Up until ten years ago, almost all the chief financial officers in the restaurant industry were male. At the recent Restaurant Finance & Development Conference, 36 of the 243 CFOs attending, or 15%, were female. One of them, Lina O’Connor, CFO of Tender Greens, in Culver City, Calif., remarked, "Fifteen percent is better than zero and the needle is moving, however slowly."
According to restaurant industry recruiters, further movement is coming. Bob Gershberg, CEO and managing partner of Wray Executive Search in St. Petersburg, Fla., said, "There has certainly been a push nationally and industry-wide for more C-suite diversity. Most mid-size and large restaurant companies that hire us for a CFO search request some gender diversity on the slate."
Wray and other top search firms are paid a retainer by clients to find candidates for executive positions. At the end of each search - a period of three to six months currently for a restaurant industry CFO - the firm presents a slate of three or more qualified candidates to the client, who makes the final hiring decision.
Alice Elliot, founder and CEO of The Elliot Group in Tarrytown, NY, said her firm has been offering inclusive slates for all of its 30-year history. "That said," Elliot added, "we always look for the best talent in the space. The CFO holds a coveted position as a thought leader in the industry."
Today’s restaurant industry clients want CFO candidates who are good with numbers, hold an MBA, a CPA or both. Gershberg said, "At the CFO level, a candidate needs to be a strategic financial thinker and most clients have a bias toward experience in the restaurant industry, where everything happens at a quicker pace."
The role of the CFO has expanded and today’s candidates must also have an understanding of the global marketplace and the pulse of technology, said Elliot, plus possess good communication skills, be a collaborative leader and "be really smart."
Steve Gibson, founder and CEO of TalentServed Recruiting Studio, in Roswell, Ga., said, "Our clients aren’t looking for males or females. In almost every case, they want somebody already working in the CFO role at a competitor they admire." If clients have an eye for growth, Gibson continued, they want a CFO who has shepherded similar growth in their current positions.
Lina O’Connor joined Tender Greens almost six years ago as the new chain, known for serving fine-dining ingredients at fast casual prices, was just starting. "I was the director of finance and the founders’ first corporate employee," said O’Connor, who has an MBA from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. "It took me a couple of years to convince
the founders I was ready to be their CFO." Today, Tender Greens, with 26 units in California, is expanding nationally and opened its first restaurant in Manhattan in February. "I get a lot of calls from recruiters," O’Connor laughed, "but I am so excited about our brand I would not take another job for the sake of growing my career."
The careers of other female CFOs are growing impressively. In the past few months, Sonic Corporation’s CFO Claudia San Pedro was promoted to be that company’s president and former CFO Liz Williams is now president of Taco Bell International. Both women had been promoted to their CFO posts from within their companies.
Female CFOs are also finding key positions in emerging restaurant brands. In January, Mandy Shaw left her CFO position at Bloomin’ Brands Inc. in Tampa to become the CFO of Blaze Pizza LLC in Pasadena. Anita Adams joined the rapidly growing Black Bear Diner in 2017 after eight years at American Blue Ribbon Holdings.
Even so, the Women’s Foodservice Forum reports "Women are still significantly under-represented in C-suites and on executive teams." WFF’s 2014 report, "A Road Map to the C-Suite," reveals women who do reach top positions in the foodservice sector are more ambitious than their peers. They develop career plans early—25% do this in college!—and, once hired, take risks, including taking on new experiences and roles, even if they do not feel fully prepared. They also progress more quickly through lower levels of leadership.
Dana Zukofsky, director in the national restaurant practice of BDO USA in New York, agrees. "I do think in order to rise you have to be ambitious and hard-working and you have to want it. Not only are smart, ambitious women getting there faster, they are getting there younger. This is a great time for women in the industry. When I first started attending the RFDC 10 years ago, there were so few females I organized a girls night out for a group of us. Now there are so many women attending, they find each other naturally."
Executive recruiter Gershberg said Wray Executive Search has placed many women into CFO and other C-suite positions. "Of the companies we track in the industry, 27% of current CEOs are women as are 21% of CFOs," he said.
But the numbers are still daunting. Lina O’Connor said, "I am often the only woman at an industry event, like a recent dinner for 30 people. Afterwards, I said to the organizer, ‘Next year, let me help you plan the guest list.’ I have a responsibility to make sure I am not the only woman with a seat at the table."