Forrester leads Friday's out of the woods
20 February, 2013
People are at the beating heart of the turn-around strategy at TGI Friday's UK business. As boss Karen Forrester says, 'Everything we do at Friday's is replicable, except our culture'. Peter Martin finds out why
Casual dining has a brand new hero. TGI Friday’s UK managing director, Karen Forrester, is becoming one of the most talked about people in the sector—not least since she blew away an audience of fellow top executives at the Peach 2020 conference last November.
Her straight-talking and passionate performance—without notes or Powerpoint—describing how she engineered a people-led recovery at the once struggling chain won her a host of new admirers—and has been an industry talking point ever since. Winning over your industry peers is no mean feat, inspiring them is something else.
It has been quite a time for Forrester and Friday’s—conference appearances apart. Both brand and boss have won a raft of plaudits for the business transformation. Expansion is back on track, the brand has seen 14 consecutive quarters of growth in the UK and Forrester herself has been promoted to the global executive team of Friday’s parent, Carlson Restaurants.
It has now culminated in the brand gaining a coveted Three Stars rating in the Sunday Times 2013 Best Companies to Work awards, which will be officially announced this March. For Forrester, recognition of this human dimension is probably the best reward of all. While some in the eating-out market still pay only lip service to the importance of people, Karen Forrester and her TGIF team live and breathe it.
She repeats a quote that she believes perfectly sums up TGI Friday’s now: “If it looks good you’ll see it, if it sounds good you’ll hear it, if it’s marketed right you’ll buy it, but if it’s real you’ll feel it. That authentic Friday’s feeling is the thing that differentiates us.”
Losing the love
But she admits when she started five years ago, the US import was “out-positioned”, and lacked investment in both people and estate. “We were seen as tired and dated, and maybe on our way out. We were sadly unloved.” The simple task she was given was to “fix it”.
At times like that you have to focus firmly on the prize, she says. “It looked a bit like Friday’s, it still acted a bit like Friday’s, but it didn’t feel like Friday’s. The love was gone and the people had lost pride.”
So she embarked on an unashamedly people-led strategy, which has now been followed religiously for four years. “We had to redefine the culture, engage our people and reignite the brand.”
Looking back, the starting point was quite brutal—not to say massively ambitious. It was to make sure she had the right people on board. During that initial process everyone in the organisation was assessed and classified into ‘players’, ‘wannabe players’ (typically those who just needed more training to make the grade) and ‘potential players’ (those that could go either way). She also admits to a fourth category, rather unflatteringly tagged ‘the assassins’, those few that she knew would have to go as they had the ability to sabotage everyone else.
Cutting the dead wood
She stresses that taking them out of the business was done methodically and within employment law, but go they did. And she says “things were much better when we had got rid of them”.
The process, one that many in the sector still seem to avoid, is actually text-book Jim Sullivan, straight from the pages of the great US restaurant guru who Forrester admits to being influenced by back in her early career at Mitchells & Butlers. As Sullivan would say, it’s about “getting the right people on the bus” and getting rid of the “dead wood”—and quickly.
This ‘right people’ exercise is now repeated every year—although it is now far less traumatic. Assessing, retraining and re-certifying everyone in the organisation is, however, a massive investment in executive time and money, but Forrester has no doubt it’s worth every penny and hour spent.
First time around, out of 3,000 employees, approximately 12% were sifted out, with 20% needing to improve, “which most did”, says Forrester happily. Four years on, just 2% leave the business, and that’s
usually simply down to personality, she says. Many in the industry have suggested the process is worthy of a Harvard case study. Who could argue?
Fun is a no-brainer
But it is just one of a series of set events that Friday’s embark on each year. At the end of every October the board sets out the plan for the next year, via a two-hour conference which is then communicated down to store level “so that everyone knows what’s going on”, says Forrester.
That is then followed up by the annual Team Challenge in November. Although all restaurants in the group are continually measured through a balanced scorecard check, the challenge is about rewarding individual team players on the floor.
During the month, Karen and her executive team go into every restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night to find people to recognise individually. “We’re not there to catch them out, but to see them at their best,” she says.
Great performers are instantly rewarded with gifts, such as iTunes
vouchers or iPods. Forrester enthuses about the effect this has on the team—and the customers. She sees all guest comments, and rolls off stories of the buzz created around a restaurant when servers are recognised and the knock-on effect it has on guests. Last year, 10% of team was rewarded over the month.
From a business point of view it means all the Friday’s teams are at their peak as they go into the vital trading period of Christmas and into the New Year. “The momentum is huge,” Forrester adds.
But recognition and fun are integral to the Friday’s philosophy and a year-round phenomenon. “Our year’s activities are full of fun things,” she says, pointing to a “Funny in 15 seconds” challenge to team members, when they were asked to create and video a 15-second skit, with a trip to Paris going to the best. “Fun is a no brainer,” she says.
Pride, passion and personality were at the heart of change at Friday’s. “It’s about how people dress, look after themselves and the place. How they interact with customers and colleagues. When they come to work they have to bring their personality with them,” she says.
Authenticity is also a word Forrester places much emphasis on: “You have to be authentic. Brands have to stand for something. There has to be an emotional attachment.”
Going back to basics at the start was also about understanding the original values of TGI Friday’s in the US–and how recognition was a key component.
“Values had become really corporate,” Forrester says. She now sets out three simple values for the business: “Pride, a contagious belief in our family and our brand; passion, pursuing excellence on our stage; personality, seeking opportunities to shine.”
But the key link had always been to reward those values in team members by awarding them pins, the badges old Friday’s hands will remember festooned the braces of staff members. Although staff still had them, no one remembered what they had won them for, she recalls.
Now, Friday’s has started afresh, bringing back the tradition, but with everyone having to earn them again. “We have our stripes back,” she says, but it is vital they have to be worked for.
Although the pins may be an obvious manifestation of recognition, it comes in other ways too, like the team challenge rewards. Friday’s has a Gold Mark card scheme, much as Disney does, which provides on-the- spot recognition and reward for a job well done.
The Friday’s Legends is another example, where team members were asked to nominate unsung heroes. “We had 505 nominations and some wonderful stories. We got that down to 108 and then treated them all to a day out.”
In January, the UK business also flew 400 of its people over to Florida for a party. “We can’t afford not to do it,” Forrester says, describing it as a “huge deposit in the emotional bank account”. People are a long-term investment and “you have to stick to your guns”. “We won’t risk the culture,” she says.
There are financial rewards too, with 98% of managers receiving bonuses last year. The overall investment has paid off at the bottom-line as well. The UK operation is now on a solid financial foundation, and is already up to 55 sites and 4,500 employees. It plans to open 20 new restaurants over the next three years, and has just announced plans for the next six.
From the inside up
Karen Forrester is a natural leader and personifies Friday’s in the UK today, but that won’t be forever. While not looking to move on any time soon, she does look down the road when she will need to look at succession management.
She is building a strong team around her and recognises there are already a handful of contenders who she could turn to. Most of her senior managers are graduates, but building from the floor up is also a vital ingredient. “They may have degrees, but they’ve also fallen in love with the brand, often having worked at Friday’s while students, and then deciding this is a career path for them,” she says.
Of the restaurant managers in training, 70% are internal appointments, and the external candidates are only accepted after an intensive 12-week programme. No one is appointed as a general manager directly from the outside.
Forrester is aware of the dangers of growth. “We served 10 million guests last year, but our approach has to be to serve each one at a time. Every guest has to be special. When you get big, the danger is you start thinking in numbers.” That’s why she wants to enshrine
that in company culture. Her latest idea is to produce a Legends of Friday’s book with a dozen or so stories of exceptional service from Friday’s people. “We’ll then take all those featured on a trip of a lifetime.”
So that’s why this latest accolade from the Sunday Times is so special. “We said two years ago we were going to get it and make it a great place to work, and we have,” she reflects. But the fact that the award is based on feedback from the team, and that TGI Friday’s had a 80% response rate, is testament to that commitment to people engagement and recognition.
Karen Forrester’s infectious enthusiasm may have made her the casual dining market’s brightest star, but it’s her teams that inspire her.
* Social responsibility
Corporate social responsibility is part of the TGI Friday's package too. “We we’re told two years ago that CSR wasn’t good, so we had to fix it. For example, 96% of waste was then going to landfill—now it’s 100% recycled,” Karen Forrester says. “The younger generation really care about that.”
This is a reflection of the emphasis on good two-way internal communication. It’s not just the company telling the teams what’s going on, but listening to what they have to say too. TGIF encourages its people to talk—including to each other, not least via their own blogsite.
* Back to the future
Putting Friday’s people, the team, first is second nature to Karen Forrester. To quote Jim Sullivan again: “Look after your team and they’ll look after the customers.”
It’s a philosophy she learned from her days running O’Neill’s and then All Bar One at M&B, working with Tony Hughes, then busy transforming the former national brewer’s food-led businesses. Hughes has been a major influence on her career and remains a friend and mentor. As well as being the former boss of M&B’s restaurant group, Hughes also has the added experience of being the man who first brought TGI Friday’s to the UK from the United States when at Whitbread—something Forrester has tapped into.
Her other acknowledged influences include the likes of the aforementioned Jim Sullivan and Chris Muller, former dean of Boston University’s school of hospitality administration, both of which she encountered when at M&B. She has also spent much time in the States lately with TGI Friday’s founder Dan Scoggins, who has helped her tap into the original Friday’s values.
“It was important to go back and study what made Friday’s in the first place,” she says. Recognition is in its DNA, she says, which has led directly to the decision to ‘give the stripes back’—to reintroduce the awards scheme where team members gain pins (or medals as Forrester sees them) for great work.
Tony Hughes, who has known her for 20 year, says of Karen Forrester: “She is a woman with a mission. I saw it when she was creating O’Neill’s and then when she came over to work with me at All Bar One. Her great strengths are the passion and enthusiasm she brings to everything she does, which rubs off on the people she works with. She’s a great example of leadership by example. I’m a huge fan—and very proud of her too.”