Saturday, March 20, 2010

Putting more fiber in boards

As you probably suspected, restaurant CEOs are constantly pestering me for advice on exterior shrubbery and other headquarter flourishes. Consider this recent missive, for instance:

Dear Pietro, as I like to think of my design muse,

Like a pack of other restaurant companies, we recently recast our board to silence the jackals who’ve been yipping that our directors are too chummy with management. Just because they’re shareholders, these whiners figure they can tell us what to do. As I was griping to the board during our weekly poker game, the outsiders have no idea how to run a restaurant business, particularly one as tight-knit as ours.

But we did what they wanted—this is proxy season, after all. Like Panera Bread, Red Robin, Spicy Pickle, Noble Roman's (and soon Denny’s), to name a few, we tried to put more fiber in our board by seating some fresh blood.

So now we have plenty of newbies to haze on our quarterly fishing trips. But I was thinking we should dazzle the big-name additions by upgrading the board table itself. No more Ikea for us, my man!

But I don’t know what’s “in” with the big-bonus crowd this year. Cherry or teak? Modern or Art Deco? Reclining chairs or beanbags? And what about the ice buckets?

Please, tell me how to upgrade our board in a meaningful way. Help us deliver the professionalism that investors are badgering us to deliver.
--Designing exec

Dear Designing,

Since dueling is no longer in vogue, I can only aim a pistol at your reasoning.

For one thing, why do you even want a table or boardroom? Why aren’t the directors gathering in a restaurant, at a secluded table that would otherwise be hosting guests guests? Why not take a look at the business from the perspective of customers and employees?

And why would you want a table that could star in a Pledge commercial? A tabletop should reflect the work that’s done on it. Yours should look rougher than Keith Richards face.

Coffee rings would attest that this was the scene of late-night marathons to hammer out tough decisions, not the setting for some quick rubber-stamping between tee times. A bloodstain here or there would suggest that many an Armani had been torn in the bare-knuckled brawls over strategic direction. It’d reassure shareholders that the chairs—purposely weighted to prevent throwing—were inhabited by independent thinkers, not human bobble-head dolls that perpetually nod yes.

And the whole room should be speckled with enough food stains to make the cleaning staff throw in their scrub rags. Restaurants companies are in the business of selling food and beverage, yet menu issues are seen as trifling matters beneath the dignity of a board. Leave that to some senior citizens you lure in from the mall for a focus group.

You’ll find plenty of distribution experts serving as restaurant-company directors (including two in the past week’s wave of new appointees). But except for Steve Ells of Chipotle and Kerry Kramp at Sizzler, are there any true menu specialists, any trained chefs or R&D pros, currently serving on the board of a public restaurant company? Directors in whites are rarer than good Martin Short movies. And that’s just wrong.

Indeed, there’s a lot that’s wrong with restaurant boards. This season has brought more changes in composition than the industry has seen in years. The incoming class includes such standouts as Lloyd Hill, the longtime CEO and director of Applebee’s (now at Red Robin’s table); Mo Siegel, founder of the Celestial Seasonings tea company, now advising the Spicy Pickle chain; and Thomas Lynch, who’s returning to a seat on Panera’s board after proving during a Kona Grill conference call that he’ll speak up when he sees something that troubles him about the management of a company.

Still, the industry has a lot of work to do. Insiders say there’s the lingering tendency to keep someone in a board seat because he’s been with the company from its inception and deserves to be recognized as an elder statesman. Never mind that he made shakes or managed the prototype unit, flexing skills that have little to do with directing a big public company.

That situation is certainly far less common today, a testament to how far the industry has come. But it still has a ways to go, and that’s a movement that can’t be tabled.

No comments: