When the Student Becomes the Teacher

Giana Milazzo Executive Features, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

By applying lessons learned from past leaders and creating a collaborative team approach, Paul Macaluso has been able to build a strong marketing foundation at Focus Brands

_DSC8371[2]Some might lean on fate or karma as to why they have achieved great success.  Paul Macaluso would simply point to hard work and diligence.  As a graduate of the Florida State University MBA program, Paul took an opportunity to join Pepsico/Taco Bell Corporation’s management training program; an opportunity that would give him his first job as a restaurant manager.  His dedication and zeal would help him turn that initial opportunity into a 10-year run with the company working seven different positions spanning four different departments—an experience that would shape his leadership style and nurture a life-long marketing career.  Paul’s determination has afforded him the opportunity to work for iconic brands like Burger King and Sonic Drive-In serving in leadership roles.  Now the former restaurant manager has worked his way up to CMO, currently leading marketing for a portfolio of restaurant brands. Along the way, he has learned important lessons from his bosses, mentors and peers, but most importantly, from his teams.

“To this day I look back on it [my time as a restaurant general manager] as one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had, as far as the pace and the full set of responsibilities,” Paul thoughtfully reflects. “As I moved into marketing and into more senior level positions, having that foundation and perspective of what a restaurant manager has to go through has really been helpful to me.”

Paul describes his early days as restaurant general manager as fundamental to his leadership development, especially in influencing his approach to relationship and team building.

“I got to understand everything across multiple disciplines. The importance of delivering excellent customer service, what it takes to manage a team, how to roll out new products, having the responsibility for the P&L of the restaurant—it has all been very instrumental to me in my past 20 years in the restaurant industry.”

His early successes had a rippling effect onto a variety of other senior level marketing positions; from Director of Product Marketing for Burger King Co. to VP of Marketing for Sonic, America’s Drive-In to CMO at Moe’s Southwest Grill®, Paul’s expertise in branding and marketing has evolved with each career milestone.


Brand Evolution: Best Practices from Moe’s and Beyond

In the growing fast-casual restaurant industry, many a customer are enticed by Moe’s Southwest Grill®’s fresh, handmade and customizable variety of delicious tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, among other menu items, with catchy, popular culture inspired menu names like the “Homewrecker,” “Joey Bag of Donuts,” “Earmuffs.” Today, the prominence of Moe’s as a national brand is evident in its transformation in recent years with more than 550 locations nationwide, but when Paul Macaluso entered his marketing leadership role at Moe’s in 2011, the small department of seven had lots of opportunity for growth on the horizon.

At Moe’s, the original marketing team of seven was initially focused on local marketing efforts at the restaurant, co-op, or DMA level. When Paul joined the team, he saw the chance for the company to expand into a national brand and made a few necessary changes, namely: staffing up and getting the investment ahead of the growth. He placed an emphasis on staff, investing resources in talent to develop a national brand and promotions team instead of just a field marketing team. After three years under his leadership, the team grew to 25 people and the national media budget grew from under a million to more than $9 million.

_DSC8281[1]“We [still] have a long way to go but we made that transition over the last few years because we believed in the future of the brand and made the investment in the people and resources on the front end,” he explains.

After having a hand in the transformation of the company into a national brand, Paul was promoted to his current role as Senior Vice President of Marketing for the Restaurant Group at FOCUS Brands. FOCUS Brands is the franchisor and operator of six brands: the Snack Group includes Carvel®, Cinnabon®, and Auntie Anne’s®, and the Restaurant Group includes Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s®, and McAlister’s Deli®. In managing the multichannel marketing for the latter three brands, Paul plans to share best practices across the brands and to understand where they are in their life cycle; Moe’s holds the most advanced footprint, while the others have strengths in different arenas—Schlotzsky’s with its 44-year running brand awareness and McAlister’s with its large volume of sales per restaurant.

Paul highlights three key marketing developments he wants to continue in his role: developing the team, tightening brand positioning, and maximizing resources to amplify the brand story. In moving forward to support the growth of each brand across multiple channels and on international levels, he says developing the team is one essential step in that process.

“We need to make sure we have the foundation of each brand covered; that is domestic franchise business – that’s the heart and soul of our business and we want to make sure we have the right team structure and the right number of people to support that to continue our industry-leading growth rate.”

Tightening each brand positioning is another lesson Paul is taking away from his experience at Moe’s. He explains, “Through all levels of the organization, we need to know what we stand for and know how we are different from our competitors – we take that brand positioning and build a brand architecture in terms of how we are going to translate each of the brands across the multiple channels that we are going to develop in.”

Taking a look at resources is also an essential part of this growth: keeping tabs on how much money is in the advertising fund, how many people are on staff, and making tough, smart decisions to make sure every dollar in these brands is going toward projects to drive traffic in each restaurant.

“There will be synergies along the way through this process,” he explains. “Marketing services, shared services for PR and creative services, for example; we’ll uncover some efficient ways of working together there but it won’t be at the expense of the brand’s intellectual property, which we will continue to work to keep separate and distinct. Each brand will have their own unique brand positioning and personality as we look for synergies through marketing services.”

Looking for efficient ways of working together along the way with franchisees and key markets will strengthen these brands’ national presence and also open up international prospects. The Restaurant Group will use a similar international model that Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon operate under—two brands that have had tremendous success on multiple channels. By identifying key markets that make sense for each brand to grow in based on culinary trends, the economic model, brand positioning, and connecting with key franchisees, Paul looks forward to new opportunities to expand and strengthen the Restaurant Group brands’ footprint across the globe.


The Student Becomes the Teacher

Paul has stressed the value of great leaders and mentors throughout his professional journey who have inspired marked philosophies on personal and professional development, which he has carried with him. One central theme he has etched into his leadership approach is keeping a genuine character.

“One thing all of my favorite mentors have had in common is that they genuinely cared about me.  You can tell they aren’t just filling a form for your development and doing a check in and making time, but that they actually care about the people that work for them and they have a desire to see them grow, learn, and accomplish their goals. They make time. They are very approachable, quick to give recognition and are overall very available.”

Two memorable mentors in particular, Denny Post (former SVP and Chief Concept Officer at Burger King) and Scott McLain (former President at Sonic) have influenced his own leadership style.

“Denny was the first person that invested in me with an outside professional coach to really help me achieve my goals. She had an amazing ability to build teams and did a lot to encourage people to speak up no matter what their level was in the organization; she often talked about the opportunity for displaying leadership from any position in the organization.”

Paul found that this kind of approachable leadership style resounded in his experiences with Scott as well, a leader who understood the balance between professional career development in the long and short run. Paul treasured his candid talks with Scott about his aspirations and Scott’s honest feedback.

Paul found a way to adopt his mentors’ principles by introducing succession planning within the Marketing team at Moe’s, and being transparent about where the organization is going and how each person can potentially grow to fill those needs. Most companies use annual Individual Development Plans to encourage employees to set a list of goals for themselves beyond their core accountabilities to develop personal and professional aspirations beyond the office, but Paul took this idea a step further. Channeling from his own experience as a member of effective teams, he created “triads,” a system of mutual motivation that would help keep individuals on top of their IDPs. By taking the Moe’s marketing team of 25 and breaking them into smaller groups, Paul created “accountability partners,” connecting people from different parts of the department to meet once a month and check in on their progress.

“The idea is they meet and develop their plans and make some commitments to each other. Something like ‘by the time we meet next month I’m going to read that book, register for that seminar, or do a job shadow on this person.’ It has been helpful for people to get the most out of their development plans. Leadership is something I take very seriously; I feel it is a privilege and a responsibility.”


The Importance of Self-Assessment

Paul learned firsthand the importance of building strong relationships with peers and bosses. During his time at Sonic, he had the opportunity to fill in as CMO on a nine-month interim basis. When he did not receive the permanent position, Paul was disappointed by this bump in the road along his career advancement. Instead of dwelling in his discouragement, Paul took advantage of the honest rapport he built with superior Scott McLain and took the opportunity to hear honest feedback.

“I realized quickly that I should have done things differently, from managing my relationship with the CEO to ensuring I was meeting his expectations. I knew that I needed to do a self-assessment, get help from a mentor and recognized I had to make some changes so that I would be better positioned when I got the chance again in the future,” he explains.

Paul values the feedback he received and implements it in his approach today, making sure to stay aware and assertive when it comes to building and sustaining relationships and pushing himself to break out of his comfort zone. At FOCUS, Paul is deliberate about making visits to different floors of the company to stay personally connected with his peers; everything from setting calendar “reminders” to visit fellow employees to regularly creating and updating his own personal goal worksheet points to his evolutionary leadership development.

“It’s about being more deliberate. Sometimes you go through a setback in life. It certainly was disappointing not to get the permanent position as CMO, but I used that decision to fuel changes that I needed to make.”

Paul’s resiliency and hands-on approach to leadership will continue to manifest in his new role as SVP of Marketing at the Restaurant Group, where building impactful relationships and teams will remain of central importance to his marketing agenda.

I’m trying to highlight the growth that Paul witnessed when he entered his leadership position. ♦


The Roundtable Discussion That Created The Designed Alliance

Imagine being presented with the opportunity to build your ideal work place: being involved in the very construction of principles for a company and weighing what motivates you, what inspires you, and what values are most important to you. When Paul Macaluso joined Moe’s Southwest Grill as VP of Marketing in 2011, eventually serving as CMO of the company in January 2013, he empowered his marketing team by opening up this valuable dialogue. Having spotted the opportunities for the team to work better together, he lead an offsite meeting with the original seven marketers on the team to discuss what was most important to each member—giving each person an individual voice and say in the team’s vision moving forward.

“We were candid with each other,” he explains. “We talked about the things that were important to us as team members: how we wanted to work together, how we wanted to be treated, and about our experiences with another team in the past—a job, a sports team—how those dynamics were important.“

The important dynamics discussed at that collaborative meeting of the minds mark the genesis of the Designed Alliance: originally six items that have evolved to eight, with input each year from the entire team of marketers.


Designed Alliance
  1. “Yes, AND”: Start with positives and build toward what you “wish for.”
  2. Same Team: Work toward the same goal. Privately questions but publicly support. Assume positive intent.
  3. Communication: Direct. Thorough. “Live,” when possible. Documented. Provide context.
  4. Be Present: Deeper Listening. Be on time to start and stop. Participate.
  5. Hug It Out: Keep moving toward our vision.
  6. Recognition:Take time/make the effort to celebrate the big and small wins.
  7. Practice Empathy: Service dedicated. Be accountable to your commitments.  Be mindful of those affected.
  8. Empower Curiosity: Be open minded. Learn deliberately. Wonder fearlessly. Fail forward.

“Recognition” and “Yes, AND” are two of Paul’s favorite principles. Monthly recognition, for example, is given to team members who have demonstrated excellence; this deliberate effort to celebrate individuals allows opportunity for positive feedback to motivate and boost morale.

On the “Yes, AND” principle, Paul explains, “The funny thing about Designed Alliance is it’s actually beneficial in any part of your life—with your spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.—it is fundamental to communication.”

Paul stresses the importance of thoughtful feedback, especially at a company with an internal creative and internal culinary team who are pouring their hearts into their creative or new product ideas.

“How you give them feedback about your perspective of that finished product can go far in building the relationship or tearing it down. We start with the positives, building toward what we wish for – we give smart feedback that will help them understand where we are coming from and also recognize the hard work they have done at that point.”

Set on maintaining these standards and holding the team accountable for valuable workplace ethics, Paul plans to build a new Designed Alliance specific to FOCUS Brand’s Restaurant Group marketing team.

Comments, thoughts, feedback?