Aslam Khan, CEO of TGI Fridays, a 53-year-old global casual dining restaurant with 900 locations in 60-plus countries, is a big fan of self-education.
“If anybody wants to be educated today, it’s not a big deal. Before you had to look for a school and mentor and you needed to be physically there. Now you can walk into your room and [access] anybody on any subject anywhere in the world,” he says. “Just the other day someone called me from France, he had read about me and asked me for help on something. I was able to FaceTime with him and help. That’s amazing.”
Khan, who emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in his 30s, came to TGI Fridays in April of 2017 with a background in running a franchisee-driven business having spent years as the CEO of Falcon Holdings Management (he still owns Falcon but an executive team is operating the company). Falcon runs more than more than 100 Church’s Chickens restaurants, as well as multiple Long John Silvers, Hardees and a number of other fast food chains.
For Khan, who watches 10 hours of YouTube videos each week to keep himself educated on leadership and other pertinent topics, CEOs can never get enough education on how to do their jobs better. The education doesn’t just start and end on the computer screen though, Khan spent the past year learning all about the people, processes, and finances of the Dallas-based restaurant chain. He traveled across the globe, meeting the people who were responsible for making the restaurants go.
“I’m not cooking. I’m not cleaning. I’m not purchasing food. I’m not making schedules. I’m not setting up the tables. I’m doing none of that stuff. I am in a people business and I got to know that business really well,” he says.
Tackling industry challenges
Taking on the role of CEO at TGI Fridays required Khan to understand the challenges facing the company itself and the struggling casual dining industry at large. TGI Fridays had gone through a number of CEOs in the last few years before hiring Khan. Moreover, sales in the casual dining industry have slowed down significantly and many companies are closing locations left and right.
“I’m not cooking. I’m not cleaning. I’m not purchasing food. I’m not making schedules. I’m not setting up the tables. I’m doing none of that stuff. I am in a people business and I got to know that business really well.”
To understand the challenges of the company, Khan went on his global tour and talked to managers, bartenders, waitresses, and members of the office staff alike. He tried to understand the hurdles that were preventing them from doing their jobs. “I have a habit where I can go to any desk and sit down and talk to people at their level. And I think that was a great help.”
For the larger industry problems, Khan is leading with optimism and trying to prevent a chicken little mentality from seeping into his company. “A lot of people when they hear rumors [about closures or slowed sales], they go, ‘oh my God! oh my God!’ My team knows it’s not ‘oh my God,’ it’s ‘we’re in it and we know [there are challenges].’” Plus, he is confident that the challenges facing restaurant chains like TGI Fridays aren’t as dire as they seem. “You have to sit down and see what are those challenges are and you break them down in parts. And you realize not everything is bad.”
For instance, cost pressures can be cured through strategic purchasing, he notes. Another strategy to adjust to the pressures of the industry is the use of technology. For millennials and younger customers especially, this is important. TGI Fridays has made itself available through multiple online ordering apps and it allows customers to pay with Apple Pay and a few other phone pay apps. It also has a Fridays app, where people can order and pay directly.
Another investment is a new point-of-sale tablet device in restaurants, which not only has ordering and pay functions, but collects real-time data based on customer feedback. But technology doesn’t come without its own challenges, Khan says the company has to ensure its workers are still engaging customers. “We have to train them to learn our product and talk a little bit because the young generation today, they’re not as interested in talking, they want to text,” he says.
Of the 900-plus TGI Fridays restaurants, Khan has only 30 franchisees that he deals with—most own multiple restaurants. From Khan’s perspective, this makes communication easier. He says he spent his first six months building a relationship of trust with franchisees. “We are talking. We are debating. And sometimes we agree. Even when we disagree, we still smile at each other because it’s a good game of trust that we play all day long. And when you have a trust, the business goes faster,” he says.
“Training is the most important thing any company can do, but so many companies ignore their training. They think it’s an unnecessary expense, but I think that’s the most important expense the company could have.”
In a nutshell, this is how Khan describes his leadership. He considers himself a collaborative guy who seeks to empower his employees. “A few months ago, I met the waitresses and asked them what their pain points were. How could I ease those pain points? They were so thrilled because this was the first time any CEO in their career talked to them about those pain points, whether it was in the kitchen, on the floor, wherever it wasn’t working.”
So far Khan’s approach seems to have worked. While the company is private and won’t disclose financial information, he said that the company had met his aggressive sales metrics for the year. However, there have been closings of TGI Fridays restaurants and Khan says it’s important to “prune” the maturing restaurant industry.
For the coming year, Khan says the company will revamp the bar section of its restaurants, looking for creative ideas to breathe life into that area of the restaurant. It’s also working with different corporate officers and franchisees to test new items for its menu. Not shockingly, Khan, whose thirst for education never ends, is also focusing in on constantly training his employees. He says this facet of a company often gets overlooked.
“Training is the most important thing any company can do, but so many companies ignore their training. They think it’s an unnecessary expense, but I think that’s the most important expense the company could have. Train your people on what you’re working on and to provide good, quality service. People can ignore a lot of [things], but if you treat them poorly, they will remember it forever.”