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Restaurant CEO saddles up for winners

From polo fields to fast-casual restaurants, Chris Gannon’s leadership center is simple: Find a way to win.

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Managers and executives at healthy eating fast casual chain Bolay, all the way up to co-founder and CEO Chris Gannon, regularly have buckets of ice dropped all over them.

It’s a head-to-toe freeze out reminiscent of NFL sideline Gatorade baths for the head coach as the clock winds down on a winning game. But the Bolay ice shower isn’t a charity challenge, nor is it an employee slip and fall situation. Instead, the ice is a mark of a new store opening or another big win. (With some 25 locations, and plans to open 10 more by the end of 2023, the Palm Beach Gardens-based chain will soon be heaving many more ice cubes.)  

“It’s a sign of winning and everybody likes to play for winner,” says Gannon, adding he’s been the recipient of a Bolay ice bath multiple times. “I love it. You don’t get ice dumped on you if you’re a loser right?”

A former professional horse polo player — he was the youngest polo champion ever, when he won the U.S. Open Championship in 2001, when he was 16 — Gannon thrives on competition. Not only in beating the competition, but especially in building winning teams. “You win as a team and you are only as good as each individual teammate,” Gannon says. “It’s a wonderful feeling, to have that winning spirit.”

Gannon’s his enthusiasm for crafting and growing a victory-emblazoned culture at Bolay is infectious. In a recent conversation in one of the newest Bolay locations, on Dale Mabry Highway in South Tampa, Gannon, 39, outlined his methods for team building, leadership and how two win. I left that chat, and a follow-up phone call a short time later, feeling some of the same take-that-hill fervor Bolay employees must feel. 

One example of Gannon’s outlook on leadership comes from when he was asked about his thoughts on quiet quitting. That’s the post-Great Resignation trend of people coming to work to only do the bare minimum. Gannon tilts his head sideways with some confusion, yet straightforwardly blunt upon hearing about the trend. “We want winners here,” he says. “Quiet quitters have no place here — or in this country.”

Other nuggets of leadership from Gannon include:

Take care

When sales cratered in the pandemic, Gannon was transparent with the Bolay team: salaries were going to be slashed. He asked employees what it would take for them to pay their bills; the answers he says, “were actually lower than I expected.” Eight months after cutting the salaries he made all Bolay employees whole — with interest. (The company also received a PPP loan of $724,205, according to a federal pandemic workforce loan database.)  Noting that taking care of his team is one of his core leadership beliefs, Gannon says repaying the team lost wages “was one of my proudest moments of being a business owner.”


Deep perspective

In the pandemic Gannon and his leadership team set up a whiteboard decision matrix. They looked at each looming situation, he says, in the short-term, near short-term and long-term. “Then we would ask ourselves, how will we answer this five years from now, or how will I explain this in a newspaper article.”


Lift up

A key to building strong teams, Gannon says, is about realizing all-stars need role players to thrive. That’s a lesson from his polo days. “Not everyone is going to be the top goal scorer or the top player,” Gannon says. “The best way to start building teams is to understand your current team’s strengths and weaknesses and when you find people’s strengths you have to help them hone and build those strengths.”


Stay flexible

When conflict between employees interferes with team-building, Gannon says he aims to be open-minded, and not prejudge outcomes or who is right and wrong. “I want to be curious to hear your side of the story,” he says. “That’s really important.”


Like father

Gannon’s dad Tim Gannon co-founded Outback Steakhouse in Tampa in 1987 and is credited with inventing one of the most famous appetizers ever: the Bloomin’ Onion. Chris Gannon says his dad, who also co-founded Bolay with his son, has taught him resilience and a verve for life, among other attributes. “My dad is the most optimistic and happy person I’ve ever been around in my life,” Gannon says. “He thinks that for everyone the world is your oyster and you just need to go after and go get it.”


Eat more chicken

An avid reader of leadership books, Gannon says some of his favorites are ones written by and about Chick-Fil-A and its founder, Truett Cathy. “They do such a deep, deep analysis of every decision,” he says. “They are so dedicated to doing the right thing over the long haul.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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