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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 12, 2019 1 year ago

Leader helps build great teams — from Baghdad to fast-food counter

Onetime military logistics expert turns his expertise toward the restaurant industry.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Rick Michaels’ latest entrepreneurial venture — owning and operating a new Chick-fil-A in south Sarasota — is something of a step down, at least when compared to past career stops.  

It wasn’t too long ago, for example, Michaels helmed the government agency that coordinated ground transportation for President Barack Obama, the first family and assorted high-level guests and VIPs. Before that gig as chief executive of the White House Transportation Agency, Michaels ran logistics units for the U.S. Army.

'How can I create a positive experience for them? How can I serve them even better?’ Rick Michaels, Chick-fil-A

Instead of a step down, Michaels sees his Chick-fil-A ownership as the culmination of a battalion full of business lessons learned. Those range from how to get teams to over-perform to the importance of cultivating one-on-one relationships with the right people to get things done.

The Chick-fil-A Michaels owns, 8420 S. Tamiami Trail, is his second unit in the chain. He previously ran one in Clayton, Ga., and looked into store opportunities in Vero Beach and Orlando. His mission, beyond building a profitable and civic-minded store, is something he’s chased for decades, in civilian and military life: best-in-class customer service.

“Everyone who walks in the door has a story,” says Michaels, 46. “How can I create a positive experience for them? How can I serve them even better?”

That service-first mentality manifested itself in his 20-year military career. From 2008 to 2011, Michaels oversaw transportation and distribution of gear for 20,000 soldiers fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I had to get them ready for their battle space,” Michaels says. “I set out to be the best logistics transportation guy in the Army. I was committed to be excellent and be the subject expert of my craft.”

One key lesson? Sometimes sugar is better than spice. That’s how he built a cadre of relationships with peers, in the Army and other services, who could help him deliver to his customer — the battlefield solider. 

Michaels served two tours in Iraq — including one 13-month deployment filled with four hours of sleep a night. While there, Michaels developed a personal mantra he aims to hand down to his Chick-fil-A staff. It says, in part, to “focus on doing the little things great that lead to great big things.”

Michaels obviously did enough things great in Iraq. Soon after he came home, he interviewed for a “black book” government assignment to coordinate transportation services at the White House. In that role, he coordinated with Air Force One and Marine One pilots, among others, to make sure the president and his family and guests had the right vehicles for any trip — domestic or abroad. 

Mark Wemple. Rick Michaels opened a Chick-fil-A in south Sarasota in early 2018.

Like in the Army, the affable Michaels cultivated relationships with a wide variety of people to figure out “how I could get to yes for people without breaking the law” and myriad congressional regulations. “You couldn’t have any missteps there,” Michaels says. “You had to be perfect. You represent the presidency, not just the president.”

At Chick-fil-A, Michaels has a new slew of challenges. Hiring, for one. Michaels says several prospective employees “ghosted” him on the interview and the first day, by just not showing up.

On operations, Michaels’s challenge is to use military precision to increase profits — without shortcutting food safety or training. “In the military, I was never responsible for profit and loss,” he says. “Now I need to know what levers to pull to change the top line and change the bottom line.”

A worry? In the military he never worried about salary because it was set without his input. He pays more than minimum wage at Chick-fil-A, but anxiety lingers. Asks Michaels: “Am I paying my people enough?”

One task Michaels is comfortable with is following the Chick-fil-A way. “They want a Truett Cathy in every restaurant,” he says. “They want somebody who’s a businessperson, but also someone invested in the community.”

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