These finance chiefs are stewards of growth
Chief financial officers at four of the fastest-growing companies on our annual Restaurant 200 list share their priorities, goals and cautions. They also represent four of the 43 women CFOs on the ranking, a growing number.
The CFO position has changed dramatically in the past two decades— the days of bean-counting and putting reports together are long gone. Today’s chief financial officers empower the astonishing growth seen across the Restaurant 200, our annual ranking of the largest restaurant franchisees.
Arlene Dore at FMI Group has overseen some of the impressive growth that is typical of the elite group. Since 2008, the Woodstock, New Brunswick-based company grew from 28 locations to 280—900 percent growth. She said when she left public accounting to start with the mostly Yum Brand franchisee, she built guardrails for the owners’ aggressive goals.
“They were about to double in size—I started two weeks before that acquisition. So I came here with, I’d say, some relevant experience in terms of my traditional accounting, but I certainly had a unique opportunity to grow as a leader and develop other people in the early days,” said Dore. “Quickly it became more like I was a strategic planning partner with the owners and brought some structure as we were growing.”
The structure she helped create then and continues to build as the company grows has been critical. FMI, like many Restaurant 200 operators, grows via acquisition.
“Our approach has been to buy broken markets, we’re known for going in and buying markets that either haven’t been kept up to date or have operational challenges,” said Dore.
Buying a market here or a group of restaurants there is an efficient way to grow. But it means that Dore has to focus on growth guardrails so that next growth opportunity doesn’t pull too many resources from the rest of the company. And it’s not just an accounting exercise; she’s careful not to waste managerial resources to reboot a bad culture.
“Although we need to look at the full P&L, it’s really about the culture piece and the sales,” said Dore. “If we can know their sales, we know what we can do and what is worth doing.”
Slice and dice
Giovanna Koning, the CFO at TGI Fridays and Falcon Holdings, came to Falcon ahead of some similar aggressive growth. When she started, the company was just shy of 100 locations, and has since grown to 500 “and there were a lot of buys and sales in between,” said Koning.
Like so many CFOs today, her role at the largest Church’s Chicken franchisee shifted from collecting data to using data to shape business goals with company owner Aslam Khan, who now serves as chairman at Falcon and CEO at TGI Fridays.
“As the company grew, I grew out of just being the financial person but first and foremost being Aslam’s adviser. Not just financial, I can slice and dice the numbers with the best of them, but it was strategic,” said Koning.
That’s an important balancing act, one side in the numbers and the other charting a course forward. With her strategic input, the company continued growing in the Church’s system, but also diversified into other concepts to open up acquisition possibilities and avoid pegging the company success to just one brand.
Koning said she learned the danger of being off balance firsthand at AmeriKing, once among the largest independent Burger King operators. It surged to 400 locations before operations fell apart, leading to bankruptcy protection and a restaurant fire sale.
“They grew too quickly and grew for the sake of growing. When you’re looking at a potential acquisition, it has to be the right fit to capitalize and leverage the existing operation,” said Koning. “You can’t grow for growth, you’ve got to grow for the right reasons.”
She’s mostly working on TGI Fridays right now, leaving the team she built to focus on that balancing act. But she said the biggest challenge she faces as a CFO today is digesting all the data.
“Today, it’s so easy to get focused in the weeds. But you have to be strategic, and what are we working on for that long-term vision and staying on course,” said Koning. “If I’m looking at a sales comp trend, what is it telling me? Is it seasonal long-term or systemic? Is it related to certain parts of the country? You’ve got to look at the data but then look at the priorities or else everything becomes a priority and you get nothing done.”
All that automation and data brings up another typical duty for today's franchise CFO: figuring out technology. Lori Pumphrey serves as CFO for United States Beef Corp., out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which operates more than 360 Arby’s restaurants along with a handful of other concepts. Like her peers, Pumphrey built up the structure required for massive growth.
That included new software to automate all the data flowing out of the restaurants so management could actually see what was happening in real time—or close to it with the technology of the time.
“The timeframe from end of the month to when they reported was about 60 days, so all that data wasn’t usable during that time,” said Pumphrey.
The technology suite has seen a lot of upgrades since then, and now she’s implementing a new wave of technology to tackle the ubiquitous labor headache. She said as a “very ops-focused company” the management team has been pondering any technology that could help the restaurant-level managers deal with labor.
“Really one of our biggest challenges—and probably for any CFO that you talk to—is labor. Most of the initiatives that were working on right now are on labor and staffing,” said Pumphrey. “Until the past few years, food costs were always a bigger issue than labor. That shift has been major.”
To help, she’s tackling labor in three ways. She’s overseeing a move to HotSchedules, a smartphone-based scheduling tool, to empower employees to trade shifts and communicate.
“One of the reasons we think it’s working well is the restaurant industry has a lot of no-call no-shows,” said Pumphrey. “I think the manager on duty tends to panic and call in everyone who is not on the schedule or stay late, and essentially what happens is they would overcompensate with that shift and end up with more hours and sometimes overtime hours."
In the public eye
As one of the few public franchise operators, Diversified Restaurant Holdings CFO Phyllis Knight has some unique duties. Like her peers, she came in during a time of transformation. In 2016 when she arrived, the Southfield, Michigan, company was spinning off the company’s internal brand Bagger Dave’s so it could focus on its 60 Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants.
“That business grew too fast, they got to 29 stores pretty quickly, incurred some debt and had some operating losses,” said Knight.
Her first task was to build up sophistication around finances and capital markets, something the operations-focused company was lacking and something with which the 30-year finance veteran had a lot of experience.
Knight said while the debt from Bagger Dave’s still weighs on the balance sheet, with a secondary share offering and smart finances they’re on track to get out of the weeds. Now she’s working to prepare for that next phase of growth and keeping tabs on the data.
“I spend a lot of time working with lenders and investors on the equity side. Working on the strategy side. We would like to get into the acquisition game in the next 12-18 months, but there’s a lot of prep work for that,” said Knight.
“From a day-to-day perspective, we spend a lot of time just doing analytics around the business. So we have a pretty robust set of systems that give us great data to make decisions with 60 restaurants across nine different regions. We’re always studying trends, what’s going on with our labor costs, for example, where we’re seeing pressure in different markets on everything.”
Knight said she gets granular with that data; she and her team drill down all the way to the ticket level to tackle that big labor question. “You make or break your margin based on labor,” said Knight. “It is such a competitive market. I think everyone would agree that there is wage inflation pressure, especially in the management ranks. We’ve definitely seen wages get pushed up; I don’t see that ending any time soon. But it’s so important to have a good solid management team so you’re not going to lose someone for a few thousand dollars.”
That’s another critical balance CFOs like Knight face: the cost of keeping someone compared to the cost of turnover. It’s tricky, but Knight said because so much of the manager wage at Diversified is performance based, she can strike a balance while she’s also pushing other critical business goals.
“About 30 percent of their compensation is bonus,” said Knight. “In terms of actionable targets, we have a structure where their bonus is tied to labor and cost of sales, the third is customer satisfaction. Then a couple floating metrics—basically we have different things we’re focused on at different times.”
Under her leadership, she’s slimmed the number of complimentary meals and her current floating metric is performance on review sites like Yelp or Trip Advisor.
“We provide the data and watch it every single day, and help our teams understand how they can affect those ratings,” said Knight. “When you tie someone’s payment to it, you have the ability to really move the needle on that.”
She said it’s sometimes tricky to get new managers, but hard-working managers stay because they can see the work they put in means major upside at the end of the quarter. The tactic has kept managers there and pushing those metrics.
These star CFOs do a lot of different things, but they show well how important it is to have an expert in balance, watching the data and counting the beans, but also guiding the company toward the next big milestone.
The rise of women CFOs
A lot of trends are worth watching in the Restaurant 200, our annual ranking of the largest restaurant franchisees published in August. One stands out: There are now 43 women in the CFO role among the Restaurant 200.
And that’s a good thing, according to the consulting firm McKinsey. U.S. industry overall has the potential to add $5 billion to gross domestic product by carving out a space for women, or at least not hampering their career growth. Inclusive businesses also benefit from a wider range of perspectives. There are plenty of examples of a “bro culture” ruining businesses by encouraging macho ego games.
The four CFOs we spoke to for this article had eerily similar career paths. They all started in public accounting, and then grew with a company that grabbed their attention.
“Everyone told me that I needed the accounting basics because I would lay the foundation for my career, and it was true,” said Giovanna Koning, CFO at TGI Fridays and Falcon Holdings.
Public accounting also meant learning a lot about different companies.
“It gives you such a great opportunity to experience different environments with your clients. You’re in different businesses with different management teams and different cultures, it gives you the opportunity to see what you really like,” said Phyllis Knight, CFO at Diversified Restaurant Holdings.
As these women have grown within their companies, they’ve earned a spot at the decision-making table. Which puts them a few heartbeats away from the CEO position.
“That is one of my goals, I would love to be CEO here or anywhere. That’s why I’m building the strength in all the different departments because I want to do that,” said Koning. “I think that will be a trend we see in the future.”
And as more women rise in the ranks, more women will follow.
“I tell my controller that the best thing I can hear is that she wants my job. I want her to want my job,” said Arlene Dore, CFO at FMI Group. “Not just from the perspective of building the bench of the company, but also for her personal growth. I want to work with people who have those levels of goals in mind.”