Cultivating the Next Generation of Restaurant CEOs

    Firehouse Subs CEO Don Fox: Success in the future will be rooted in providing inspirational leadership.

    Don Fox
    Firehouse Subs
    The people who stand the best chance of success are those that choose to work hard at hard work, Fox says.

    Time sure does fly. This year marks my 48th year in the restaurant business. It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed since I worked my first day at an Italian restaurant in Lakewood, New Jersey. My first job? Washing dishes.

    If someone had whispered in my ear as I labored over that two-compartment sink, to tell me that 35 years later I would become the CEO of a then 350-plus unit restaurant brand, I would have looked at them in disbelief. Me? No way. I had one goal at that tender age of 16, and that was to become a professional musician. To be more precise, a trumpet player. A career in the restaurant industry, much less a CEO? No way!

    Life has a way of taking unforeseen twists and turns. That was certainly the case for me. Back in 1974, the restaurant industry was in bloom. Fast-food brands, in particular, were coming of age. “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us” was the catchy jingle from Burger King commercials that year (a company I would join as an assistant manager in 1980). Among the industry luminaries that received special recognition in 1974—very likely on an evening when I was laboring over an encrusted sauce pot—was Frank Carney (president and co-founder of Pizza Hut), who received the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA) Silver Plate Award for Limited Service Chains. How could I have ever imagined that 39 years later, I would receive the same award? I would join a list of revered industry leaders so recognized, all unknown to me at the time, but several of whom I would have the good fortune of meeting later in life (including Mr. Carney). 

    MORE: Check Out QSR's 35 Young Leaders to Watch for 2022

    When I look over the list of quick-service restaurant brand chief executives that have been recognized over the decades, I see an evolution of leadership traits and competencies. I have personally observed much of that transformation. The initial CEOs for many of the legacy brands were often the founders; innovators who brought a unique entrepreneurial perspective and pride of ownership to the role. Sometimes those traits became liabilities, and we have seen over the years examples of founder-led companies hitting a wall. There have been many brands with more potential than was ever realized.  

    Alas, we are all mortal, and successorship is inevitable. The baton of leadership must eventually be passed from one generation to the next. While it is difficult to assign a specific timeline to it, I would suggest that the 1980s marked a period of important transition for the industry. By then, the major quick-serve brands had 25-plus years under their belt. The second generation of leadership had access to resources that the founders might never have dreamt of. Yet some of these leaders spent the early years of their careers in the less sophisticated period of the industry, and had not matured in ways we might expect today. I dare say that some of the second generation of CEOs brought baggage with them that did not necessarily serve the industry or their brands well. This time period also saw an increase in CEO talent arriving from outside the industry. At times that was a great thing. Sometimes not.

    As we pushed into the new century, I would submit that a third generation of CEOs emerged. They were people who better understood the human condition. Servant leadership—a concept that many old-school hard-line leaders would have dismissed as being weak—became an increasingly common ingredient for success. Empathy became one of the most important characteristics a leader could possess, regardless of what rung on the ladder they occupied. These leaders didn’t just climb the corporate ladder, some of them gave birth to new concepts. They struck out on their own to build from the ground up, as opposed to the difficult task of fixing a struggling brand from the inside. 

    During my nearly half a century in the industry, I feel blessed to have learned by watching other quick-service restaurant CEOs and studying what led to success or failure. I have also had the benefit, especially through my ten years on the board of directors for the National Restaurant Association, of becoming familiar with the history and styles of leaders outside of the sector. And I must say that as much as I love quick service, those of us in the category can learn a lot from our peers in other segments. I am actually a bit envious that my casual-dining industry friends have the legacy of Norman Brinker to rally around as their North Star (even though Brinker’s own restaurant roots were in quick service). 

    While much has changed, much has remained the same. Somewhere out there right now, there is a young person working feverishly over a dish sink or grill. It was hard work 50 years ago, and it is hard work now. But there is a difference between hard work and working hard. The former is the nature of the job while the latter is a choice. Perhaps technology will change that between now and 2050. But for now, it remains the state of affairs. And the people who stand the best chance of success are those that choose to work hard at hard work.  

    What I hope has changed over all of these years is the quality of leadership that is working not only alongside today’s team members, but all the way up to the C-suite. I do believe that the quality of leadership has improved. But we still have work to do. The more inspirational and motivational we are as leaders, the greater the odds of the next generation of CEOs embracing those qualities and achieving superior results.

    In my opinion, the most successful CEOs in 2050 won’t possess some sort of new, unique skill set that we can’t envision today. Their success will be rooted in providing inspirational leadership. Period. And where will they learn to do that? From today’s CEOs. Today’s chief executives should strive to lead by example, forge mission style orders (i.e., don’t micromanage), instill a culture of fair accountability, and maintain optimism within their organization. I firmly believe that these are the traits that will motivate and drive the ascension of today’s youth. Some of these team members will become the CEOs of tomorrow.

    And you just never know who within your ranks that person might be. Indeed, it may be your dishwasher. 

    Don Fox is Chief Executive Officer of Firehouse Subs, in which he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of the world’s leading restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,200 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various boards of influence in the business and non-profit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator and published author. He was recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News as 2011’s Operator of the Year. In 2013, he received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA).