Hugh Connerty Jr., in building big brands like Longhorn and Outback Steakhouse, has learned many lessons. A big one: don't let success make you complacent.
Tampa-based comfort food restaurant company Metro Diner opened its 50th location March 13. It’s Metro Diner’s second restaurant in Sarasota, part of a plan to open dozens of new restaurants nationwide this year.
The company has grown rapidly in recent years, especially since Mark Davoli and his family, owners of Metro Diner, got some heavy-hitting restaurant industry players involved. ConSul Partners controls Metro Diner and, the group includes industry veterans Chris Sullivan, Hugh Connerty Jr. and Carl Sahlsten, who have founded and led major chains such as Outback Steakhouse and Longhorn Steakhouse.
At the Sarasota location opening, the Business Observer sat down with Metro Diner co-chairman Connerty, who was also president of Outback Steakhouse International, an original franchisee of Outback Steakhouse Inc., a founder of Hooters of America and a founder of Longhorn Steakhouse. Connerty shared his thoughts on Metro Diner’s growth and leadership lessons he’s learned during his career.
What was your goal with ConSul Partners?
When we formed ConSul Partners, our goal was to try to identify brands that we could take across the country that we felt would have the kind of broad appeal to Americans.
We’re not the ones who create anything, so I think one of the keys to success is to understand and know what your own limitations are or what your own strengths are. You can’t look at everything like a buffet and do everything. You’ve got to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. We’re not creative guys, but we recognize the creativity in people like Mark Davoli.
How you get to judge it is pretty cool. It’s when there’s an overwhelming consumer acceptance of an idea…So when you see something that has the appeal of Metro Diner in Jacksonville…and there’s overwhelming consumer acceptance, that’s the public saying something to you. If you learn to listen to what they’re saying, they’re saying we really, really like this place — we like the food, we like how much it costs, we like the service, and we will line up out that door to have it.
“Never allow yourself to fall victim to hubris and think, ‘Oh man, we’re really successful.’ You are only as successful as that individual meal in front of one of your guests, every single time.” — Hugh Connerty Jr., co-chairman, Metro Diner
I think when you add up all of the restaurants that we’ve done collectively across the board, it’s probably about 1,600 or 1,700 in the United States and another 100 in 23 countries. So we think we understand what it takes to actually develop a business like that, but you have to have an idea to build it around and a culture to build it around, so that’s what we basically focused on.
What are biggest marketing lessons you’ve learned during your career?
Marketing has changed ginormously. When we started out in this business, it was always 100% grassroots marketing. You’re involved with your community — Little League, you name it — Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the chamber of commerce. You strictly did grassroots marketing. And then when Outback evolved and we got to a size where we could afford to go to television, it impacted the business dramatically, I mean significantly.
Today, with the invention of the internet and our devices, which everybody has, now you have social media. Social media didn’t exist 20 years ago. The power of social media — what I love about it — is that you cannot buy it. It puts us on a level playing field with everybody else…If you could buy it, believe me, everybody in the world would have bought a five-star rating. That’s what the consumer is saying about you.
It’s changed — it’s like night and day — I like the new environment. It keeps you honest. It keeps you on your toes.
What makes a good leader?
The ability to envision clear direction but most importantly to communicate it in a way that it is embraced by the rest of the team. You can’t lead anything to success by yourself. It’s not about you. The greatest leaders in the world, in my opinion, were always kind of in the background.
What’s the most important thing a leader of a growing company like Metro Diner should do?
Stay focused on the basics that got you to where you were in the first place. Never allow yourself to fall victim to hubris and think, ‘Oh man, we’re really successful.’ You are only as successful as that individual meal in front of one of your guests, every single time. That’s what this business is about, so you have to stay focused on that.
What’s the hardest decision you’ve made in your career?
The hardest decisions in my opinion are having the courage to recognize your failures…Failures or problems in businesses require a very significant, disproportionate amount of energy and resources to fix. So you can either direct energy and resources to fix a problem here or you can devote all of those to what works. That’s the most difficult thing to do in this business because it affects lives. We have closed two Metro Diners since we started and they were both because of ingress and egress — getting in and out — they were on roads that were just too busy.
Recognizing your failures when they occur and correcting that quickly — those are the hardest decisions. Nobody likes to accept the fact that they failed at something, but it’s a part of being successful.
What are the best ways a leader can become a better leader?
Emulate somebody you admire. Be aware enough to be cognizant of great companies and great leaders and people you admire. Study other leaders, other business leaders who have built successful companies.
And then I think you have to have a moral compass that says, ‘no matter what’ — because life is not a sprint, this is a long marathon — ‘always do what’s right. Always.’
What would you say you’re most proud of in your career?
I think what I’m the proudest of — when you see so many people, whether it was the Outback days or today — so many young people join an organization and become successful — that is beyond addictive. That is overwhelmingly satisfying.