Saturday, May 5, 2012

Buzz at NRA: Where are the leaders?

If anyone at the NRA show can spare a necklace of garlic, preferably size large, please e-mail me. I feel an acute need for protection against blood-sucking evil after engaging in so many conversations last night about private equity stealing the industry’s soul.

The discussions were triggered during the conference’s opening round of cocktail parties by mentions of industry leadership and how it’s changing. In 32 years of attending the show, I can’t recall that topic ever arising. Yet if there was the equivalent of a water-cooler topic on Night One of the show, it had to be the state of the CEO office.

There’s a sense out there that the business no longer abounds in the colorful entrepreneurs who started at the drink or fry station and worked their way up to a private jet and executive assistant. Wistfully mentioned were such bygone examples as Dave Thomas, Joe Lee and, cited more often than anyone, Ray Kroc, the onetime blender salesman.

The consensus: Chain management has become more professional and sophisticated, but we’ve lost something unique to the business in the process. There are fewer stars out there with ketchup in their veins.

From there, it was a short hop to bemoaning the short-term dollars-and-cents mentality that many private-equity companies prefer in the management they put atop an acquisition. There’s a conviction, at least among tonight’s revelers, that those leaders tend to think flatly of tomorrow’s financial returns, not next year’s or the next decade's. It’s like squeezing as much milk from the cow as you can today, even if it that leaves the animal dry tomorrow.

The most critical observers wondered aloud about the longterm implications for the business. What they didn’t mention was how few of those financial hard-noses were attending the show to learn about the business and how best to manage their charge. 

Random observations: Burn appears to be the new hot ingredient in cocktails, judging from the drinks that were moving at last night's events. Habanero and chili peppers flavorings figured large in the drinks I dutifully sampled for research purposes, and fellow researchers observed that they’re finding more of those kicked-up selections whenever they do field work at finer bars and restaurants. 

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