Restaurant executive reflects on her mentors
You are number three of four kids with a younger brother?
Well, yes. I have two wonderful older sisters, and I told them early on, “You are not my boss” because they tried to boss me around all the time. They still do actually, and I adore them. But from early on, I did not want people telling me what to do.
When you were a child, were you a girly girl or a tomboy?
I was a girlie girl. I had Barbie dolls. By the way, I’m glad they have invented new ones. But I had the very first one that had the perfect body, perfect hair, little tiny feet, 18-inch waist. I played with dolls. I had tea parties. I loved paper dolls. I did love being outdoors. I loved running and that kind of thing. If you made me pick, I was more girlie girl than tomboy.
Your father was what profession and your mother was a traditional homemaker?
He had a retail furniture store in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, that his dad started. They had that business on Main Street for years. He was a big believer in the stock market. He was a big believer in think for yourself. He was bigger than life. He was absolutely his own person and very strong willed and very entertaining. She also was very strong in a Steel Magnolia kind of a way. Daddy was the rascal and mama was the one who made sure that we had nice manners and were appropriate.
Your father died in 1991, a pivotal time in your life. Was your mother prepared for that?
Mama was stoic and strong. But no, she wasn’t prepared for that. I don’t know if you’re ever prepared for that, especially when that morning they played tennis together. He just died of a heart attack. So certainly she was not — it’s not like he had any known illnesses or anything like that. What I saw after that, though, was the strength. I mean she never quit missing him ever. But the strength she had to just keep going on. She always used to tell us to “have no self-pity, if you’re bored, you’re boring,” She lived 10 years after he had died.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I am an extrovert but probably not as much as people think I am. On Myers Briggs and tests over the years that you have for leadership training and so forth, I definitely test an extrovert but not an extreme one. I’m pretty close to the middle. I do find solace in time alone.
Your professional life has always been in the restaurant sector?
Cummins Engine Company, that’s the only time, since I was serious about my work that I was not in the restaurant business. It’s also where I met my husband, David. Cummins Engine Company was a division of Kimico at the time. They built a very progressive, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Eastern North Carolina. From a human standpoint and an organization standpoint, they were really throwing out any existing rules in hopes of figuring out how to have a totally engaged work force where people contribute to the best of their ability, where there are not barriers. People in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, would say, “You are working for that socialist outfit down there.” But it was wonderful. It was about connecting directly with the work to the customer, whoever that was. The more important part for me was seeing people who had been in pigeonhole jobs, though in goods industries, blossoming. Through expectations, through being involved in discussions about the business that they normally would not have been, and through developing skills or understanding the competition, they began taking part in analytical thinking, critical thinking, and strategy. This included people in all sorts of jobs. We had about 1,400 people. So I loved it.
How were you hired at the Cummins Engine plant?
Well, I think I was the fourteenth person hired. People interviewed me individually, and then I was asked to do a task. The task was real fact-based. They said, “We’re coming to a place that has not had engine manufacturing in Eastern North Carolina. People do not have the skills necessary, but people think we’re going to pay really well because we’re from up North. So we will be inundated with resumes.” In fact, they already had like three or four thousand resumes at that time. My task was to go into a room and design and tell the interviewers about a process I would use to help people weed themselves out if the position they sought wouldn’t be a good fit for them. I was to help them understand what we were going to be. We weren’t up and running yet. And so that’s what I did. I had interviewed with 10 people individually that day and then walked in for my last individual interview; we were running out of time. It was the person that became my husband and another woman. They were thoughtful, introspective, and knowledgeable. David, who ended up being my husband later, gave me no positive feedback. He just sat there and looked at me. I thought, “What is wrong with this guy?” I mean, I connected with everybody else. Well, I was hired anyway and we got married. We’ve been married almost 30 years now.
You all have something different. What is it?
Oh, Karen. The ability to let the other one change and grow. Absolutely love them. There’s just a very deep love and respect.
So from Cummins you went to Hardee’s and started as director of employee relations?
Right, and then there was an opening for the head of human resources. So I was the first female officer there. I was relatively young. I did what I think women do not do as much anymore. I felt the burden of, “If I screw this up, it’s going to screw it up for all women.” I love seeing young women now that don’t carry that.
How did it feel to be the only woman at the table?
In some ways I think my daddy really prepared me for a corporate America. At the time it was primarily men in the upper levels. He was the sweetest man in the world, but he could be gruff and all that. So, when I encountered that sort of behavior, I just thought that’s how people acted. I did not feel intimidated. I did feel, at times, lonely because I’ve always been fortunate to have very good close female friends. There were many meetings and planning sessions I would think about daddy. What I want to say, is it going to sound dumb, but I would remember things that I heard and make myself speak up. I do think, because I enjoyed people and what they bring to the table, it was easy for them to have a woman in the room. I always wanted them to be comfortable with me being there as part of the group.
When did Mr. Richardson become part of your life?
I was at Hardee’s in Rocky Mount, and we would have the franchisees in. Spartan Foods was the largest Hardee’s franchisee. I was approached about being their head of training. I interviewed with about 10 people there. I met Jerry in Spring Hope at a diner on a Sunday or Saturday. That was my final test. I think we might have been the only two in the parking lot who didn’t have guns in our car. It was fun, and we were at the small-town diner. He grew up in Spring Hope, and we talked for a couple of hours, and it was wonderful. He asked me some things about work but it was more about who I was as a person. That was very impressive to me because I think he saw the value. I think you see it in the Panthers, both the football players as well as the staff, the importance of the dynamics of the team, the leader, the meshing of everyone. So I made it through. He was there for quite a few years, and he left when he got the Panthers franchise.
Do you think that Mr. Richardson excels in understanding the nuances of a team to make a system work?
I absolutely think so, along with an ability to cut through all the clutter of all the distracting things that are happening in a situation. I do not see him and talk to him often, but I’ve never made a job or career change without having a conversation with him. I think he knows me, and I respect him so much from that standpoint.
When you became president of Quincy’s, were you the only woman at that time leading a major restaurant chain?
I think so. That was so long ago. So, yes, I think I was and then shortly thereafter Julia Stewart, who’s now head of DineEquity, which is Applebee’s and IHOP, she became president of a chain in California; I believe it was a beef chain. But yes, I was at the time.
Lonely or just hard?
Probably more hard than lonely. I do remember, because I met with some analysts when they came to Advantica and individually talked about Quincy’s when I came out. People said they were tough on me because I was a woman. I went no, they’re tough on me because I’m from human resources instead of operations. They really were like so that’s what you’ve been doing is human resources? Now you are going to run this chain that is struggling? So it was hard. I had to find people who could help me think what would be best for our company and all the employees who worked there. Ultimately how to turn around the business that, at that time, was really struggling.
So you crafted a niche for turnarounds. How long did you serve at Darden’s, becoming president of Red Lobster in 2002?
Six years. It was also struggling in many ways. Competition was coming and the question was how do you keep Red Lobster fresh with Bone Fish and a host of regional chains coming on the scene? The high point of Darden’s is you have so many long-term people there. So, when you can get people engaged in a positive, productive way about the changes we must make to be able to compete and to be able to still be a place that people want to come, and then when you start to see it in some of the results, it’s very gratifying. It was around 800 restaurants at the time, and I loved our people. Part of what I love about the restaurant business is there’s such huge opportunity for people willing to work hard regardless of their circumstances. I have a friend who wrote a book about the toxic corporate culture, which is a very depressing thing. Yet it was sort of the opposite there in terms of a company that really tried to do the right thing always.
City Range was a concept that you birthed, exists today and you’re still involved with?
There was a piece of real estate in Greenville, which, at the time, didn’t fit Denny’s. It was on Haywood Road, which, at the time in Greenville, was the place. There was not the vibrant downtown that there is now. So the CEO and chairman of the company said, after we sold Quincy’s, “Create a concept, a casual dining concept, cause we can learn from it.” We met at Kenny Rogers’ home down in Athens, Georgia, because he wanted to be involved. That ultimately didn’t work out for financial reasons. But we wanted a place where people could come and really have unbelievable food and experience but not feel pretentious. I brought in a gentleman named Corey Wilkes who then bought the company from Advantica. When I left Quincy’s and Advantica for Darden, Corey called to see if I would be his partner in City Range. I could not because that was a conflict with Darden. But later I bought out the partner he did have. And so it’s wonderful to be a part of it again, and we had a service award dinner. We have that every year, and we had about 10 people who’ve been with us since the day we opened the door in 1998.
So, James Beard Foundation in New York: what is that?
It was probably the most challenging and most fulfilling position of any I’ve held. James Beard was a person who loved to cook. He wanted to be an opera star, but that didn’t work out. So he had a show that was sponsored by General Electric before the Food Network. He had a beautiful brownstone in Greenwich Village. He died in ’85. Well, his best friend was Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck before he was famous. He taught people to cook. He had parties. After his death they bought his brownstone and were kind of like, what do we do now? So it has evolved over the years into an organization that is about nurturing and celebrating the history of American cuisine. They went through a rough time, approached me, and once again it’s like, well, what do I know? So I was up there for a year and a half.
It’s a startup in a strange way?
It was absolutely a startup. I was working, sitting, and toiling at night developing policies, which, incidentally, I based on the United States Tennis Association. I remember being asked to be on panels in New York about things that we were doing as a group. This year they were very involved in a food expo in Milan. They were one of the primary sponsors. They do fabulous things. The executive director is Susan Ungaro. I was involved in hiring her. She came from “Family Circle” magazine. She has been there since I left in 2006 and is doing an unbelievable job — she was perfect, perfect for the job.
And then you had a call?
So I was sitting at James Beard and got a call from a gentleman named Bill Allen, who took over when Chris Sullivan, the founder of Outback, had retired. We had never met. He said, “I’d like to talk to you. We want to do a prototype on the West Coast, and you’ve got the James Beard piece,” which is the upscale food. “And you’ve got Red Lobster,” because Red Lobster purchased eight percent of the world share of seafood, which is huge for one company. So we talked, and it was wonderful, and I got to work with Paul Fleming who started P.F. Chang’s and Fleming’s. He was an owner in the Blue Coral. So that was great.
And then Axum, which is where you’ve been and where you are currently.
Axum is a small private equity fund, and it was the idea of Muhsin Muhammad, who played in the NFL for 14 years. I just keep going back to sports, right? But he played for the Chicago Bears.
My girly girl?
I know. I’m not your girly girl in sports. But he played for the Chicago Bears and the Panthers. He’s a wide receiver, holds a record. He’ll be sorry that I can’t remember what it was, for the Super Bowl in Houston, but he is delightful. He had been thinking about, “What do I do when I’m no longer going to play football?” He had talked to people and received their counsel. So he had this idea. There are four of us who are partners in the business. Our focus is on restaurants and/or education. My role there is looking for restaurant companies that we might be interested in buying.
What brings you the most joy?
My friends and my family. David, Ben, and Carrie, and my family. Ben and Carrie are our niece and nephew.
Give me the one piece of advice for upcoming talent. Fern Mallis, for example, said, “Be nice.”
Oh I love that. Well, since she did that one, “Be real.”
What is your greatest accomplishment?
In the professional world, it is the role I played in the Women’s Foodservice Forum, which is an organization in the food industry whose mission is to elevate women leaders, and not through entitlement, but through developing competencies and helping organizations create the right kind of culture so people can contribute. On the personal side, I hope it is being a good friend, a good aunt, a good sister, a good wife, a great wife.
What’s your favorite book and movie?
“To Kill a Mockingbird” or anything by Patrick Conroy. Movie is “Selma” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
If you could be any age, what would that age be?
Sixty-four, which is what I am.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
God. It would be how long is it going to take us all to just get along.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I think it’s being a good friend, Karen.
What’s your favorite word?
Karen, let’s see. One of them is love and one of them is joy and the other one I’m not going to say on tape.
And what’s your least favorite word?
And what turns you off?
People treating someone with lack of respect, treating them in a condescending way.