Sonic Drive-In has a new owner, and soon will have a new executive leader. The 3,600-unit chain, in the process of being acquired by Inspire Brands for $2.3 billion, announced Wednesday that president Claudia San Pedro will lead the company following the December closing of the deal. Longtime chief executive officer Cliff Hudson, who will remain with the company as a senior adviser until March 2019, is retiring. San Pedro will report to Inspire Brands’ chief executive officer Paul Brown and serve as part of the company’s executive team.
Hudson has spent 34 years with Sonic, joining as assistant general counsel in 1984. He took over as CEO in 1995 and led the brand’s growth from nearly 1,500 units in 27 states with systemwide sales of $905 million to 3,600 locations in 45 states with systemwide sales of $4.5 billion. Only Sonic’s founder, Troy Smith Sr., directed the company for longer (1953–1983).
“Only two men, Troy Smith and Cliff Hudson, have led Sonic through most of its 65 years. My dad bought a small, walkup root beer stand in 1953 in Shawnee, Oklahoma; out of that Sonic was born with its canopies, speakers, carhops and, at the center of it all, franchisees,” said Leslie Smith Baugh, Troy Smith’s daughter, who is still engaged in the Sonic business through real estate, in a statement. “Cliff, while maintaining the values and traditions, took Sonic to a place of national recognition in the restaurant world. Both men were devoted to Sonic and it took both of them for the company to be the success it is today. My dad would want me to thank Cliff for his years of service in making Sonic America’s Drive-In. He would also want me to acknowledge the kind, thoughtful relationship he and his wife, Leslie, have had with our family.”
San Pedro was named Sonic president in January and held a variety of leadership roles in her 12 years with the chain. She joined 2006 as treasurer and was promoted to VP of investor relations. In 2015, San Pedro was appointed CFO, where she led all financial strategies for Sonic. Before, she served as director for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance.
“Leading Sonic into its next chapter and continuing the great work of Cliff, our franchisees and company employees is an incredible honor,” San Pedro said. “Cliff has set an extraordinary example in driving innovation and long-term business performance, while also fostering a culture of collaboration and compassion. I am excited to work with both the Sonic and Inspire teams to build on our momentum and to continue delivering unparalleled experiences and innovative menu items to our valued guests.”
Added Hudson: “I am delighted that Inspire has selected Claudia to continue as president. She has shown terrific leadership and deep strategic insight throughout her roles at the company, and I’m confident that she is the right person to lead Sonic going forward. I look forward to supporting Claudia and the team through the transition and watching Sonic succeed for many years to come.”
Inspire announced the Sonic deal in September for $43.50 per share in cash, including the assumption of Sonic’s net debt—or about $2.3 billion. Subject to shareholder approval, the deal is expected to close in December. It would give Inspire Brands a portfolio of Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic, and fast casual Rusty Taco. Inspire Brands said Sonic would operate as a separate business unit within Inspire and be based in Oklahoma City.
Inspire Brands was formed February following the closing of Arby’s Restaurant Group’s $2.9 billion purchase of 1,200-plus unit full-service chain Buffalo Wild Wings. The company is majority-owned by affiliates of Roark. Inspire Brands’ current portfolio includes more than 4,700 Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and fast-casual Rusty Taco locations. Following the completion of the transaction, Sonic will be a privately held subsidiary of Inspire and will continue to be operated as an independent brand. The company’s portfolio will then include more than 8,000 company-owned and franchised restaurants with combined system sales of more than $12 billion.
“Cliff is a remarkable leader and visionary whose accomplishments at Sonic and the restaurant industry have long been admired,” Brown said in a statement. “As Sonic begins this exciting new chapter, I’m confident that Claudia will continue the brand’s strong momentum. Claudia’s skill and vision are well respected within our industry, and I look forward to working with her to ensure that Sonic has the capabilities and resources it needs for long-term growth.”
“It has been a great honor and privilege to lead, build and grow SONIC into the incredible brand it is today together with our dedicated franchisees and employees,” added Hudson. “Leading the company and brand Troy Smith founded 65 years ago has been the pleasure of a lifetime, and I know he would be proud of the growth that both the company and our franchisees have achieved.