Every day a CEO might see some sort of reminder that she is supposed to be leading her company with “purpose” now, with some sort of sublime mission that elevates the entire entity above the mere pursuit of sales, profits, returns for investors and financial prosperity for its employees.
Christine Specht, CEO of Cousins Subs, based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, embraces that challenge. But the second-generation chief of the family-owned fast-casual restaurant chain, with estimated sales north of $50 million, defines “purpose” that not only seeks to inspire her employees and franchisees but also is highly achievable for a mid-market company in a crazily competitive business.
“We may not be rolling back the seas, but what I do know is what I can focus on and keep under my control – keep living our mission and producing sandwiches underneath a great leadership team and employees,” says Specht, whose 47-year-old company owns and franchises about 100 stores in Wisconsin and Illinois.
So while more CEOs are making sure consumers, employees and other stakeholders know that their company operates in the much-talked-about realm of greater “purpose,” with goals ranging from sustainability to position-taking on social issues, Specht embraces the concept in a closer-to-home kind of way: ensuring that Cousins means what it should and grows as it should.
“Our four values are being grounded, optimistic, passionate and purposeful,” Specht explains. “The idea of leading with purpose, for me, is the natural way to lead. It’s to say that we’re not going to blindly allow our brand to happen to us. We want to shape the brand for consumers and investors, being purposeful about how we lead and keeping our eye on the ball. If you just let things or actions go, or there is inaction in decision-making, you can lose control of the brand.”
Specht has faced challenges in ushering Cousins to this threshold. Her father, Bill Specht, and his cousin started the outfit in Milwaukee and expanded the chain across southern Wisconsin. Christine Specht rose through the company to president and chief operating officer in 2008 and, upon her father’s retirement, to president and CEO in 2015. She has been CEO since January.
Along the way, the sub market exploded in the form of giants such as Subway, which grew to having more outlets nationwide than any other fast-food chain, and Jimmy John’s, which became a $2-billion, private-equity-fueled juggernaut. Specht found it necessary in 2013 to pare about 40 Cousins units and to launch a rebranding which has included new store design and menu refreshment.
“We shuttered restaurants and reduced the number of franchisees we had, and that was necessary to make sure the core of the brand was a strong as it could be,” Specht said. “We wanted to have good average unit volumes so that we would be attractive for future investors.”
And now, in the wake of opening the chain’s first two units in Chicago under a 40-store agreement with two franchise investors, Specht is gazing at other states for expansion including Indiana and Missouri.
At the same time, Specht pays close attention to the detail, including regularly working stints as a cashier. And those in-store experiences have helped her come up with her definition of Cousins’ purpose. “When you make and sell subs well, there’s a lot of good that comes out of it,” she says. “Guests are satisfied, and we can help the community” through employment and charity programs, “which is important.”
Specht doesn’t criticize CEOs that express a loftier, externally oriented purpose but focuses on what she believes will work for her company. “Missional aspirations are great things, and we look at those things,” she says. “But we can’t be all things to all people. We really try to stay true to who we are.
“And at the heart of it, our business is that we make subs. We make them better, through continual improvement in everything we do. And so much good can come out of that. It can seem to people like we’re just making a sandwich, but we’re making the world better one sub at a time.”