Roller Coaster Leadership, with special guest: Mark Estee

A few months ago, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Mark Estee of Campo, chez louie, Heritage Restaurant & Bar, Burger Me!, and most recently Reno Provisions. Listening to the interview again after that span of time I felt like I was someone in the audience, not actively involved. I got wrapped up in the conversation so much I kept forgetting I was supposed to be typing.

First of all, Mark is a force, a powerhouse. After we met I immediately knew I was on the clock and make it count. The result was I was energized, I fed off his passion and drive for what that day held in store. He was very much in the moment while at the same time staring off in the distance at some unseen event or project. Our conversation was kind of all over the place, we would jump forward and then run backwards. We were here one second and then way over their the next. It was a roller coaster and sometimes I felt like I was driving, but most of the time I was just holding on.  I don’t believe the man uses punctuation when he speaks, it’s fantastic! We had a very candid, at times blunt, open and honest conversation about management, leadership and well, see for yourself.

We started off talking about all of his different projects and how they are aligned with a common goal and how everything branches out from that common goal. How that common goal is static but everything around it is dynamic. How the challenge comes in responding to that dynamic and the ability to reference the static when necessary, to realign when necessary. How that realignment may be with his project managers or with other projects going on. Continuing on in this thread of the conversation is where we’ll pick up.

Mark: “The one thing that is constant in my industry is change itself. So, we live by that principle and instead of fighting it, we try to embrace it. I know a lot of restaurants or a lot of owners who don’t like change, they like to stay a certain way and that’s not us. We have a clearly defined mission statement, vision statement, and concept statement for all of our properties. They are all very similar as we want to do the same thing across the boards at all of our properties. And while we may get there differently for each, like chez louie is more French, Campo is more Italian, Provisions is cafeteria, and Heritage is Northern Nevada cuisine, they are all different in a way but ultimately they all have the same goal. It’s about the customer, it’s about the employee, and it’s about our local food scene. So, we want to create a culture, a food culture if you will.”

Elton: “So is that consistent in every one? It’s about the customer, employee, and the community?”

Mark: “Yep, yep. We always talk about out investors too, our partners …”

Elton: “Sure, it’s still a business.”Mark Estee

Mark: “Yes, we can’t forget that, we want to do good by them as well. The first rule of a sustainable restaurant or a sustainable business is to remain open.”

Elton: “Seems reasonable.”

Mark: He chuckles.

Elton: “But after that?”

Mark: “A lot of people lose focus of that, you’d be surprised. You should be sustainable.”

Elton: “But how you accomplish that, how do you stay open?”

Mark: “It’s a bitch. It’s a bitch man, this isn’t easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart.”

Elton: “Sounds honest.”

Mark: “Very. And the thing is, that’s what you’ll find in our business, we are a very open book management. So, everyone sees where we’re at, we don’t hide anything. As the owner of all these businesses, I consider all the managers Project Managers. Obviously I don’t do all this myself, we have a lot of layers.”

Elton: “Right! I was looking at some of your team members on your website.”

Mark: “Yes, we have an awesome team. And for them to continue to stay with us, to continue to grow, I need to continue to give them challenges. We’re not just the ‘same-ole same-ole’, we don’t say that in our business. We’re consistent, but it’s never said: ‘How’s it going today?’ ‘Ole, same old shit, different day.’ That’s grounds for termination, no one says that, everyone knows that.”

Elton: “Do you allow, in that dynamic environment, them the opportunity to explore within their own sphere of influence? There’s no ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to expand today.’ But more ‘Tell me how we’re going to expand today.’”

Mark: “Absolutely. And the best way for me to show you that is in the fact that my managers stay with us for a long time. If they leave, they typically leave to open their own place. So, those are some of the good things that we try to do. If I was an overbearing ogre, or I didn’t give them room to grow, I don’t think we’d be as successful as we are. You know, we’re only as good as the people around us. So, I manage down to them and they manage down to the employees.”

Elton: “And if they do move on, then they become ambassadors of where they came from, and everything that they were doing with you.”

Mark: “If you go back to my first business in 2002, or before that when I moved up to Tahoe in 1996, I think at last count the different chefs that have worked for me, with me, under me, beside me, I think it was something like over 50 different guys and gals running their own kitchens or starting their own businesses since then which is pretty cool.”

Elton: “Very cool!”

Mark: “So to me it says that we’re doing something right. We all kind of have that open book type management and we all come back to that visions statement, mission statement, and concept statement. And looking at our culture, our business culture, it’s kind of how we decide what we’re going to do. Like I was saying earlier, sometimes it’s a really easy road to get there, sometimes it’s very difficult, sometimes it’s a combination of both. Sometimes it starts with a single idea, but we end up adapting, changing, and seeing better ways along the way and we’ll always take those roads and explore them. But it’s still the end goal that we ultimately keep in mind. I believe that’s how we use organizational management, and that’s how we implement our business strategy if you will.”

Elton: “What is that end goal, when you say ‘end goal,’ what is that?”

Mark: “There is none. The thing is there is no end goal because it’s always growing. Let’s go back, we want to create a culture of learning, caring and respect. Where we respect our community, our coworkers, our investors, and our customers. And that’s the most important thing we can do. So that very simple statement, that’s how we build our business. We’re obviously in a ginormous growth period right now, seven restaurants in three years …”

Elton: “And all very fast.”

Mark: “Fast! Vertical integration is new to us so we’re working really hard on that. And organizationally, literally I just left a meeting where we were talking about making some changes already such as I had this one idea of a director of operations and then it veered into business operations. And we’re making some changes in how we do PR right now, we’re working through some of the ways we can make our company stronger, better, leaner, faster, and we see where we can apply the necessary efforts to address these things.”

Note: I want to pause real quick here. Have you noticed how much he’s said “I” or “Me?” I looked back at this point because it was something I noticed in the recording and I’ll just tell you, it’s hardly at all. To me this is telling of the nature of thing for the Reno Local Food Group, it’s very much that, a “group.” A man that has experienced as much success as he has in this amazingly short period of time has probably earned the right to say “I did this …” or “My business over here is doing that …” but that’s absolutely not the case. Mark embraces the group dynamic and when he wins, they win. Great leadership quality. Let’s get back to making changes on the fly.

Elton: “But you don’t know some of those things till you get in there. You can put in place the things you think will work, and then you have to reevaluate.”

Mark: “Anything you’ve read about me, or what you might already know about me, is that I’m the first person to talk about all the mistakes we’ve made. Such as we’re in the middle of redoing the Provisions store, we started with one idea …”

Elton: “After you opening in December correct?”

Mark: “… yeah well we started and my idea was to have this small little thing and now we’re putting a full market in because that’s what the community wants.”

Elton: “You’re getting the demand for that? That’s fantastic!”

Mark: “And we need to have those things you know? You come in here and if you can buy everything you need you’re going to come here more. If you’re coming here just for specialty stuff you’re only going to be coming here every once in a while.”

Elton: “I like that its community driven, that it’s: ‘We had ideas and we implemented them. We got feedback and we thought about it. We heard and we listened, and now let’s put it together.’”

Mark: “Yep.”

Elton: “Then, they come and the response is: ‘This is great! But, what about this? Or what about that?’ At that point you’re getting feedback and then you can respond in kind?”

Mark: “Sometimes you have to be wary because if you solicit people’s opinion they get butt hurt if we don’t follow through exactly with what they say. So, we’re always very careful about how we take that feedback. Most of time we’re able to kind of decipher through that. That’s one of the things that I can do pretty well because believe it or not, I’m a pretty good listener. I believe leaders are great listeners first, and sometimes they still have to make the tough decision even with what you’re hearing what’s being said. You have to measure that gut with actual numbers and finding that sweet-spot is the goal.”

“So for us, as we move forward and are in this huge growth spurt, and we’re reorganizing that all the time. It would be really easy to hang back and you know, Campo is doing great right now and everything else is kind of doing well too, but I think what we want to do is really dial this Reno Provisions in and then kind of maybe take a breath and enjoy some of the things we’ve created. Hopefully enjoy some of the spoils of that and continue to kind of grow. There’s some opportunities in maybe consulting and creative content from other people and some of the other things we talk about.”

“Campo seems to be doing really well right now, it’s a strong product and a strong brand. Its been going now coming up on its fourth year in November. We have one in Mammoth and we’re talking maybe one in Vegas or maybe one in Cabo. You know, maybe wherever that brand works really well. Our Burger Me brand works really really well and those are cash cows, maybe putting one of those in Sparks or Sacramento. So maybe we’re not creating something new all the time but maybe honing in on what we already have and take the great ones and try and reproduce it to an extent.”

Another note: Okay, that was classic Mark. Everything that was said above took about thirty seconds and I inserted punctuation where it felt appropriate. The man is fiercely focused in a random way if that makes sense. It was a pleasure to sit down with him, now, back to it!

Elton: “Wait! I want to backtrack real quick.” Elton’s turn to chuckle. You have to be quick with this guy as I’ve said. It’s like Double Dutch, if you see an opening you have to jump in there! “You said you take all this stuff in and as a leader you’re able to balance and find that sweet-spot and make a decision. What I find in leadership and in project management is that you may not make everyone happy, but you have the ability to give understanding to everyone. And I believe that really where that communication is key because when it comes to it, this is what you’re saying: ‘I know you’re not really happy with my decision but let me explain how we got here and why we went in a different direction than maybe you or someone else believed we should have gone.’ And with that in mind then you’re not creating areas of contempt or breeding grounds for some ill feelings. And it sounds like that’s what you’re trying to accomplish in reaching out to the public in this sense. That while it may not meet everyone’s needs, perhaps they understand where you’re going with it?”

Mark: “That reminds me of a great quote that Rick Reviglio (of Western Nevada Supply). When I was telling him about Provisions and I was thinking about where I was going to go and he said ‘Hey Mark, sometimes you’ve got to have bigger balls than brains. But at the same time, you have to have bigger brains than balls.’ So, finding that place in between is the goal. And when we operate like that, not everyone is going to like what you’re doing especially as you get bigger. But, I believe if we put the effort in as a group to kind of quiet it out, or if we talk about it enough.”

“You see, I don’t make many unilateral decisions, I’ll usually solicit the input of everybody. But there’s a secret to Management 101 and that is sometimes I have an idea and I get them to believe it was their idea that’s where some greatness can occur.”

Elton: “You don’t have to take the credit for it, but you can help implement it. And then by giving them accountability, they can take ownership?”

Mark: “And that’s what you want. So, the greatest thing that I can do is in a sense is to lead them in the right direction, let them come to the answer on their own, and then support them through that. Even when an alternative is presented to them, let them know it’s their choice and be willing to back them up either way.”

Elton: “Succeed or fail, that have that ownership, they ran with it and the result is experience.”

Mark: Those are the things we use to create that organizational leadership we were talking about earlier. Now I’ve been in other places where it’s been a dictatorship, I came up in that. ….”

Ohhhhhhhh, what’s he gonna say next? Like I said, he’s a fierce force and this interview is definitely meant for two parts. There is so much good stuff and in a very off the cuff manner that you can’t help but want more, to engage with this guy and let your game rise to his level which is what I felt happening to my excitement. So, for the time being, managers and leaders out there, between now and the next post try to go the day without saying “I” or “Me” when it comes to your projects or your team. It’s not easy but if you can catch yourself, you can glean some valuable insight about yourself and your leadership style.

Image Credit: Sketch by Author

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