Paul Brown | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
By Robert Green
In case you haven’t heard, Arby’s is new again. Employing a deft combination of internal focus and external outreach, Atlanta based Arby’s Restaurant Group’s CEO Paul Brown has begun a remarkable turnaround, capturing the attention of the national news media, industry leaders and customers alike. The headlines say it all: “Arby’s is cool again,” says Fox. “Arby’s is stepping up its game,” says USA Today and “Arby’s Business is on Fire,” according to Business Insider. For 11 consecutive quarters, Arby’s has significantly outperformed all competitors in the quick-service restaurant category. July and August of 2015 were the two best months in the chain’s 50-plus year history.
The thoughtful and quiet-spoken Brown refuses to take personal credit for any of the recent accomplishments of the restaurant group. “I have a great team of people working with me,” he says. But in speaking with Brown and those around him, it soon becomes clear that the CEO of Arby’s is definitely the catalyst for positive change at the company. That he did it in a rather undramatic way is testament to his remarkable leadership skills and confidence in himself. That he knew what he was doing from the beginning is evidenced by a powerful increase in the franchisee support and customer satisfaction that prevails today.
The Internal Change
“First, I knew that we needed to build stronger connections with all stakeholders,” says Brown, “which is why we started out by listening. The path to building strong and lasting connection begins with listening, ends with listening, includes listening in the middle and begins with listening again.” Brown went into the field a lot and still does so today. “The ability to tap into the vast experience and knowledge base of franchisees is perhaps the greatest asset in a franchised business,” he says. But he also did a lot of listening with customers, management worker and frontline employees.
“Second, we began to define a clear purpose for Arby’s,” he says, “the reason for the brand to exist.” After listening carefully to stakeholders and studying the competitive landscape, they defined the following purpose for the Arby’s brand: Inspiring Smiles through Delicious Experiences. And that the way to do it would be to Serve, Refresh and Delight. “For some, this may cause a bit of an eye roll,” he says, “but it did a number of important things for us – a) It defined our business – creating experiences, not just serving food, b) Set a bar for our performance – it has to be delicious, not just acceptable or mediocre, and c) Established a goal for the end result of our efforts – inspiring a smile in every stakeholder.”
This purpose for Arby’s includes a long term vision. Unveiled in 2013, “Deli – Inspired Delicious” is a term used internally to highlight their vision of serving great food prepared fresh to order for each guest, served with a friendly, neighborly feel. The company now insists that everything it does must align with this vision. “The vision of Deli – Inspired Delicious has become the filter through which everything impacting the brand passes,” says Brown. Ideas that don’t meet the Deli – Inspired Delicious standard, however good, are set aside. This vision is helping Arby’s to carve out a unique space in the restaurant business. “We now occupy our own space, between Quick Service and Fast Casual,” says Brown. They have even branded and trademarked that space as ‘Fast Crafted™.’ “Fast Crafted,” says Brown, “means that we offer quality, affordable food that is quickly, yet skillfully prepared. We strive to provide superior food and service to a traditional Quick Service Restaurant but at the same time be more convenient and affordable than a Fast Casual restaurant.”
“Third, we wanted to instill a belief that there is always a better way,” says Brown, “and this is a critical step.” Taking this step, believes Brown, is the difference between a company that is truly innovative and one that merely has a long list of goals. “We are always asking ourselves if there is a better way,” says Brown, “but the key to making this work is really listening to front line workers and empowering them to act.” His best example is that the company implements a “make it right” service culture that allows any team member at any time to replace any item that a guest is not satisfied with – including giving them a free meal on their next visit if need be. Says Brown: “It’s been amazing and more than a bit humbling to experience the power of thousands of people all striving to find a better way to meet a common goal.”
The External Change
“From a brand viewpoint,” says Brown, “we were all over the place. We decided to really focus on who we are.” Welcome to the launch of Arby’s funny and unapologetic “We Have the Meats” campaign which features the voice of Golden Globe winning actor Ving Rhames. Meats stacked high and deep are appreciated and celebrated. Taking the joke a bit further, the company then set up the Vegetarian Support Hotline where non-meat eaters can get tips on how to avoid their “delicious sizzling meat.” “Be strong and call this toll free number,” they conclude. “We’re here for you.”
Playing along with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart’s barbs about the company instead of being offended was also a good idea. His running gags, in the guise of speculation on whether or not Arby’s even qualified as food, were numerous. Although Stewart had gone on record as saying that his numerous Arby’s punchlines were just for laughs, another company under different leadership might well have taken a legal approach.
“My view,” said Brown, “was that instead of reacting to him, why not engage with him?” The no hard feeling mindset was manifest in the catered lunches provided by Arby’s to the show’s cast and crew whenever Stewart let a joke fly. Further, Brown decided to sponsor the host’s last show in August of 2015 and was present in the studio audience as Stewart said farewell. The company provided Comedy Central two videos containing some of Stewart’s best insults set to the music of “Thank You for Being a Friend.” In addition to its television audience the videos have had hundreds of thousands of viewing on YouTube. Numerous journalists and ad executives believe that Arby’s clearly got the last laugh, receiving massive free publicity for being a good sport.
Not being ashamed to be in the meat sandwich business and knowing how to take a joke were not the only changes that the company made. The restaurants have been given a facelift as well. The new as well as remodeled restaurants are modern, well designed affairs that really do give the feeling of being somewhere in between quick service and fast casual. There is also less food waste and more operating efficiency in the new design.
Sales volume has gone up and so has the profit margin. Franchisee satisfaction has gone up dramatically – over 27 points since Brown took over the company. “Nearly 2,300 of our 3,300 restaurants are owned by franchisees,” says Brown, “so that’s very important to us.” New locations are on the drawing board. With one location in Manhattan, the company is adding a second, as well as opening in other urban areas.
Although born in Atlanta, Brown has worked all over the world working as a partner at McKinsey & Company, as President of Expedia North America as well as President of Brands and Commercial Services at Hilton. “It’s good to be back in Atlanta,” he says, “and I really appreciate the way I’ve been embraced by the Atlanta business community.” A Georgia Tech grad, Brown serves on the Board of the Georgia Tech Foundation as well as the Advisory Board of the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech.
For all the great changes that he has sparked at Arby’s, Brown remains quiet and on-task. “Sales are growing at an accelerating pace and customer counts are increasing,” he says. “But we have to stick to constant evolution – through a culture of innovation – in order to avoid abrupt, risky or revolutionary change.”
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