Like many kids with restaurant-owning parents, Christine Specht worked for the family business, sandwich chain Cousins Subs, while growing up. But then she went off to college to pursue other interests. “My parents were really great like that,” Specht says. “They would always have made a place for me had I wanted to work in the business, but they certainly allowed me to explore my own avenues.”
For those women who do want to stay involved in and even lead their family-owned brand, it takes a lot of dedication, persistence, and sound business sense.
In 2001, Specht’s parents approached her with an opportunity to return to the family’s brand, an idea she then embraced. For the next seven years, she oversaw HR activities at the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin–based company. After several leadership changes took place in quick succession, Specht was promoted to executive vice president and, a few months later, to president and chief operating officer.
Her return to the company “wasn’t a well-laid-out plan,” she says, but she says her roundabout approach was the right one. “I really think the fact that I’m making the choice to be back here helps me to be that much more committed to the brand,” she says.
Judy Camarena has been running Taquerias Arandas in Houston for eight years, despite the fact that her father never wanted her to take over the family business in the first place. “He’s real traditional,” she says, explaining her father’s cultural aversion to women in the workforce, stemming from his roots in central Mexico. But that didn’t stop Camarena from stepping in when her father was thinking of selling the company. “There was no other choice. I would just show up anyway,” she says.
Preparing agendas was among Camarena’s early tasks, and before long, she had taken over owners’ meetings and other responsibilities. She then began formalizing the company’s contracts and internal processes. “It’s almost as if the company itself was needing and wanting a system,” she says, “and I think, because I was born in that environment, I was able to pick it up quickly and fill those needs.”
The rise to leadership was informal at first. “I think everybody proclaimed me the leader before he did,” Camarena says of her father. “And then the attorneys and the accountants started saying, ‘Wow, you’re really smart, Mr. Camarena, for putting your daughter in there.’” Her move into the company president role was finally official in 2004.
From Donatos Pizza’s earliest days, when customers at the very first store on Thurman Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, used to hang out in the Grote family living room while waiting for their pizzas, it was a given that Jane Grote Abell would be part of the company. “[My father] always said that he wanted to be able to open a business on every block where we could make a difference and promote goodwill,” Abell says of her father’s strong desire to create an honest business that treated its customers right.
But this family business’s path had a twist. In 1999, McDonald’s purchased the company as part of a broader corporate endeavor. In 2003, Abell had a chance to get it back. “I told my dad that we had to buy this company back,” she says. “I love this business, and I love our people.” Abell took on the role of COO and president after the buyback—later becoming CEO when her father decided to step away from day-to-day activities—and the team quickly streamlined operations to boost profitability.
“We bought back a company that was losing millions of dollars, and in that first year, we had a $10.5 million turnaround,” Abell says. She attributes much of that success to the organization’s employees and customers. The brand has always been an active member in the community, and during the transition, Abell focused her energies on reinvigorating the ties among the company, its employees, and the community.
At Taquerias Arandas, Camarena found a building in Houston to serve as the main office. “We have real contracts, not handshake deals,” she says. “We have internal audits. We have all kinds of systems.”
Store-design standards are now in place, and Camarena has homed in on the brand’s audience. Advertising costs are down, while in-store sales are up. Building on the foundation put in place by her father when he launched the company in 1981, Camarena says, “We have defined the elements that are going to now describe Taquerias Arandas and the different brands.”
The Millennial generation and increased competition are just two of the factors Specht says are driving innovation at Cousins. And while Specht acknowledges having legacy issues—not uncommon for a chain that just celebrated its 41st anniversary—she can’t hide her enthusiasm for the new brand opportunities she sees on the horizon. “It’s really exciting to think there are all these major markets out there we could hit,” she says.
Bringing Donatos back into the hands of the Grote clan has given Abell and her family the opportunity to do what’s important to them. “We make a difference in people’s lives every single day,” she says. And even though Abell has since turned the CEO reins over to someone else, she is still the brand’s chairwoman. “We’ve been in business for 50 years, and I love what we do,” she says.
A sense of duty to take care of her parents had a hand in driving Camarena to take over the family business, but she also admits to a hint of defiance, something that others who grew up in the industry might relate to. “I didn’t have my mom and dad growing up because of this thing,” she says, referring to the company, “and I’m not going to let it fall apart on my time.”
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