Michael Dixon, CFO at Ignite Restaurant Groups, shares the story of his journey—one that is marked by challenges and triumphs.
As an Auditor, Michael Dixon’s job was to balance the books. As President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Ignite Restaurant Group, he is now in charge of writing some of the chapters himself.
“When you’re an Auditor in public accounting, for the most part, you are pushing numbers around on paper or on a computer, but you don’t have any ownership of them,” Dixon said. “The change is realizing you’re in this business to make money and need to make money, and all these numbers mean something. It is asking, ‘Are we performing the way we need to be performing?’ versus the Auditor’s mentality of ‘Do these numbers add up?’”
It is a transition he began when he joined The Walt Disney Co. as Director of Business Development. At Disney, Dixon launched concepts including ESPN Zone restaurants and DisneyQuest indoor interactive theme parks. So the Certified Public Accountant who earned his master’s in Accounting from the University of Michigan learned about every aspect of business planning and development from the ground up.
“It was sort of a business school lesson in real life while working with some incredibly smart and high-quality people at The Walt Disney Co.,” he said. “It was just a great training ground to learn about business strategy, businesses processes, and during that time I made the decision that my goal was to be a CFO.”
In fact, Dixon told his wife he wanted to be a CFO by the time he was 40, which he accomplished thanks to hard work and some thoughtful mentoring from Jerry Deitchle, the executive who hired him as Controller for The Cheesecake Factory. Dixon made it clear that he someday wanted to become a CFO, and Deitchle helped him get the experience he needed to eventually join the C-level ranks at the publicly traded restaurant chain. While still the Controller, Dixon soon found himself interacting with Analysts during quarterly investment calls and making presentations at company conferences and annual meetings.
“Jerry, whether intentionally or through his natural skill set, groomed me very nicely into that role, kind of easing me into increased exposure to the Board of Directors, increased exposure to the Analysts and investment community,” Dixon said. “I wasn’t just thrown to the wolves.”
Because of those early experiences, Dixon knows what it takes to keep those wolves at bay. He does not feel intimidated by the federal rules and regulations that come with keeping the books at a public company. Nor is he pressured by the ups and downs of the market and some investors’ equally fickle expectations.
“The challenge for any public company, I think, is maintaining the focus on the long-term growth,” Dixon said. “The market puts a premium on short-term growth, which is often not good for the long-term health of the business. It’s maintaining that focus on what that business needs to be successful not just today, but in the future.”
And that does not necessarily mean playing it safe, which can present its own set of obstacles when dealing with the market. Ignite doubled the size of its business when it bought Macaroni Grill in April 2013, and growing pains have impacted both earnings and share price recently. But the company is working hard to realize the synergies of this deal, including converting Macaroni Grill to the same food distribution network as Ignite’s other brands.
“That’s a process that usually probably takes six months or longer,” Dixon said. “Our Supply Chain team did it in 90 days because we identified it as very crucial for us.”
“I’ve always told my teams that the status quo is never acceptable.”But Dixon is doing more than just streamlining the supply chain and cutting costs. He also encourages his financial team members to constantly improve their skills, take on new tasks and make the changes they need to deal with the company’s rapid growth. Taking a cue from his mentor at The Cheesecake Factory, Dixon does not hesitate to hire people who aspire to become CFOs themselves.
“I’ve always told my teams that the status quo is never acceptable,” he said. “If you’re adding 10 more restaurants next year, that doesn’t mean you get to add 10 more people. We’ve got to do things better and more efficiently. So it’s about challenging your team to constantly do that.” ♦
One Company, Three Brands
The economic slowdown hit parts of the casual dining industry hard over the past few years, but Ignite Restaurant Group posted strong growth in 2013 and also took on a turnaround challenge by purchasing Romano’s Macaroni Grill in April. Here is a snapshot of where things are at with Ignite’s three brands.
- Joe’s Crab Shack
This year, Joe’s Crab Shack has used advertising and new menu items to emphasize its brand positioning as a place to get fresh, high-quality seafood and a “100% Shore” experience no matter how far customers might be from the coast.
“The Joe’s brand has done incredibly well despite the challenging economy,” Dixon said. “It’s posted positive comparable sales in 20 of the last 21 quarters. It’s consistently beaten the casual dining average comp sales growth metrics.”
- Brick House Tavern + Tap
This restaurant concept started on a whiteboard in Ignite’s offices; the company had just decided to close some Joe’s locations, but wanted to take advantage of the prime restaurant real estate they occupied and tap into a hot segment in the casual dining industry. Today, Brick House hosts 21 locations, and it posted a 4 percent increase in comparable restaurant sales for the quarter ending September 30, 2013.
“It’s incredibly well positioned in the next generation bar and grill segment, which we believe has a lot of runway in front of it,” Dixon said. “So our two core brands, our legacy brands within the Ignite business, are performing very well despite some of the economic challenges.”
- Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Ignite acquired Romano’s Macaroni Grill in April 2013 and is trying to turn things around for a brand that may have fallen from many consumers’ consciousness. Results have been weak for some time at Macaroni Grill, with comparable sales falling 2.7 percent in the third quarter, but Ignite is hoping to turn the chain around by increasing marketing efforts, emphasizing customer service and revamping the menu.
“There is a challenge ahead of us,” Dixon said, “but that turnaround opportunity is there and I’m confident we can do it.”
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