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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 2 years ago

'Push through'

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There's little that could slow down Nick Vojnovic once he set out to grow a restaurant chain. Then he was diagnosed with a rare cancer.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Tampa restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic found himself in a surreal spot late last year when some friends and peers began to eulogize him — while he was still alive.

People were telling Vojnovic, former president of Beef O'Brady's, how much he meant to them, his mentorship and friendship, his good cheer and business smarts. The source of the outpouring of affection? Vojnovic was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare and life threatening form of bone marrow cancer, and he needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Myelofibrosis disrupts the body's normal blood cell production, and can lead to a host of other issues, include fatigue and weakness.

Vojnovic, 57, was both touched and embarrassed by the warmth.

“I really didn't feel sick,” says Vojnovic, a jovial leader and father of two adult children with his wife, Rene. “It was real spooky. It was very emotional.”

Vojnovic underwent a transplant operation in mid-January. The process included six straight nights of chemotherapy, a process he called grueling and exhausting. As of mid-February, Vojnovic's body was adjusting to the new bone marrow, a separate grueling process that includes nearly a daily dozen anti-rejection medications. “You just got to keep pushing through,” Vojnovic says.

There's another side to Vojnovic's heath scare — his latest business.

He's president of Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill, a fast-casual American-influenced Mediterranean chain. Under his leadership, Little Greek has expanded from four locations to 30 since 2011, and systemwide sales have nearly doubled since 2013, from $7.4 million to $14 million in 2015. It has restaurants in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas, and the latest locations are in east Manatee County and Lakeland. Projected 2017 openings include Riverview and Winter Garden locations.

That kind of dynamic growth is tailor made for Vojnovic, a former chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. He led Beef's from 30 locations and $16 million in sales in 1998 to 270 locations and $250 million in sales by 2010. Then he stepped back, and, looking for something to do, enrolled in an M.B.A. program at USF.

But the shift at Little Greek was different. The idea that Vojnovic might have to plan for a Little Greek Fresh Grill without him at the helm started to percolate last summer. After conversations with his family and doctors, he realized the transplant procedure, and the recovery, if everything worked, could be up to a year.

Vojnovic went with comfort food in his succession plan. In July, he hired Bryan St. George, a former Beef's colleague, to head up development and operations at Little Greek. St. George, who ran Beef's IT and training from 2004 to 2010, had been based in Atlanta in an executive position with another chain, Boneheads Grill. Next, Vojnovic shifted responsibilities for his son, Jon Vojnovic, from running some restaurants day-to-day to an operations role. The younger Vojnovic is now authorized to sign checks. And most recently Vojnovic hired former Beef's CEO Chuck Winship to a senior level post at Little Greek.

“I obviously don't want to die,” says Vojnovic, “but you have to keep things moving forward, just in case.”

The first few weeks of the new leadership trifecta, says Vojnovic, was a bit dicey, while each new leader figured out who was doing what, when. But they've since figured things out and Vojnovic says he's confident Little Greek will thrive in his absence.

Vojnovic says the entire experience has given him a new life perspective. He hopes that, if and when he's cleared to come back to work, he will have the discipline to dial back the intensity. Do less of the heavy lifting. Says Vojnovic: “Maybe I will just be the guy who has lunch with people.”

Give back

Little Greek Fresh Grill President Nick Vojnovic wants to spread the word about the importance of being a bone marrow or stem cell donor.

Vojnovic was recently diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare and life threatening form of bone marrow cancer. A 22-year-old woman was a match for Vojnovic, and he recently underwent a successful transplant operation. Vojnovic set up a registry for potential donors, who should be between the ages of 18 and 44. Go to join.bethematch.org/nickvojnovic to learn more.

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