Ron Stewart | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Not the Retiring Sort
By Karen Rosen
One of Ron Stewart’s friends calls him “a miserable failure at retirement.”
After almost 30 years at Arthur Andersen and Accenture, Stewart retired from the firm in 2007. Instead of taking it easy, he had other fish to fry -- or as it happened, burgers to broil.
Stewart and his now-grown “Little Brother” from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program founded FLIP Burger Boutique in 2008. It’s one of the top burger restaurants in Atlanta and has expanded outside the state.
Two months after turning over the operational reins last September, Stewart plunged into a new role in an entirely different field.
He agreed to serve as interim CEO and assist in the search for a new leader at PRGX, the world’s leading provider of accounts payable recovery audit services. Stewart, who was a member of the board of directors, turned out to be just what his colleagues were looking for, and in December he was named President and CEO.
“Taking on a challenge at 59 years old, at a next stage of life, energizes me,” Stewart says.
His path makes it clear that “it’s not over just because you move out of one career,” he says. “Do what you love and pursue opportunities that leverage your experience and expertise to do fun and exciting things.”
PRGX, whose tagline is “Discover Your Hidden Profits,” is a publicly traded company with over 1,600 employees and clients in more than 30 countries.
There are few global players in the field of recovery audit, and PRGX works with 75 percent of the top 20 global retailers. PRGX processes almost 3 petabytes of data, making it one of the largest processors of data in the state of Georgia. Audit recovery is a service that declines by its nature as errors and process problems are identified and addressed over time. However PRGX has been around for over 40 years and is constantly evolving to find new ways to add value to their clients.
“I call it CSI Retail,” Stewart says. “You’re constantly trying to innovate new concepts and new ways of finding leakage. Prior to my arrival as CEO, the company had developed a growth strategy and had made progress in a number of areas. However, other parts of the strategy were less successful.
“I thought I could help in moving the business forward while adjusting some of the elements of the strategy.”
Stewart understands the PRGX’s global delivery model well from his time at Accenture.
“Obviously, you can’t help but learn a huge amount about business, and client service from a successful firm like Accenture,” he says. “I plan to apply my experience in my new role at PRGX and hopefully impart some of the learnings to this organization. That’s why I think I can add value.”
He also felt he could help in teaching client development.
“We have a diamond set of clients,” Stewart says. “The real key is to exceed their expectations and broaden the relationships and then work in other areas that are logically related to what we do.”
PRGX has been focused on accounts payable errors and Stewart wants to expand into other areas of “leakage prevention.”
“We get paid on a contingency basis,” he says. “There’s no check for clients to write if we don’t bring value.”
The technology platform is vital, Stewart adds, because of the huge number of transactions PRGX audits.
The company has been retail-centric, but is moving further into other industries like oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and capital-intensive construction projects that also need specialty auditing.
“I want us to be the highest-value producing provider to our clients at the best rate, and that will drive additional market share and expansion into other industries,” Stewart says.
Before joining PRGX, he was aware of the field, but didn’t know much about it.
“Now I’m learning everything I can and I’m right in the middle of it,” Stewart says. “I think I bring a professional atmosphere and high level of client service to this business. Integrity is critical in this industry which has been a core value in my career. I want to continue that here.”
Stewart grew up in Birmingham. Rather than joining his friends at Alabama or Auburn, he wanted to try something different and followed his brother to Tulane. “I tell people I don’t know what my parents were thinking sending an 18-year-old kid to New Orleans for college,” he says.
Because Tulane didn’t offer an undergraduate business degree, Stewart got his BS in psychology while also taking courses at the business school.
He got his first exposure to the restaurant industry while waiting tables at Commander’s Palace, where Paul Prudhomme was executive chef.
Stewart continued working in restaurants to pay for graduate school at Alabama, where he earned his MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship. He started three companies during that time: a T-shirt company, an energy management company and even a worm farm with one of his professors.
“We rented an old church out on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa, ripped out the pews and put these worm boxes in there,” Stewart says. “The whole thing turned out to be not all it was cracked up to be, but I learned a lot from it.”
His father, who had passed away after his freshman year of college, had been an entrepreneur and Stewart figured he would continue in that vein.
Though he wasn’t interested in interviewing for jobs, a friend urged him to talk to the Arthur Andersen recruiter on campus. He clicked with a partner from the administrative services side of the company and was offered a job in the consulting business.
“I was thinking, ‘What’s a couple of years?’” he says. “At least I’ll learn something about computers, which were just emerging at that time.”
Stewart was the 73rd employee in the Atlanta office when he started in 1979. The entire global consulting practice had only a few thousand people at the time.
He worked on first-generation automation projects, initially with a trucking company and then an insurance company. “There was no packaged software at the time, so you did custom development, and I really enjoyed it,” says Stewart, who had very little computer science experience in school. “I wouldn’t say I was a talented programmer, but I was great with understanding business concepts, designing applications and working as part of a team.”
Stewart soon abandoned his idea of leaving after two-years. He was a manager in four years and partner in 10 when the firm became Andersen Consulting. In the late 1990s, a split with Arthur Andersen created Accenture.
“I had a front row seat in the evolution of the firm,” Stewart says. “It was just a fantastic experience going through that separation and the creation of Accenture and the move to globalization.”
He was global client partner for various Fortune 100 clients. Stewart led the firm’s retail and consumer goods practice in the eastern United States and was in charge of Accenture’s global transportation and travel industry program. He was the North America Managing Partner for the automotive, industrial manufacturing and transportation/travel industry groups.
Throughout these different leadership roles, he says, “At the end of the day, I was a relationship guy. I really learned the value of relationships, of delivering what you say you’re going to deliver and seeing that manifest itself into growth and profitability.”
He instilled that philosophy into his team. “It’s not OK to say, ‘We gave it our best shot. We tried hard,’” he says.
Stewart felt his strength was “Getting a team together and getting them to understand what we’re trying to accomplish and motivating them and staying on top of them to make sure we follow through.”
By 2007, the firm had grown to about 250,000 employees and Stewart was the longest tenured person in the Atlanta office, as well as one of the most senior.
While he enjoyed the constant traveling, it was taking him away from his wife and four children. Stewart had also lost his best friend, Garry Betty, the CEO of EarthLink, to a rare cancer “and that really got me thinking about the reality of life.”
He decided it was time to stay closer to home and go back to his entrepreneurial roots.
Stewart immediately joined a group that started a small private equity fund, but the market was bad and he didn’t feel it was his calling.
He turned his attention to his “Little Brother.” Stewart, a board member for Big Brothers Big Sisters for more than 25 years, began volunteering for the organization when he was in his 20s. He had stayed close to Barry Mills, his “little brother” whom he met when he was 10 years old. Over the years, they went fishing together, attended ballgames and played music.
Although Mills graduated from Georgia Tech, he was more interested in the restaurant business than in industrial engineering. He was stuck in mid-management when Stewart offered to send him to graduate school or help him buy a restaurant franchise.
But Mills had ideas for his own place. They put together a business plan for FLIP Burger Boutique, hiring Richard Blais as consulting chef just before Top Chef made him a household name.
“We actually did the initial culinary development in my house,” Stewart says.
The first restaurant on Howell Mill Road opened in December 2008. “It was almost immediately cash-flow positive and it was great fun,” says Stewart. “It’s like, ‘Why didn’t I think of this years ago?’”
They opened two more stores locally and then a hot dog restaurant called HD1 in Poncey-Highlands. Breaking even, but not meeting its financial objectives, HD1 was converted to a FLIP last November.
There’s a FLIP in Birmingham and another planned in Nashville. FLIP Burger Boutique was recently named one of the Top 10 Burger Restaurants in the U.S. by Gayot.com, “the guide to the good life.”
With the business thriving, Stewart hired Rick Tasman, formerly the COO of P.F. Chang’s, as CEO last September while he remained chairman of the board and majority owner.
He still had no desire to retire, and his next adventure was just over the horizon.
Back in 2008, Stewart had talked to PRGX about the CEO position. Because he didn’t know the business well and already had FLIP and his private equity company on the front-burner, the move didn’t make sense. But they agreed to stay in touch.
Four years later, PRGX asked Stewart to join the board. He led the compensation committee and was on the nomination and governance committee. When PRGX decided to make a leadership change, the timing was right for Stewart to step in as interim CEO.
Now he was familiar with the business and saw its potential. “It was a really comfortable place because we’re dealing with large, global clients with complex issues and large scale. We’re selling professional services. These were things that I spent 30 years doing.
“I started thinking, ‘This could be kind of fun.’ I knew I was going to work hard anyway and I liked the business and the people. I’m just not a guy that’s going to be sitting around. I love golf, I love fishing, but I couldn’t do it all the time. I’m not that proficient.”
But he was proficient in business. A few weeks into the vetting process for CEO candidates, the PRGX chairman asked if Stewart was interested in making the job permanent.
“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing something,” he says. “Your energy and enthusiasm are part of your DNA, that doesn’t go away when you change companies or careers. You are who you are. You’ll continue to be that whether you’re applying it to a not-for-profit or building a new business. You’re going to point that energy at something.”
In Stewart’s case, anything except retirement.
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