Madame Chairman

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Roz Mallet balances two roles as she leads the NRA and her Dallas-based restaurant company.
By Barney Wolf May 2012 Executive Insights

As Roz Mallet treads the halls of Congress before meeting with legislators about important restaurant-industry issues, she’s on the phone, discussing a separate, vital matter with her business partner at their fledgling company back home in Dallas.

This type of balancing act has become routine for Mallet, who has the voluntary one-year role of chair of the National Restaurant Association.

It takes a particular personality to run a business at the same time as speaking for an industry that encompasses some 13 million people and affects tens of millions more.

“I’m happy to have the opportunity to represent our industry,” she says. At the same time, she advises, “No one does this unless they are excited and passionate about it.”

Those who know Rosalyn Mallet say she is perfect for the role.

“It is important at this time to have someone with a clear vision and who can articulate that vision. That’s Roz,” says Wallace Doolin, a veteran restaurant executive who is founder, chairman and chief executive of Thomas Doolin & Associates in Dallas, Texas.

“She is such an immense talent,” adds the industry veteran and consultant, who has been one of Mallet’s mentors since he first hired her nearly three decades ago at a then-budding Applebee’s. “She knows the restaurant business and knows it very well.”

Mallet is an ideal leader for the association because she thinks strategically and is “genuinely interested in the state of the industry,” says Edna Morris, managing director of Charlotte, North Carolina-based private equity firm Axum Capital Partners.

“Roz is passionate, but it’s a quiet passion,” says the long-time restaurant-industry professional, whose career includes a stint as president of Red Lobster. “She doesn’t have to be the center of attention. But when she speaks, she has something to say.”

Mallet’s restaurant career includes leadership in human resources, operations, franchising, strategy, and more at casual and limited-service restaurant companies.

Next: President, CEO of PhaseNext Hospitality

President, CEO of PhaseNext Hospitality

Today, she is president and chief executive of PhaseNext Hospitality, a young company that develops eateries in nontraditional sites such as airports and military bases.

That wide array of experience and passion positioned Mallet, 57, to become the first African-American woman to lead the restaurant association.

Serving as chair is a significant commitment, “and Roz has embraced it with both arms,” says Dawn Sweeney, the NRA’s president and chief executive.

Mallet has led the association since January, having been passed the torch from her predecessor, friend and business associate, Sally Smith, Buffalo Wild Wings’ CEO.

This position is “not for the faint of heart,” Sweeney says. The issues being faced by restaurants – including health care, swipe fees, immigration, commodity costs and taxes – are complex and time-consuming.

“Roz is able to address all these,” she says, “and is doing phenomenally well.”

Giving back to the industry is important to Mallet, who has mentored dozens of restaurant pros. She says she learned this from the likes of Doolin, Morris and others.

“People invested their time to help me to the top,” she says. “I believe in paying forward, and I love the opportunity to do that. That is part of the culture of our industry.”

Still, the fact that she now finds herself addressing large audiences and speaking one-on-one with governors, senators and various business leaders is still a bit unreal.

“I grew up as a very shy person,” Mallet says. “I find myself at the podium or in certain situations and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with these people.’ ”

The oldest daughter in a family of three children, Mallet learned about commitment and hard work from her father, a union organizer in her hometown of Houston.

Next: 'Embodies the industry's best attributes'

'Embodies the industry's best attributes'

Like many before and after her, Mallet began in the restaurant business as a student. In many ways, she embodies the industry’s best attributes, Sweeney says, starting work at the lowest rung and rising to the top ranks of the business.

After Mallet’s freshman year at college, she was encouraged by her brother to take a job at an El Chico restaurant where he worked.

When she showed up for the interview, the crew was swamped, and her brother told her to help the cashier. That’s where the manager found her.

Mallet was hired. And within a couple of months, she became a supervisor.

Some people might say this and future promotions were “because I’m such an intense, want-to-get-it-done person,” she says, chuckling. “But I was willing to work hard, extra hours, and learn the other positions. I enjoyed that.”

Mallet returned to El Chico as a supervisor the next two summers. As she neared graduation in 1977, she was torn between taking a job teaching or a management position with the restaurant company.

“I took the restaurant job because it paid more,” Mallet recalls.

She worked as an assistant manager at a restaurant before moving to the corporate training department, helping to open new units.

In 1982 El Chico’s president, Richard Rivera, left to join Doolin at W.R. Grace & Co., a conglomerate developing a foodservice empire. Rivera referred Mallet to Doolin, who hired her in 1983 as training supervisor at a newly acquired two-unit chain, Applebee’s.

“I wanted to bring in someone in human resources who had some knowledge of operations,” Doolin recalls. “You look for the best talent, not just the best experience, but sometimes they both line up.”

At Applebee’s, Mallet eventually became director of human resources and helped establish a successful franchise. When the business was sold in 1988, it had 54 units.

When the new owners moved the company to Kansas City, Mallet balked. She wanted to stay in Dallas, so she began working with Doolin’s wife, Joni, who had a recruiting consultancy. At the time she had no interest in returning to the corporate world.

Next: A return to Applebee's as vp of human resources

A return to Applebee's as vp of human resources

That changed in 1995, when – after consulting with the Doolins – Mallet returned to Applebee’s as vice president of human resources and also a trusted adviser.

“Roz helps herself by the thoughtful, insightful questions she asks, and she really listens,” says Morris, who has known Mallet for years. “Our industry is filled with lively people, but there is a quietness about her. She never minces words.”

Still, she can be fun and lighthearted away from work, Morris adds.

Mallet’s leadership and mentoring in the restaurant industry was beginning to be recognized. In 1997, for instance, she was presented the Elliot Motivator of the Year Award for setting standards of excellence in human resources.

Among her many qualities are compassion, curiosity, activism, and thinking strategically, says Alice Elliot, founder and CEO of the Elliot Group, an executive search and strategic consulting firm in Tarrytown, New York, that gives the award.

“Roz likes to embrace a situation, think it out, and figure out in her mind’s eye the best solution,” Elliot says. “She’s not prone to overreacting, and – combined with her human capital background – gets to an answer, an approach or a goal most of the time.”

A few years later, when Doolin was CEO of TGI Friday’s and its parent company, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc., he “needed somebody really good to be a partner in human resources that understood operations,” he says. “At the top of my list was Roz.”

Mallet became senior vice president of human resources and assisted in strategy.

Then in 2003, a year after Doolin became CEO at Le Madeleine, the Dallas-based café-bakery chain, Mallet joined him again, this time as chief operating officer.

Now, firmly planted in the C-Suite, she drew interest from corporate boards and in 2006 was named a director at Caribou Coffee Co. Inc. A year later, she was hired as the Minneapolis-based chain’s president and chief operating officer.

When her predecessor at the financially stressed company stepped down as chairman and chief executive in late 2007, she added the title of interim CEO.

Next: Recognized with WFF's 2008 Trailblazer Award

Recognized with WFF's 2008 Trailblazer Award

Her long leadership and mentorship were recognized with the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s 2008 Trailblazer Award for supporting gender diversity and creating new paths for women in the industry.

Shortly afterward, however, Caribou decided to go in a different direction for its permanent CEO. Mallet decided it was time for her to change course as well.

During her time at Caribou, one of those who reported to her was Amy O’Neil, the company’s vice president of store operations.

O’Neil says Mallet had a reputation of being very bright, very professional and all business, “and that was my initial take on her as well.” But only when she got to see her new boss in action did she recognize the true nature of her leadership.

“The first thing she did was ask me how could I help (the company),” O’Neil says. “That validated me as a leader in the business.”

Over time, Mallet and O’Neil would discuss business philosophy and leadership.

“The ‘how’ in business is just as important as the ‘what,’ ” O’Neil says. “You have a goal in business or life, so how you go about achieving that is just as important as what the goal is. It’s often what defines you, and Roz takes that to heart.”

O’Neil left Caribou shortly after Mallet, and that accelerated the conversation to work together. They had the opportunity to franchise a large casual-dining brand, but eventually decided to be operators. And nontraditional restaurants seemed interesting.

“I was intrigued with the captive-audience piece,” Mallet says. “When you are starting a business during a recession, the ability to mitigate the traffic issue is very important.”

She noticed that even when the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport saw declining traffic, it still had 50 million passengers annually plus thousands of workers. Meanwhile, numerous airports and other nontraditional sites were looking to refresh their offerings.

Combine that with the ability to obtain minority certification for both African-American and female ownership, which provides extra points in certain requests for proposals (RFPS), and it “gave us a matrix” for a new business.

Next: Becoming a franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings, Smashburger

Becoming a franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings, Smashburger

PhaseNext denotes the next phase of Mallet’s and O’Neil’s careers. They have become franchisees of Buffalo Wild Wings, Smashburger, Corner Bakery Café and Freshii.

The company’s first two units, a BWW and a Smashburger, opened in 2010 at Freedom Crossing, an open-air shopping center on Fort Bliss, a huge Army post next to El Paso, Texas.

Smashburger teamed up with PhaseNext because “Roz and Amy are good, smart operators, and Roz has such tremendous experience in the business,” explains Doug Branigan, senior vice president of franchising for the Denver, Colorado-based chain.

“They are doing a great job at Fort Bliss, and have shown the ability to operate a Smashburger.”

PhaseNext will add three Corner Bakery units at the nation’s busiest airfield, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, by the end of the year, and a BWW there in 2013.

Dallas-based Corner Bakery was comfortable collaborating with PhaseNext because of Mallet’s experience in the café bakery industry and her “impressive track record,” says John LaBarge, vice president of franchise business.

PhaseNext is “our only (nontraditional) partner,” he says. “We wanted to have the opportunity to work with an industry leader like Roz. She’s known people in our organization for years, and we certainly knew her.”

Rosalyn “Roz” Mallet

Age: 57

Title: President and chief executive officer, PhaseNext Hospitality
2012 Chair, National Restaurant Association

Residence: Plano, Texas

College: St. Mary’s College, San Antonio, Texas, B.A., psychology

First job: Cashier, El Chico Restaurant, Houston, Texas

Career Highlight: Starting my own business

Best Advice Ever Received: You have to believe you can make an impact

Favorite Food to Cook at Home: Anything grilled

Favorite Food to Eat Out: Salads at Houston’s (in Dallas, Texas)

Guilty Pleasure: French fries or potato chips

Hobbies: Travel to beaches, reading

Best Place to Visit on Vacation: Maui

Hero: Nelson Mandela

One of the most difficult aspects of the new business has been the RFP process, which involves a learning curve and can take upward of 18 months to complete. It requires patience, “something I’m not that good at,” Mallet acknowledges.

While much of her time is taken with NRA business, Mallet is always in communication with O’Neil, the chief operating officer, to discuss important issues by phone or email.

Mallet is also a member of the board of directors of Northcott Hospitality, a restaurant and hospitality company, and is deeply involved with various volunteer groups, including Share Our Strength, a nonprofit focused on ending childhood hunger.

She joined the NRA board in 2004 and had the typical stair-step advance the past three years, being elected treasurer, then vice chair and finally chair.

If there’s one thing Mallet wants to accomplish leading the restaurant association, it’s to help regulators and legislators realize that healthy restaurants are key to the recovery.

“I am a small-business owner and a franchisee, but I also have experience with big companies, so I can stand in front of these people and say we truly need help raising capital” to create jobs, she says. Onerous, costly regulations also hold operators back.

Mallet believes more foodservice professionals need to get involved.

“Not everyone can speak before Congress, but you can talk to local or state officials about what affects a healthy business,” she says. “Tell them what’s important to you.”