Military Appreciation Knight: 2019 MVP Winner Pioneered Thank-You Meals for Veterans
Houston (Hu) Odom believes that if you take care of business first, your success will allow community giving to follow naturally. Odom, owner of 20 Golden Corral restaurants in four states (Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia) and a three-time Franchisee of the Year, has achieved both--and then some. A shining example for others to follow, Odom is the 2019 MVP recipient of the Community Involvement Leadership Award for his visionary commitment to community service.
Among his many contributions, Odom pioneered the practice of honoring U.S. military personnel at his restaurants long before the concept became commonplace. These days, he is focused on finding ways to help build the next generation of restaurant leaders by creating opportunities for young people--particularly those in need--to explore their own paths in the hospitality field.
The son of a career military man, Odom was a senior in high school when his father died unexpectedly. To earn a little money in college, he took his first restaurant job manning the fry station at a McDonald's in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. He spent 8 years in management with that high-volume McDonald's before joining Southland Corp., which operates and franchises 7-Elevens wordwide.
"With those two companies I saw the power of franchising," says Odom, president and founder of Virginia Beach-based Both, Inc.
Odom, who has been with Golden Corral since 1986, first at corporate and today as a franchisee, now leads the way as one of the brand's most successful operators. In 1999, he organized a thank-you dinner at his restaurants for active and retired U.S. military members.
The Military Appreciation Night started out as a way to honor his late father, who spent 33 years in the U.S. Air Force, and to serve as a gesture of thanks to the many loyal customers who helped support Odom's initial success at his restaurants in Hampton Roads, considered the East Coast epicenter of military activity. The event would soon include a philanthropic tie-in with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization that remains today and wouldd later be adopted across the system.
In 18 years of hosting the annual Military Appreciation Night, the Golden Corral system has provided more than 5.7 million free meals for active and retired military members and raised more than $15.7 million for DAV. Odom's restaurants alone have served more than 324,000 free meals and raised more than $2.2 million for DAV during his 20 years of hosting the event. Since 2012, Odom's restaurant group has also raised $766,956 to support Camp Corral, a free summer camp for children of wounded, injured, ill, or fallen military families.
"After 9/11 everyone has gotten involved in doing something for the veterans," says Odom. "Back in 1999 there was nobody. We are proud of what we started."
Odom also is making his mark with two recent gifts to support restaurant education. A National Restaurant Association (NRA) Board Member Emeritus, he donated the largest-ever individual gift of $1.1 million to the NRA Educational Foundation to support ProStart, a national program teaching high school students the culinary techniques and management skills needed to prepare them for careers in the restaurant field. The funds will be used to enhance the ProStart program in the Hampton Roads area, where three of the local cities exceed the national average for child poverty.
The donation was given in conjunction with a seven-figure donation by Odom and his wife Evie to support the building of the Patricia & Douglas Perry TCC Center for Visual & Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management on the campus of Tidewater Community College. In recognition of Odom's generosity, which includes funds for scholarships, the college will name its Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management school in his honor.
"The restaurant industry is a great industry to go from the dish room to the boardroom, as the cliché goes. And that is what happened to me. I went from the fry station to the boardroom. There are a lot of great success stories," says Odom.
"I have always looked at the restaurant industry as being one of the last frontiers in America where, if you are willing to work hard and have a little bit of persistence, you can make a great career for yourself. But for a lot of underprivileged kids from low-income homes, they don't really have a way to get started."
Odom is providing those future restaurant leaders with a role model to pioneer their own path to making a difference.
Name: Houston "Hu" Odom, Jr.
No. of units: 20 Golden Corral
Family: Wife Evie
Years in franchising: 27
Years in current position: 27
My parents both lived through the Great Depression and both grew up in very small towns. My father had a 33-year career in the Air Force and my mother was a traditional housewife, so we were a middle-class family. I was taught the importance of saving and the importance of "small town values" from an early age. There is no doubt that those boyhood lessons and teachings helped me greatly in forming our franchise company in 1992 and managing afterward, as well.
Finally, an easy question. Marrying my lovely wife Evie has been my most important accomplishment. The restaurant industry is hard work, and if you are going to be married you must have a loving, supportive wife. Evie is all that and more, being recently retired from a 25-year university faculty career that included the authorship of three textbooks, one now in its 10th edition. I am very proud of Evie's professional accomplishments and very lucky to have her love and support.
There is no doubt that I am in our restaurants less in 2019 then I was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. The fact is, my responsibilities have changed over the years. Both, Inc. is fortunate to have a talented and experienced senior management team, which allows me flexibility in my schedule. Currently, I have two direct reports: our senior VP for operations, and our chief financial officer/chief administrative officer. I maintain responsibility for site acquisition and legal. I stay in touch with restaurant operations and marketing as closely as possible, but we have good people in those areas and I try to give them room to do their job. One thing is true for my work schedule that is true for many others in similar positions at big companies and small: very seldom does a day go by--including vacations and holidays--that I am not doing some work. That is just the nature of the beast and the reality of my position. I guess the bottom line for me is that there are few jobs in restaurants I haven't done over the years, and few long shifts I haven't covered. Now that my work week is often more favorable, I try very hard to never forget the hard work required for successful four-wall execution in any restaurant, but particularly restaurants as large and complex as Golden Corral.
What are you reading?
My wife and I just spent January of this year in South Africa, our second trip in 4 years to that very interesting and diverse country. Accordingly, I am reading two histories of that area: one book focused on the Dutch and British influences from the 18th century to the early 20th century, and one book detailing the more recent history of the last 50 to 60 years in South Africa and neighboring countries. I love to read, but I often manage only a few pages per night.
Best advice you ever got:
From my father: "You can go broke buying bargains."
At Both, Inc. we work very hard to balance aggressive business tactics and caution. In business you need both traits in your quiver of arrows, but you also must be careful of too much or too little of either. I like to use a baseball analogy to describe our company's business philosophy. We focus on the fundamentals and hit a lot of singles, doubles, and triples. We may miss a home run opportunity now and then, but we don't strike out very often.
Management method or style:
No management method or style works 100 percent of the time in every situation. But I always try to keep the Golden Rule top of mind. I find it short, simple, and powerful. "Treat others as you want to be treated." Applying the Golden Rule in business makes a lot of sense to me. Treat your customers right and they will be more likely to come back. Treat your employees right and they will be more motivated.
Several come to mind. Hiring and retaining talented people. Avoiding complacency. Maintaining market share. Managing debt carefully.
How do others describe you?
This is a tough question to answer honestly, and sometimes you never know for certain. I hope most people see me as fair, thoughtful, and loyal. All of us have good qualities and not-so-good qualities that I think of as opportunities to improve. Some days are better than others, particularly in the restaurant business, but I hope my better instincts prevail on most days.
How do you hire and fire, train and retain?
Of course, the answer to this question varies by position, and we rely on our franchisor for most training materials. But good character is important for any position: we can train how to work in a Golden Corral, but we can't train for good character. Any position in a Golden Corral restaurant is hard work, so work ethic is important. Finally, it always helps if new hires at any level fit the culture of our company. Golden Corral is not fine dining and you have to be comfortable with that. To these ends, I believe in promoting from within when possible. Our seven key senior managers average more than 25 years of experience with Golden Corral, and several worked with me on the corporate side of Golden Corral before I started our franchise company. Every one of our senior managers, except for our CFO/chief administrative officer, started at Golden Corral as an hourly employee. One of the most gratifying things for me over the years has been to see people at all levels of our organization grow and develop to the best of their abilities.
We are a profit-oriented company, so we always want to earn at least $1 more than last year. In addition, we have two new restaurant locations under development, which we hope to open this year or early 2020.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
We have the financing and organizational structure in place to continue to grow new units and would like to do so. However, the Golden Corral concept requires large, freestanding buildings with a lot of parking, all of which cannot be too expensive. Generally speaking, we need the same quality site as any casual-themed national chain, but because of certain costs built into operating a Golden Corral we usually cannot pay as much for sites as others. We strongly prefer to own our land and buildings, but we will lease a good site if there is no alternative. These factors make new site acquisitions very difficult, particularly in our primary growth markets of Northern Virginia and Baltimore. The good news is that when we do find a new site that works in those markets, we usually do well.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
When I started our company, I wanted to be in business for 50 years. We have the organization and structure in place to do that and are now over halfway to that goal. I think it important to mention the support we have received from our franchisor along the way. Any franchisee can only be as successful as their franchisor allows them to be. We are lucky to have a franchisor with very stable ownership and very stable leadership, both of whom have always wanted their franchisees to be successful and acted accordingly. Like any franchisee, we sometimes have disagreements with our franchisor, but we have always been able to work out our problems because goodwill exists on both sides.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
During our busy summer season, we employ almost 2,000 people. Once an employee has established that they are doing a good job, we consider them to be part of our larger Both, Inc. family. Sometimes we are able to help with employee problems in ways that would be difficult for a larger company. Furthermore, we offer an above-average health insurance program within our industry segment and an above-average 401(k) program with a 4 percent match. We also pay a $1,000 bonus to any employee with 10 years of service, $2,000 for 20 years, and soon to be $3,000 for 30 years. We have paid out more than $400,000 under this program, which is one way we thank our longest-tenured employees for their service. Finally, while we work hard, we find time to have fun as well. Our most successful managers are celebrated each year with cash bonuses and sometimes free trips to include the Super Bowl and Hawaii. For our company's 10th anniversary, we brought in the Beach Boys for a private concert. The very positive feedback from that event really opened my eyes to how important it is to give our employees the opportunity to celebrate success and have fun in ways many of them would not otherwise be able to enjoy. For our 20th anniversary, we took 150 managers and their spouses to London and Paris during our slow month of January. Yes, that trip was a major investment, but I believe it was worth every penny in building morale and loyalty. Probably 98 percent of our attendees on that trip had never been to Europe and probably would never otherwise have gotten a chance to do so. Personally, to be able to give such a special trip to the very people who had given so much to our company really put a smile in my heart. Two years ago, we took the same group to New York City, but we added all our 20-year, hourly co-workers and their spouses--an idea that turned out great, making me wish I had thought of it earlier.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
To quote Jimmy Buffet, "Retire from what?" I am very fortunate to be at a position in my life where I have the best of both worlds. I enjoy and look forward to my work (at least most days) and I have enough freedom in my schedule to enjoy other pursuits. So I have no plans or need to retire. And while Both, Inc. is a private company, almost all of our senior managers have an ownership interest. In the future I hope to find ways to expand that ownership interest. The only way I would ever consider selling our company was if I felt the buyer would do a better job of taking care of our employees and our guests--which seems very unlikely at the moment.
Why do you think you were recognized with this award?
To be honest I am not sure. Perhaps you should ask the editors.
How have you raised the bar in your own company?
We focus on the basics, blocking and tackling. There are many aspects to a successful restaurant, but first and foremost we focus on the preparation and presentation of our food, which is critical in a buffet concept. To paraphrase James Carville, "It's the food, stupid."
What innovations have you created and used to build your company?
I'm not sure this idea really qualifies as an innovation, but from day one I have had a policy I like to call "constructive confrontation." By that I mean, I want to hear your opinion if you are a direct subordinate even if your opinion disagrees with mine--without fear of retribution. I have said many times that I consider our 20 general managers to be a kind of board of directors for our company. Our GMs are responsible for the thousands of "moments of truth" we have with our guests each day. Plus, we know that having good GMs in the right restaurants is by far the most important factor in that restaurant's success. So I always listen carefully to contrary opinions from our general managers. Many companies say the same thing, but it is only lip service. They will tell you to "speak truth to power," but they really don't want to hear contrary views and often label people who raise questions or concerns as "not with the program." I know because I have worked for such companies. I always try to listen to contrary opinions, particularly from key managers. Sometimes my views are changed, sometimes not. I don't mind a vigorous debate as long as everyone gets on board once a final decision is made. My observation is that the process of getting everyone behind final decisions works much better when everyone involved feels free to have their say and knows they have been listened to, if not agreed with.
What core values do you think helped you win this award?
We try to put the needs of our employees and guests first in most situations. I find that when we do that effectively, sales and profits tend to take care of themselves. And it is at that point we are able to invest in our communities.
How important is community involvement to you and your company?
It's a pretty simple equation when you think about it. The success of our restaurants depends on the support of their surrounding community. That relationship between restaurant and community cannot be a one-way street. So it is clearly in our businesses interest to find ways to give back to the communities that support our restaurants. But beyond business considerations, being involved with our surrounding communities is just the right thing to do.
What leadership qualities are important to you and to your team?
Tough question. Many qualities can contribute to good leadership. And good leaders can have different qualities. For me, I think empathy is the quality I always look for in myself and others. I grew up mostly in Oklahoma where my father was stationed in the Air Force. A Native American proverb I heard there has always stayed with me, "Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins." Sometimes it can make a difference and sometimes not, but a useful thought to keep in mind for any leader.
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