Leading Through Crisis: Frank Hennessey

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Frank Hennessey, CEO, Recipe Unlimited

When Frank Hennessey graduated from Western University in 1985, he applied to become an OPP officer. But, on the way to his part-time bartending job, he became involved in a minor accident. “I was fined for “following too close” and that ticket, combined with another speeding ticket — I wasn’t a very good driver back then — caused me to get bumped from the program.”

As luck would have it, the following week, his supervisor at work asked if he would be interested in restaurant management. The rest, as they say, is history and 30 years later, Hennessy leads Canada’s largest and oldest full-service restaurant chain, Recipe Unlimited, with purview over 20 restaurant brands representing 1,350 units and 60,000 associates.

In his role as CEO, Hennessey guides the team with a healthy dose of integrity peppered with a focused ability to listen. “Always do what you say you’re going to do,” he says. “Having integrity is a must to building trust with your team. They may not always like your decisions, but if you always tell them ‘why,’ they know they can count of you to follow through.”

Hennessey also has a “curious and healthy imagination,” a quality he believes is particularly important. “By the time a problem makes its way up to you, it’s because it couldn’t be solved at other levels or the options are not clear cut,” he explains.

While Hennessey is used to leading through change, the COVID-19 crisis has been illuminating. “The typical patterns you normally find in our businesses have been blown up. COVID-19 has accelerated other processes and innovations: how we work; remote work; methods of communication; accelerating tech; floor and kitchen layouts; ghost kitchens; curbside and frictionless pick-up; and contactless delivery. [Changes] you thought may not happen for four to six years are happening now.”

The crisis has also forced him to evolve his leadership style. “When the crisis was first starting, the decision-making [process] had to be centralized. There was a need to be decisive,” he adds, explaining he made the call to close the restaurants before being mandated to do so. “Closing 1,350 restaurants will make anyone pause, but it was the right thing to do and there was integrity in the decision.”

The chaos fuelled by the pandemic has forced the respected leader to “increase the cadence of communication with our senior leadership team (SLT) and franchisees — knowing we would be making rapid decisions, but may have to change them down the road as the situation evolved.”

Like a captain steering a ship through stormy waters, leading through the pandemic has required Hennessey to “stay calm and measured. If you, as the leader, panic, there’s a good chance everyone else will — people are already scared and there’s enough uncertainty to create chaos. We still have our daily SLT calls every day at 11 a.m. — it may be brief, but it’s a great check in.”

Dealing with COVID-19 and the related uncertainty and anxiety has required Hennessey to build muscle around keeping employees engaged and motivated. “We’ve tried to keep them as informed as possible on the state of the business.” That’s required Hennessey to be honest “about our situation, including telling them early on that while this is a survivable event, we’ll have to remain agile and there will be change.” Among the lessons learned, he’s quickly realized “In the world of Zoom or Google Hangouts, you have to take the time to check in on how your teammate is doing personally. It’s easy just to jump to the task at hand — but when you don’t see someone every day, you miss that personal check-in so you have to pause and ask them if they’re okay and how they’re coping.”

While these days the focus is on survival, Hennessey maintains his own equilibrium and growth by reading a lot. “I also continually check in with myself to see if the things I’ve always believed to be true, are in fact, still true. I call this my “devil’s-advocate” exercise. It’s important leaders are not trapped by their own personal biases. There’s only one thing that’s an absolute truth — whether it’s the universe or a business — once they cease to evolve, they die. If a leader ever says ‘I know all I need to know’ — go find another leader.”

With a career that spans three decades, working in companies such as Imvescor, Bento Sushi, as well as in grocery retail, Hennessey believes his perseverance has been his biggest strength. “I never gave up. In 2009 I was ‘re-structured’ out of Cara. There was a lot going on at that time at Cara and in my own personal life. After a moment of self-pity, I picked myself off the metaphorical floor and made the decision I wouldn’t look back and just keep going; 10 years later I walked back in as CEO of Cara, re-branded to Recipe.”

Looking back, would he do anything differently? “I’ve always been guided by the principles of acting with integrity, staying curious, listening and acting decisively. It’s served me well. But I was probably a bit cocky early on. I don’t like arrogant people, mainly because I don’t like that quality in myself — I’m continually working on this, which sounds arrogant, even saying that.”

While leadership styles evolve as leaders grow, Hennessey says he’s always drawn
inspiration from outside the industry. “Churchill, General Rick Hillier, Barak and Michelle Obama and FDR are leaders I’ve studied.” Hennessey says they share common traits: their communication style, their choice of words, tone of voice, conveyance of empathy and use of humour are critical to their ability to instill confidence and rally people to an action or a cause.

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Rosanna Caira
Rosanna Caira is the editor and publisher of Kostuch Media’s Foodservice and Hospitality, and Hotelier magazines. In her capacity as editor of Canada’s two leading hospitality publications, Rosanna directs the editorial and graphic content of both publications, and is responsible for the editorial vision of the magazines, its five websites as well as the varied tertiary products including e-newsletters, supplements and special projects. In addition to her editorial duties, Rosanna also serves as publisher of the company, directing the strategic development of the Sales and Marketing, Production and Circulation departments. Rosanna is the face of the magazines, representing the publications at industry functions and speaking engagements. She serves on various committees and Boards, including the Board of Directors of the Canadian Hospitality Foundation. She is a recipient of the Ontario Hostelry’s Gold Award in the media category. In 2006, Rosanna was voted one of the 32 most successful women of Italian heritage in Canada. Rosanna is a graduate of Toronto’s York University, where she obtained a BA degree in English literature.

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