Just a year ago, Brown got his first shot at the corner office when he became CEO of Atlanta-based Arby’s after a career spanning several consulting and corporate jobs. Brown, 47, has worked in increasingly responsible positions in the hotel and travel business for companies including InterContinental Hotels Group, Hilton and Expedia. He also has been a consultant for McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting and Andersen Consulting.
The Atlanta native and Georgia Tech graduate now leads a fast-food chain with $3.2 billion in annual systemwide sales — about two-thirds from franchisees and one-third from company-owned stores. He talks about Arby’s challenges, what he learned throughout his career to help him deal with them, and his extracurricular adventures.
Q: How did you become interested in business?
A: My grandfather was an inspiration to me. He was a real estate developer in east Cobb and an entrepreneur at heart.
When I was 9, 10 and 11, I had my first conversations about business with him. That’s where the spark came from.
He would let me try things. One time, I decided I was going to wire his new workshop. He let me go to town. I had a spaghetti of new wires all over the place. It looked horrible, but at the end of the day it worked.
From that I learned to try new things.
I also learned from him that you don’t get ahead by taking advantage of people. You get ahead by being someone who people want to do business with.
Q: You went to three different high schools, two in Cobb and one in Columbus when your family moved there? What did you learn about adapting?
A: In hindsight, I learned to be myself.
Sometimes, when you go into new situations, there might be pressure to be somebody you’re not so you get noticed. That doesn’t work.
Q: You then went to Georgia Tech, where you got an internship with IBM. After graduating, you were hired by a consulting firm to work as a software engineer on a big programming project. What did you learn?
A: Logic. How to think through things and develop a test plan for every scenario.
It was an invaluable experience. It taught me how to break down a complex problem into parts. And then how to break those parts into smaller parts, and how to build it back up again.
It also taught me about how your piece fits into the broader project.
Also, I learned it’s OK to make mistakes. One time, we tried a different approach, but ultimately it didn’t work and we had to go down a different path. The project leader was very understanding.
I think it’s detrimental if a manager blames people for trying something differently. People are smart. Once they are admonished for trying something differently, they won’t again. More importantly, others who see that happening won’t either.
We need to think of different ways of doing things.
Q: That view was fostered at Northwestern University where you got your MBA. Please discuss.
A: It was first time I lived outside of Georgia. There was a breadth of people from all walks of life in the Northwestern program. There were lots of people from outside the U.S.
It was a very team-oriented teaching environment where you did a lot of your work on projects in groups of four to six people. Everybody brought something special to a project, because they came from different places, worked in different industries, spoke different languages and thought differently about things.
The teams that worked the best embraced that diversity and incorporated that difference of thought into the ultimate result. That could be a very painful experience before you pull it all together into a coherent product.
The easiest thing to do is to walk into a room where everyone thinks the same and divvy up the responsibilities for a project. That rarely produces the best result. The best results are often produced by a messy process. From that moment forward, that’s kind of how I’ve tried to work.
Q: You went into consulting, where you supervised only one person. Then, you headed a large sales unit at InterContinental Hotels Group, where you were in charge of 4,000 employees. How did you manage that?
A: I knew I had a lot to learn, so I spent a lot of time listening, trying to take in everything I could.
I made mistakes. Coming from business school and consulting, you can have an expectation about how fast things can happen. But big organizations can’t and shouldn’t necessarily implement things instantaneously.
I think there’s a patience that I had to learn. Quite honestly, I didn’t fully learn that there. It took me a while.
When you are working with other people, it’s not about you. It’s about everyone else. Your role as a leader is to help everyone else do the best that they can do. I didn’t fully appreciate that at that time.
Q: You eventually got a job at the Expedia online travel company, where you worked for veteran business leader Barry Diller. What did you learn about branding?
A: I was lucky to have Barry Diller as a mentor. I learned that branding is about motivating the customer to do something.
He taught me:
— You want to be crisp and clear on the message, and cut out all the noise.
— The brand needs to be rooted in reality and believable.
— If a brand has a history, it needs to be anchored in it, but not constrained or solely defined by the history.
— You want to be entertaining. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting a particular message across and influencing behavior. It’s not entertainment. It’s a commercial.
Q: The Arby’s brand needs improvement, doesn’t it?
A: The brand has been too narrowly defined around a single product — roast beef. There is a large perception-reality gap between roast beef and all the other offerings we have.
Soon, you’ll see new advertising that will spend more time talking about all the dimensions of our products that are not top of mind for consumers. There will be new menu boards where salads are more prominently featured than they were in the past.
From a product development standpoint, you’ll also see an expanded menu of more products in proteins other than roast beef.
Q: How do you get 71,000 employees to deliver on the promises Arby’s makes about providing “delicious experiences”?
A: We are going through a series called "brand camps," where every part-time and full-time employee in every restaurant will be pulled out for half a day to reinforce our service culture. It's a significant investment.
We’re not just in the sandwich business. We’re in the experience business. If you believe that and treat people like you’re in the experience business, you’ll get a fundamentally different result.
Q: What’s your toughest challenge?
A: Shifting the brand from being relatively flat in store-unit growth to being high growth. I don't want this to be 3,400 units, but 4,000-plus in the U.S. I also want more growth internationally.
The mistake you can make is to go too fast and not be incredibly diligent about the franchise partners you go forward with.
At the same time, you can never take your eye off of current performance. You have to keep performing for existing franchisees because once you stop performing for them, you don’t have a sales pitch any more for future franchisees.
Q: What’s your best career advice?
A: A lot of people look at their career as building a resume. I think what you're ultimately doing is building an experience base to draw off of.
Don’t approach your career as a bunch of line items on a resume. Build a set of valuable experiences that help you grow. If that means taking some lateral moves or staying in a position longer, that’s OK.
Q: Why did you skydive and run with the bulls?
A: I'm not a crazy thrill-seeker, but I do like new experiences.
About a year ago, I was in Italy with my wife and 18-year-old daughter at the time and 14-year-old son. We decided to skydive as a family (each attached to a tandem instructor). We felt it would be a good bonding experience.
It was a little bit nerve-racking. The worst thing is the moment on the precipice. Am I really going to do this? But once you’re up in the plane, what are you going to do?
A few years before that, I went with some friends to run with the bulls. The adrenalin rush was fantastic.
I think it’s great when you get family or friends out of their normal environment and do something unique that creates stories. Life is a collection of stories.