Executive Insights | December 2013 | By Keith Loria

Time for a Change

How CEOs successfully transition from one brand to another.

Fast food executives switch jobs as way to use their talent to build new brands.
Matt Andrew built Moe’s Southwest Grill into a major fast-casual player before leaving to open Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint. Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint
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Quick-service CEOs love seeing their company climb to the top of the industry heap. But some leaders also like a good challenge and choose to walk away from successful brands for a new opportunity.

Making the switch can affect both companies involved, as well as the executive’s financial security. But some leaders have figured out a way to make sure all parties involved benefit from such changes.

Take, for example, Matt Andrew, former president of Moe’s Southwest Grill, who decided to leave his position at Moe’s to found his own brand, Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint, in 2008. Andrew was one of the original five founding members of Moe’s, having joined the company 10 months after the concept was launched in 2001.

As one of the key executive members of the strategic partnership committee, his leadership was instrumental in the entire sales process and the ensuing transition of the entire Moe’s team in September of 2007 to Focus Brands, the restaurant division of Roark Capital, a large private equity firm headquartered in Atlanta. “Like in any start-up company, we had to do everything, from marketing to finance to corporate services,” Andrew says. “When we sold the company, I had the opportunity to transition to the group that purchased it as head of the company, but I wanted to find my own company again. So I took a leap of faith with Uncle Maddio’s.”

At the time, the fast-casual pizza category was fairly new, but now at least 15 competitors dot the landscape. Andrew knew it was an idea that would take off. “I was presented with this good idea that was viable for a number of reasons, and the timing was right,” he says. “When you are the founder and owner, there’s an entirely different mindset as the entire responsibility for success and failure falls on your shoulders. You run it like a president, but because you are also the owner, the buck stops with you.”

Andrew says having a savvy team around him is important for the quick serve’s success. When he hires executives from other brands, he says, he wants to make sure they have a good reason for making a transition.

“We like to spend a lot of time in our culture, that’s what makes us different, and people adapt to the specific ways we do things,” Andrew says. “Skill sets are skill sets, but it’s important to focus on cultural changes when someone switches from one company to another. We make sure they understand what the culture is before making the leap because we want it to be the right fit for them. It must line up with their beliefs to make sense.”

Another quick-serve leader who has had to make tough choices about leaving one brand for another is Ray Biondi, who in September switched from being Arby’s senior vice president of franchise management to CEO of Tin Drum Asiacafé.

Prior to that role, Biondi was a partner and senior vice president at Atlanta-based RTM Restaurant Group Inc., Arby’s largest franchisee, which was sold to Triarc Companies Inc. in 2005. Earlier in his career, Biondi was on the founding team at D’Lites of America.

“With any choice you make in business, you have to consider all the positives and negatives and don’t make a decision on a whim,” he says. “From a business perspective, I think many concepts are very vulnerable. When I looked at Tin Drum, the menu is great, the food is great, and they are bringing in the right people to be successful.”

Leaving something established to try something new isn’t an easy decision and wasn’t one that Biondi took lightly, he says.

“I think you have to take a look at your goals—both personal and business related—and make sure you are achieving those,” he says. “When you have given ample time to a company and your goal is to reach a higher level or make more money or wanting to make more decisions, that can get you looking for a new opportunity. Just make sure it’s the right opportunity.”

After taking the position with Tin Drum, Biondi was able to bring in some of the people and systems that have worked well for him at Arby’s, and he believes that’s also a positive with taking on a new job: You already have experience knowing what works and what doesn’t.

Tony Gioia joined Togo’s as CEO in 2007, leaving the same position at Tully’s Coffee. He says he was similarly able to bring a lot of what he learned to his new job.

“It’s important to take away from your past and learn from your past, and more importantly, learn from your mistakes,” Gioia says. “When you go into a new situation, especially as a CEO, time is everything, so if you already have things in place to make it easier, it makes sense.”

Gioia has had a long career in the food industry, serving as president of Baskin-Robbins and CEO of Southwest Supermarkets LLC, so he has not only moved laterally, but upward as well. “I never had a master plan of what I wanted to do. I just tried to be a great leader, work hard, and be invaluable to the people around me. That sets up opportunities,” he says. “When I changed from one company to another, there was always an opportunity or gravitational pull that made the decision make sense to me personally and for the company.”

Gioia says the first 90 days are critical when taking a new position. It’s during that time when a new CEO must balance making change and bringing his vision to the company with the culture already in place.

“You want to make a difference and an impact on the culture and business, but you also want to support those already there and gain their trust and respect,” he says. “If you’re going to go for a new opportunity, don’t go too fast. Make sure that the change you made is for the good of everyone.”