Executive Insights | January 2012 | By Sam Oches

Who is Sardar Biglari?

The CEO of Steak ‘n Shake is using his unique style to try to reboot the company's operations.

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When Sardar Biglari moved with his family to the U.S. in 1984, Steak ‘n Shake was already a verified favorite on the quick-serve scene. In fact, the tried-and-true Midwestern chain was celebrating its 50th anniversary the year Biglari immigrated to San Antonio from Iran.

Today, 28 years later, Biglari is chairman and CEO of Biglari Holdings, the parent company of Steak ‘n Shake, Western Sizzlin, and investment management firm Biglari Capital Corp., a group of subsidiary companies that together are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

And he’s only 34 years old.

Since joining Steak ‘n Shake’s board of directors in March 2008 and then taking over as chairman and CEO in August of that year, Biglari has implemented a top-down overhaul of its operations. The overhaul has helped the company to 10 straight quarters of same-store sales growth, as of Q3 2011. Steak ‘n Shake also went from losing more than $100,000 a day in 2009 to making more than $100,000 a day in 2010, according to Biglari’s 2010 letter to shareholders.

The man behind the success, however, can only be described as a mystery. His aggressive approach to taking control of businesses has put off some. And his move to standardize pricing and menus across Steak ‘n Shake’s system sparked a backlash from franchisees, some of whom even filed a lawsuit against him. He’s also known for playing close to the vest, as proven by his refusal to speak with media, including QSR.

“Although we cheerfully will discuss our investment philosophy and operating catechism as we believe it necessary to clarify expectations for [our shareholders], we will not telegraph our interests in specific publicly traded companies, our rationale, or our plans,” Biglari said in his 2010 letter. “Outside of regulatory requirements, we will not air our investment ideas, particularly in a world of investment competitors. We leave the yammering to others.”

The Sage of San Antonio

In the investment community, there is no greater idol than Warren Buffett. The chairman and CEO of Omaha, Nebraska–based Berkshire Hathaway has made billions by turning a simple textile mill into a holding company that possesses the highest-valued stock on the New York Stock Exchange.

Perhaps nobody respects Buffett quite like Biglari does. The young businessman reportedly was inspired to become an investor after reading a book about Buffett and discovering that the two shared a birthday. Rumor goes that he has Buffett-signed memorabilia in his office and follows Berkshire Hathaway’s progress carefully.

Today, no article or investment analysis is written about Biglari without a comparison to Buffett. After all, it’s not lost on people that his San Antonio–based holding company is structured quite similarly to Buffett’s. Or that Biglari Holdings shares initials with Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and until this article was written had a similar website to the Oracle of Omaha’s.

Jim Gillies, a private investor and contractor for financial-services company The Motley Fool, has followed Biglari’s career since 2006 and is a Biglari Holdings shareholder.

“I think [Biglari has] cultivated an image of trying to be another Buffett, and if some of the investment community ran a little too far with that analogy, that’s hardly his fault—although he did nothing to discourage it,” Gillies says.

Biglari and his business partner Philip Cooley built a solid portfolio of investments between 2000 and 2005, when they purchased a share of Western Sizzlin, a Southeast-based chain of mostly franchised buffet restaurants.

In early 2006, after purchasing more Western Sizzlin Corporation stock, Biglari became chairman of the board at the company. He then took an investor’s approach to Western Sizzlin by creating a holding company that broke the chain up by individual subsidiaries. Each subsidiary was treated as a separate business, and cash from each was redirected to the best investment within the holding company.

Since taking control of Western Sizzlin (which Biglari Holdings fully acquired in 2010), Biglari has continued to pursue opportunities in the restaurant industry. This includes an attempted takeover of Friendly’s and at various points holding significant amounts of shares in Sonic and Red Robin (at press, Biglari was also involved in a proxy fight with Cracker Barrel).

He refuses, however, to be considered a restaurant-focused company and has made moves to diversify his portfolio, including a failed attempt at acquiring an insurance company.

“The critical point is that we could in one particular moment derive most of our earnings from one industry, such as restaurants, and then with a single large acquisition begin to derive most of our earnings from a different industry,” Biglari said in his 2010 letter. “Although capital allocation is a crucial element at most businesses, it is our business at BH.”

When Biglari invested in Steak ‘n Shake in 2007, the company had been growing sales each year, but it was also spending too much on new stores and operations and not getting a return on investment.

In addition, Gillies says, it was breaching its debt covenants and not taking advantage of millions in possible tax refunds.

“[Biglari] was very critical of the prior management of Steak ‘n Shake for enriching themselves at the cost of the investor,” Gillies says. “I believe Steak ‘n Shake was probably on the very short course toward flirting with bankruptcy.”

So after buying shares in the company, Biglari began complaining to management about its poor execution and lobbying to shareholders for a change. He asked for seats for himself and Cooley on the company’s board of directors and was denied. He then upped the campaign against Steak ‘n Shake’s management, launching a website that demanded change and even buying billboard space in the concept’s hometown of Indianapolis.

In March 2008, he and Cooley were voted overwhelmingly onto the company’s board of directors by shareholders. By August, Biglari was CEO and chairman and was already working actively on turning the ship around—a ship from which many on the prior management team had already jumped.

Gillies says Biglari is “not a restaurant guy” but that “he’s immersed himself in that world” so he can increase the return for his investors.

“There are a lot of really poorly run restaurant chains,” Gillies says. “They might be wonderful eating experiences, the people running them might be wonderful people … but the fact of that matter is that there’s a lot of restaurant chains where the investors haven’t made a dime in five, 10 years, while the people running the companies have gotten rich.

“Someone like Biglari comes along, and he kicks over the hornet’s nest.”

Going Beyond Buffett

Though the comparisons between Biglari and Buffett are easy to spot, there are plenty of moves Biglari has made that stray from the Buffett script.

Buffett has “either bought companies outright, which allows him to make the changes that he sees necessary, or he focuses on companies that are run really well and buys a large investment stake, and then doesn’t say a word,” says Chad Brand, founder and president of Peridot Capital Management and also a shareholder with Biglari Holdings.

“If Buffett had bought Steak ‘n Shake, you can bet he would have hired an operations guy to run Steak ‘n Shake, and Buffett would have stayed in his office and looked for ways to invest the profits from Steak ‘n Shake,” Brand says. “Biglari hasn’t done that.”

Biglari has instead jumped into the everyday operations of Steak ‘n Shake, a company that was founded in 1934 by Gus Belt as a place for customers to get a premium hamburger and hand-dipped milkshake.

Some of his changes at Steak ‘n Shake have been so unlike Buffett, however, that they’ve riled up some in the investor crowd.

First, there was the 20-for-1 reverse stock split in December 2009 that sent the price of shares from about $13 to about $260, and the attempted 15-for-1 split that could have shot the price to nearly $7,000 (shareholders vetoed the latter).

Biglari claims that the reverse stock split is a way to weed out short-term-thinking shareholders.

“We will continue to strive to avidly excite the attention of blue-chip shareholders who are unfazed by near-term fluctuations in our stock or by the vagaries of the stock market,” he said in his 2010 letter. “Rather, such investors are placing their confidence in us and, like us, judge performance on the basis of long-term value creation.”

Brand, who wrote a letter to Biglari crying foul over the second reverse stock split, says the first one was a sensible move for a company trying to establish long-term success. “He’s trying to build this company up for the next 30 years, not necessarily for the next 30 days,” Brand says.

The next move that baffled some investors was a name change; in April 2010, Biglari changed the name of Steak ‘n Shake corporate to Biglari Holdings and consolidated his other brands within the company.

The final move that was quite unlike Buffett was the compensation package he proposed for himself. Although his salary was already $900,000, he proposed a deal that would pay him 25 percent of the increase in Biglari Holdings’ adjusted book value, exceeding a 6 percent hurdle rate; in other words, potentially millions of dollars a year. Shareholders approved the compensation in late 2010.

“What we too often learn in corporate America is pay-for-failure because of asymmetrical payouts through which executives win regardless of whether their shareholders win or lose,” Biglari said in his shareholder letter. “True pay-for-performance is a concept that most investors accept intellectually.”

But for all of his anomalies—which include having a picture of him welcoming guests installed at each unit—Biglari has succeeded at turning Steak ‘n Shake around. As he promised in his 2008 letter to shareholders, when he said the company’s “fundamental idea is to become the most efficient restaurant company in the industry,” Biglari has streamlined operations and slashed company costs across the board.

When he took over the company, Biglari halted new store construction and cut many unnecessary company costs. He’s since added promotions like the company’s popular 4 Meals Under $4 offering, all you can eat pancakes, kids-eat-free options, and a half-price happy hour for milkshakes. There have also been several new menu offerings, like the California Burger, that have reportedly been approved by Biglari himself.

Steak ‘n Shake is also rolling out a new store prototype that costs $1.5 million instead of the previous $2.2 million, and trims the square footage from 4,200 to 3,200. The new prototype, which features retro photos of the company and other design tweaks, is “a display of our uncompromising dedication to the pursuit of excellence,” Biglari said in his 2010 letter. A counter-service-only prototype, the Signature, is also set to debut this month.

Not everyone is on board with the changes Biglari has made to the brand. In early 2011, some franchisees complained that all of the promotions had hurt store margins, and a group of franchisees filed a lawsuit against Biglari over his moves to standardize menus and pricing. And there are rumblings from franchisees that the prototype change skimps too much on equipment.

Although franchisees represent a small portion of the Steak ‘n Shake system—at the end of 2010, it had only 75 franchised units of 487—Biglari may want to consider the plight of those operators. After all, he said in his 2010 letter that Steak ‘n Shake will be “investing in human resources, training, supply chain, and, more significantly, franchising” as a means to grow.

Franchising, he said, is a “fiery growth engine, the kind of business we like to own: one that does not require enormous sums of cash to generate annuity-like cash flow.” Biglari also said he’d like to grow the company by 1,000 franchised units, though he did not mention in what time frame.

Is it too soon to judge Biglari’s moves at Steak ‘n Shake? Probably. But Gillies says investors, operators, and critics alike would be wrong to write him off so soon.

“I think people underestimate Biglari,” he says. “I think he’s very confident in what he does, he’s very measured in what he does. He doesn’t really care about outside criticism.”

Photo: © San Antonio Express-News/ZUMApress.com / © Edward A. Ornelas / 2007