Restaurant leadership has undergone some big changes over the past quarter century.
As the foodservice business grows more complicated and global, executives find themselves broadening their areas of expertise and digging deeper into an ever-expanding toolbox of skills to meet a mushrooming mass of daily challenges.
But through it all, one element has remained constant: talent. And finding people with the right stuff–as well as nurturing them–is where Alice Elliot has excelled.
“She has a way to zero in on people’s best talents,” says Edna Morris, managing director and leader of the restaurant strategy practice at Axum Capital Partners, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based private equity firm focused on restaurants and education services.
“Alice listens so well to your dreams, and she is always a great sounding board,” adds Morris, who, like hundreds of others, considers Elliot a personal friend as well as a business confidant. “She is especially good at seeing how a talent fits an organization.”
Title: Founder and CEO, The Elliot Group, Tarrytown, New York
Home: Westchester County, New York
Family: Husband, Gary, who owns a residential real estate company; two children, both in their early 20s
Education: University of Colorado at Boulder, B.A., American history
Favorite food to cook: Anything that gets everyone around the table
Favorite food to eat out: Ice cream
Guilty pleasure: I love to read, walk, and explore
Best advice: Never lose your compass point
Hobbies: Reading newspapers and magazines
Hero: Everyone has his or her own unique gift. I learn something from everyone
Stature in the industry is gigantic
Despite her being about 5 feet tall, Elliot’s stature in the restaurant industry is gigantic. For three decades as an expert on and developer of human capital, the native New Yorker has become a mighty force in foodservice and other industries.
She’s done that by getting to know people, one at a time. She looks forward to, as she calls it, “breaking bread” with friends or new acquaintances to learn more about them.
“We really do drink the Kool-Aid of changing people’s careers and therefore changing people’s lives,” says Elliot, founder and chief executive of headhunting firm The Elliot Group. “There’s no replacement for human capital and no replacement for leadership.”
The Elliot Group has headquarters in Tarrytown, New York, near her Westchester County home, and three regional offices around the country.
The search for strong leadership talent “has been my life’s craft,” she says. She and her Elliot Group colleagues continually strive to be ahead of the curve on leadership issues that are strategic, operational, fiscal, environmental, technological, and more.
“The world has changed, and the sophistication and skill sets and global view people are expected to bring to leadership has changed along with it,” Elliot says.
“It’s not that leaders have to know something about everything, but they need to have a curiosity and be accomplished enough to surround themselves with others who have great skill sets. There’s so much more going on in business, with strategic thinking and technology and brand strategy. You can’t operate in a vacuum any longer.”
The hospitality industry is particular because leaders “need to oversee a lot of moving parts,” she says. “There are all types of issues: people, commodity costs, store-level unit economics, marketing, public relations, food quality, on and on.”
Elliot’s company is also people-driven, and she is a matchmaker, connecting the right person with the right job at the right enterprise. She does that by getting to know a company’s culture and by cultivating relationships with people she finds truly talented.
“We at Elliot Group are fanatical, always looking for the best in class,” she says.
Elliot accomplishes all this with a verve that is infectious and unparalleled.
“Alice has this passion to put people together, a passion that goes well beyond her making money for her company and making her company successful,” says long-time friend Julia Stewart, chairman and chief executive of DineEquity Inc., parent of IHOP and Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar.
Stewart says that there are plenty of people working in the executive recruiting business, but few–if any–spend the amount of time Elliot does matching people.
“It’s this passion that drives her, putting two people together that may have a spark of interest,” Stewart says. “It makes her unique and special.”
Just as important is the time and effort Elliot spends without pay – to mentor and coach talented individuals to become leaders. One of them was Stewart, who had met Elliot early in both of their careers at a National Restaurant Association dinner.
They struck up a friendship and would meet on occasion to discuss business and Stewart’s career. At the time, Stewart was a marketing executive, but she confided to Elliot that she had a genuine desire to run a business.
“Alice challenged me that if I wanted to lead a company, I would need to have experience” in other areas, Stewart says. A few years later, she took up that challenge and went into operations. “That was instrumental in making my career.”
‘She was a great voice of reason’
Similar stories about Elliot dot the restaurant industry landscape, and many executives who reach the top rung point out her role. Jon Luther did just that when he won the 2007 Gold Plate Award from the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association.
“No one gets there alone,” the Dunkin’ Brands non-executive chairman and former CEO says about acknowledging Elliot in his speech. “There are people along the way who put an arm around you and say, ‘How can I help?’ Alice was one of those.”
Luther met Elliot in the early 1980s. She “was always very helpful as I went through transitions. She was a great voice of reason. You never felt it was all you–you felt you were part of something else, something bigger.”
He calls Elliot “probably the leading woman in our industry, but she always has remained very humble. She knows everyone and discusses important, confidential matters with plenty of executives, but she is very good about managing those confidentialities.”
Humble also describes Elliot’s upbringing.
She grew up in an “Archie Bunker-type home” in Queens, the only daughter in a family that included three older brothers. She attended public school.
Her mother was a part-time dental hygienist, and her father operated a small employment agency that found factory jobs for immigrants and other laborers. Elliot calls her dad a “fascinating guy” who impacted the lives of hundreds of people.
“I would go to work with him–first when I was 6,” she says. “He would get these people jobs, and they would use their pay to bring their families over or to send money over to their families back home.”
Her dad “always talked about changing people’s lives. I thought that was the most honorable thing. What my dad did was an incredible point of pride–to help families to do better for themselves. I still believe that.”
She also learned about business in her first job, a high school rag-trade position, working as an administrative assistant for a family-owned factory that manufactured men’s slacks and suits in New York’s Garment Center.
The young woman helped administer the factory’s piece-rate system. She continued that summer job through college, when she attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, thanks to loans taken out by her parents.
Elliot was offered a full-time job at the clothing company and considered going for a law degree, but she opted to go into the personnel business after graduating magna cum laude in 1978 with a degree in American history. Her first experience was not pleasant.
“I worked for a woman who was unbelievably mean to me,” she recalls. “I learned a lot about what wouldn’t make a great leader. I came from an entrepreneurial home, and that helped define how I thought people should be treated. It wasn’t like this.”
So, at age 23, Elliot struck out on her own. She set up shop in an expensive office in Manhattan and went about connecting with people. Her relationships grew, but her lack of business knowledge turned out to be a fatal flaw.
‘They even took my engagement ring’
Three years later, she declared bankruptcy.
“I lost everything,” she recalls. “They even took my engagement ring.”
Elliot realized that to succeed in the human-resources world, she had to better understand business. So she took courses sponsored by the American Women’s Economic Development Corp., which also provided counseling, seminars and peer group support.
While taking night courses to learn about fundamentals, she launched Elliot Associates in 1984 with a phone at the foot of her bed in a one-bedroom apartment she shared with her husband, Gary.
This time, with more control over expenses and a better grasp of business, her personnel company grew and, over time, flourished. Still, she never forgot those difficult days, calling it one of the most humiliating times of her life.
“I paid off my debt,” she notes. “It took a while, but I did it.”
Elliot now has several businesses under The Elliot Group banner. In addition to Elliot Associates Inc., now a national executive search firm, there are Elliot Executive Source Ltd., a food industry executive search firm, and Elliot Productions Inc., a provider of education and motivational products for the food and hospitality businesses.
The enterprise launched The Elliot Leadership Institute, a nonprofit foodservice industry executive development organization. For many years, the company also held the Elliot Leadership Conference, a private event that drew several hundred top hospitality and service industry execs annually to discuss important issues of the day.
The leadership conference was last held in 2009, when the recession was clobbering the hospitality industry. Morris, Stewart and Luther all won the conference’s prestigious Mentor Award, recognizing foodservice leaders for their contributions and inspiration.
Rick Federico, the chairman and CEO at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc., is another Mentor award winner. Federico says Elliot is “incredibly good at developing and maintaining unique relationships. Alice has developed her network inside and outside the industry.”
If he is looking for a high-level executive, and Elliot says “there are three people I think you should be talking to, I know they are top-quality people. If Alice offers a name to me, that person is completely vetted.”
The Elliot filter, which she has imparted to her entire organization, includes knowing all of the personalities involved, the demands of the job and the company’s culture.
She knows the personalities of many executives because she helped tutor them.
Alice Elliot’s eye for talent knows no limits.
Julia Stewart, chairman and chief executive of DineEquity Inc., recalls an incident a few years ago to illustrate the point.
She and Elliot, founder and CEO of The Elliot Group, agreed to meet for lunch to catch up during a Women’s Foodservice Forum event, but Stewart was running late. When she arrived at the hotel, she found Elliot mesmerized, deep in thought.
“She told me she was watching this woman polish all the brass in this hotel, and was fascinated,” Stewart says. “Alice got up from her seat, went over to the woman and told her she was doing an incredible job.”
When the woman told Elliot she was just a housekeeper doing her job, “Alice said ‘au contraire,’ and went on to talk with the woman for five minutes about how good a job she was doing,” notes Stewart. “The woman was near tears. She was so proud.”
‘She’s coached and mentored innumerable people’
“Her ability to want to mentor and coach is unbelievable,” Stewart says. “She’s just selfless that way, and it’s not just about her getting business” that can carry a six-figure fee. “The mark she leaves is that she’s coached and mentored innumerable people.”
Part of that is providing honest, blunt feedback.
Stewart laughs as she recalls urging someone she was mentoring to meet with Elliot. “The person thought it would be a nice polite conversation. I asked later how the meeting went, and the person said, ‘She gave me some very direct feedback. I didn’t expect this.’”
Elliot is “this little dynamo from Queens, and she can be as intimidating as hell,” says Michael Atkinson, co-founder and CEO of FohBoh, an online professional foodservice community. “I worked for Lehman (Brothers) in New York and though I’m from California, a lot of my business demeanor is from New York. So I understand it.”
While Elliot may come off as tough to some, “she has a lot of compassion,” he says. “The longer you know her, you realize what a wonderful person she is.”
When Atkinson was putting an advisory board together for FohBoh (short for restaurant terms front of the house and back of the house), Elliot was one of the first people he reached out to. She has proved to be a perfect, wise adviser.
“She’s just a smart, no-nonsense business executive,” he says.
Much of Elliot’s success “has to do with a personal drive and personal energy,” Federico adds. “But she is very conscious of her brand and has the highest integrity of any person I’ve met. She’ll pass on an assignment if she thinks it compromises a client in any way.”
Luther has a leadership philosophy that includes the tenet that character shows when no one is looking. Elliot embodies that.
“Alice realized early that honesty, integrity and honor are so important,” he explains. “She learned in her formative years that doing the right thing is the only way to live your life. That’s how you build a reputation.”
Elliot’s overall knowledge of the hospitality industry was recently on display at this year’s Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) conference in Dallas, where she moderated a panel that featured Morris and other investment experts.
“She’s a master,” says Fritzi Woods, the WFF’s president and CEO. “She spends a lot of time investing in keeping herself current and educating herself on the restaurant industry, and it showed in the way she was able … to facilitate the conversation.”
Elliot has supported the WFF and many other industry organizations over the years, and her work has been recognized. She was the 2001 recipient of the WFF’s Trailblazer Award and the 1991 Roundtable for Women in Foodservice Pacesetter Award. She was inducted into the NRA Education Foundation’s College of Diplomates in 2010.
“She gives to the industry in ways big and small,” Morris says. “It’s about time, treasure, and talent, and she gives all three back. Most of the time, no one knows about it.”