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Iconic restaurant chain’s co-founder serves up key lessons

Chris Sullivan's core leadership principles, even after nearly 30 years, hold up well to today’s environment.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:00 p.m. April 14, 2021
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Leadership
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Chris Sullivan, a co-founder and former CEO of some of the most prominent global restaurant brands of the last 30 years — Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill among them — chuckles at the question: What are some of the biggest mistakes you have made in your career you turned into lessons learned?

“How much time do you have?” Sullivan, 73, quips back in a recent Zoom interview.

Over an hour-long chat Sullivan mentions two of his biggest mistakes, or for the golf aficionado he is, mulligans, the decisions he wish he could do over. One involved Carmel Café and Wine Bar, a casual-dining Mediterranean chain Sullivan founded in 2010 with his son Alex Sullivan. The catch with Carmel was customers could order with a tableside iPad tablet-ordering system. The concept grew to eight locations, spread from the Tampa area to east Manatee County. But by 2018 all but two had been shuttered.

Mark Gordon
Mark Gordon

The two core problems? One, says Sullivan, he went oh-for-three on hiring a director of operations for the chain, someone who could grow the concept and find the right people. Second, he says, is they were too far in front of the technology to make the iPad system work beyond a gimmick. “Opening a restaurant without having the technology perfect was one of the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” Sullivan says.

A second mistake, or regret, says Sullivan, similar to Carmel Café was with Carrabba’s, where development of new locations outpaced the company’s ability to staff it with the right managers. “We went too fast it,” Sullivan tells me. “It was more complicated than we thought it was going to be.”

Mistakes can certainly become good lessons. But a conversation with Sullivan about what he looks for in a good leader — trust, integrity and ethics are paramount, he says — also reveals one of his biggest lessons comes from a triumph.

That triumph is a document — the Outback Steakhouse Principles and Beliefs. While nearly 30 years old, the five-page principles and beliefs, written with industrial and organizational psychologist Tom DeCotiis, is relevant today for any business, from startup to established firm. The company DeCotiis co-founded, Colorado Springs-based Corvirtus, has worked with businesses nationwide on leadership and culture. Locally it’s helped Tampa-based restaurant chain PDQ and insurance firm BKS Partners create core philosophy documents.

No ‘I’ in We

In October 1992, Sullivan and his founding partners, backed by DeCotiis, came up with five principles to guide Outback. Sullivan, Bob Basham, Tim Gannon and Trudy Cooper founded Outback in 1988 in Tampa. The five principles the team came up with include:

Hospitality is giving for the sake of giving, rather than for the sake of gaining. It is giving to people beyond what is expected of us; it is sincerely saying please and thank you and our willingness to help them in tangible ways. It is being genuinely concerned and action-oriented toward their comfort and well-being;

Sharing is inviting people to participate in the fruits of our success. It includes sharing dollars, responsibility, authority and accountability. It is "we" made it happen rather than "I" made it happen;

Quality is having a purpose and always working to improve. It is attention to detail. It is consistently meeting and then exceeding our standards;

Fun is having a sense of humor, being able to laugh at ourselves and celebrate together;

Courage is living our principles and meeting our standards with absolute discipline while having a No Rules approach to customers. It is being focused on results, sticking to the core of our business and accommodating the individuality of our people rather than demanding that they accommodate us.

'Nobody wants delayed criticism.' Chris Sullivan 

The No Rules, Just Right theme became both a famous ad campaign and an internal North Star for the company. “That was for our employees to know we support them in finding a way to get to yes for customers,” Sullivan says. “And it was also for our managers because we wanted them to find a way to get to yes for our employees.”

The kicker to the five principles is a reminder to keep the values front-and-center.

“We are a company of restaurants, not a restaurant company, and focus on individuals, individual restaurants, teamwork and success,” the document states. “We solve our problems with reverence for our Principles and Beliefs and the well-being of our people.”

Chow down

Sullivan says his leadership style and dual focus on customers and employees stems from two key mentors in his life: his dad, William Sullivan, and restaurant executive Norman Brinker, a pioneer in casual dining with Steak & Ale, Bennigan’s, Chili’s and more.  

Chris Sullivan grew up in eastern Kentucky. His dad played professional baseball, and while not making it to the major leagues, the elder Sullivan later served in World War II, with the U.S. Marines in Guadalcanal. After the war, William Sullivan became an FBI agent and handled some notable cases in California in the 1960s and 70s. “We had our battles especially when I was a teenager,” Sullivan says, “but I learned so much from him about work ethic and dedication.”

Under Brinker, meanwhile, Sullivan began to form the ideas for how he wanted to create a workplace culture that gave people autonomy, but also held them accountable. At Steak & Ale and later in the early days of Outback, he would observe nights and shifts at the restaurant, then review the staff. He aimed for at least four positive reinforcement comments for every one stinger, and he also made a point to deliver constructive feedback about a situation quickly — a key leadership ideal. “Nobody wants delayed criticism,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan, who maintains a busy work schedule with a variety of entities he has a stake in, from Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa to Metro Diner, considers Outback’s principles and beliefs a leadership career highlight. (Not far behind is the joint venture partnership model Outback pioneered, which allowed managers to have ownership in their locations, in concert with the corporate office.)

Sullivan addressed both joint venture partnerships and the principles and beliefs document in a column he wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2005 — back when Outback Steakhouse was in its prime.

“How did a 17-year-old company produce 20.1% sales growth last year while increasing its workforce by 15.9% without losing focus and control?” Sullivan wrote. “By creating an organizational model in which managers in the field make most of the decisions, garner the rewards and live with the consequences. Almost all of these managers have come up through Outback’s ranks; they’ve done every front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house job there is. They’ve taught those jobs to others, and they’ve had instilled in them our ‘principles and beliefs.’”

 

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