at present.

Even less of a disconnect is the promotion of supermarket vet Susan Shields to chief marketing officer of Jamba Juice, the smoothie chain. A key component of Jamba’s comeback plan is putting its name on more retail products through licensing deals. Those Jamba-branded items already range from a toy blender to a new line of trail mix that’s about to hit stores. Who better to blaze that new revenue channel than someone who worked at the Safeway grocer chain?

At the same time, dollars are dollars and finance is finance. So why not go outside the industry for your next chief financial officer, as McCormick & Schmick’s did in hiring Michelle Lantow? But it’s no coincidence, the upscale seafood chain said, that she came from a retail apparel manufacturer, Lucy Activewear.

Lantow was instrumental in revamping Lucy’s e-commerce operations and plotting its move into brick-and-mortar retail locations, the company noted in announcing her appointment. CEO Bill Freeman observed that those qualifications should serve M&S well as “we continue to focus on greater connectivity with our guests.”

One of those efforts, apparently, was the chain’s development of a group-sales program aimed at companies that are embarking on a road show to hawk their goods and services. M&S is pitching its banquet service as a one-stop shop that spares those road warriors the hassle of having to scout out a function room and banquet facilities at each stop of their dog-and-pony tours.

There’s no word yet if a retailing veteran was tapped to head it up. But if you hear someone greeting the guests with a “Welcome to McCormick & Schmick’s,” shoot me an e-mail, okay?

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