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Four Things Investment Firms Can Learn From The Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible
The premise of Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible show is that muscle-bound chef Robert Irwin is given two days and $10,000 to save a restaurant from going out of business. Some of these restaurants are literally within days of closing, and many are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. These owners are so desperate that they often invite the blustery Irwin to expose their mistakes to a national television audience.
You may wonder how in the world Restaurant Impossible relates to the investment industry. As it turns out, many of the mistakes new, and even seasoned, restaurant owners make are the same mistakes that prevent investment firms from achieving lasting success. After all, restaurants are great niches for SMBs (small to medium-sized businesses) because they are typically privately owned, operate in single locations, and use staff and systems to conduct day-to-day operations.
Here are four recurring themes from the show that provide valuable lessons for our industry.
1: Dysfunction starts at the top
Thanks to clever editing and a fast-paced one-hour format, the poor management at many of these restaurants is immediately apparent to viewers. There are owners who only attend for an hour or two daily in hopes of running the restaurant themselves. Conversely, there are owners who practically live in their restaurants, and are so out of touch with reality that they no longer realize that bad food/bad service/bad atmosphere is killing their business.
Lack of leadership is a common thread. Many episodes feature people with no real experience buying a restaurant, and subsequently struggle to define a purpose or vision for the business (besides just surviving).
Menus are often filled with dishes that the owner wants or likes, but not necessarily what the market demands. The staff is disorganized and fails to perform even the most basic tasks of their job (like cleaning, which sends an already testy Irwin into histrionics). It’s not always because employees are incompetent—it’s because they aren’t given clear direction from bosses and management about what the priorities and expectations are.
The leader of any organization must set the tone for that business. Does management articulate and share a common vision and goals for the business? Does the leader foster a culture of calculated risk-taking and innovation, or stick to what has made them successful in the past? Are employees given clear expectations, and held accountable for performing their responsibilities? Is there an emphasis on continuous evaluation and improvement?
In a small enterprise, it all needs to come from one place: the top.
#2: Being a good cook doesn’t make you a great boss (and vice-versa)
We are forced to play many roles at SMBs, but the best performing restaurateurs understand that the mere fact of owning a restaurant does not make them a great cook. At the same time, being a brilliant chef does not always make a savvy entrepreneur.
Many Restaurant Impossible shows feature husband/wife teams who mortgage their homes or use their entire retirement savings to buy a restaurant because one of them “had a dream and is a good cook.” Almost universally, these restaurants start losing money from day one, because as they quickly learn, being a good cook is not the same as running a business.
Similarly, private companies in our industry often have management structures that are determined by ownership stakes as opposed to expertise or ability. The CEO of the portfolio management firm may be the person who created the portfolio trading strategy. A sales manager can be a consultant who brings in a large book of business in exchange for equity. But do they have the skills to run a business or manage people? Maybe, maybe not.
When a company’s direction is determined by ownership (as opposed to expertise), business decisions regarding management, marketing, technology and long-term strategy are not always optimal. The owners in the most effective organizations (and restaurants) are willing and able to self-evaluate, and are able to help empower others. They know that the key to success is doing the best you can, and surrounding yourself with great people who do the rest.
#3: If you’re not measuring it, how can you manage it? (For example, Analytics 101)
Like Chef Irwin, we’re amazed at the number of failed restaurants on this show who still use paper tickets instead of automated POS (point of sale) software to manage their business. These are the same restaurant owners who, in the show’s opening camera interview, don’t know their food costs, their labor costs, or their profit margins on specific dishes. Prices are set arbitrarily based on competitors or “intuition”. Business intelligence is the story (“We seem to be the slowest on Wednesday night, but I’m not sure”).
At one such restaurant, the owners tell Irwin how grateful they are for their catering business because “it’s the only thing keeping our restaurant afloat.” A cursory examination of their financial situation shows that the catering business is actually costing the restaurant tens of thousands of dollars per year because of incorrect pricing.
At another restaurant, the owners insist they sell “a lot of beef wellingtons” but, because they fail to track or understand business analytics, they don’t realize that longtime customers only buy beef wellingtons, and there they are. Long-term customers are not enough to sustain a business. Or worse, the beef wellington costs more to make than the restaurant charges.
How many firms in our industry continue to arbitrarily set fees based on intuition or competitors’ pricing, without considering what it actually costs to provide services? For firms that charge fees based on client assets under management, are all clients “created equal?” Is a $50 million relationship always more profitable than a $10 million relationship? Can you calculate, with reasonable accuracy, the total service cost of every relationship you have? (This includes your staff time, fees paid to third-party services for reporting and custody, customer retention costs, etc.)
Sometimes, in the restaurant world, a group with a $500 meal for a table (and consuming the staff’s attention) for three hours is less profitable than three $100 customers who quietly come and go during the same period.
The opposite can also happen. We’ve seen or heard horror stories of clients with relatively small accounts who spend hours of productivity requesting in-person, and sometimes unreasonable, custom reports or frequent face-to-face meetings.
The point is this: if you don’t track these costs, you may be attracting customers who end up spending your money at the end of the day, regardless of the revenue they bring your business. But you’ll never know if your analytics are contained within some disparate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, anecdotal observations, or worse, nothing at all.
#4: Clinging to the past (rather than building for the future) is not a ‘recipe’ for success
Not every failed restaurant featured in Restaurant Impossible is owned by inexperienced or naive people. In fact, some of the most complex owners on the show have years of experience, and have successfully owned one or more restaurants in the past.
Their most common line of thinking is: “What worked then, why not now?”
One aspect of the show’s $10,000 “makeover” budget is that a professional designer comes in to “refresh” or modernize the interior of each restaurant. Many of these owners struggle to let go of cluttered and dated decor, believing that the design standards of the 1980s will continue to attract younger or more affluent customers.
They stubbornly resist changing menus that haven’t been updated in years to reflect different trends in the food industry or in their own communities. In one episode, the owners refuse to consider changing the menu or the decor because both are loved by long-time customers. The problem is that, aside from weekly visits by these loyal diners, the restaurant is a ghost town.
We in the investment industry are particularly guilty of this phenomenon. The 1980s and 1990s were a great time to be in this business. Coinciding with a booming economy and stock market, it was a time of prosperity in which elegant and expensive offices were seen as harbingers of success and credibility. Relationships with potential customers were built on golf courses and steak houses. It was almost impossible not to provide clients with healthy performance in their portfolios.
The industry-changing events of 2008 are still being felt today, but many firms have failed to adapt to the new and more rigorous approach to money management, transparency, and wealth itself. The industry is still behind the technology curve, with software purveyors and so-called “robo-advisors” making huge inroads while traditional firms (which still comprise the majority of the market) are lagging behind.
A huge investment generational gap exists, with most studies showing that Generation X and Millennials don’t use their parents’ advisors (and for some of the reasons mentioned above).
Ingredients for Success: A Checklist
Many restaurants that have heeded Chef Robert Irwin’s advice — and, more importantly, continued to carry forward his best practices — have reported increases in sales and profits after nearly going out of business. Here are some “stuff” to use for your own future success:
• Define your business goals. Remember, making money is not the goal. This is a consequence.
• Build the business culture around the business goals.
• Make sure that every employee in your business – including leadership above and beyond – has defined expectations and duties (defined meaning document). Share it with everyone in your organization.
• Owners and principals need to be honest with themselves, what they are good at and let others handle it.
• Management and ownership are two different creatures. It takes talented experts, independent of their proprietary interests, to run successful organizations.
• Make business decisions based on data, not intuition. Understand how much each customer is costing you. Build your pricing models around your costs and the added value you provide. If you’re building pricing models around what your competitors are doing, you’re a commodity.
• Look to the future, not the past. Emulate the leaders in your industry. Use the power of technology to increase the reach of your message and reduce costs.
• Understand the defining characteristics of the wealth-acquiring generation of Baby Boomers. Start now to position yourself for those generations as someone who “gets it.”
• And finally, if Robert Irwin ever visits your office, at least make sure everything is clean!
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