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“Leaders have responsibilities to their followers.”

Tasty Catering, a suburban-Chicago based corporate catering and event planning services company, has been exceeding the catering needs of Chicago area corporations and organizations for more than 20 years. Known for its commitment to excellence and attention to detail, Tasty Catering is built upon the single premise of providing its customers with exceptional service and quality. Tasty Catering customers include Abbott, American Airlines, CDW, Harris Bank, Mortenson Construction, Navistar, RSM McGladrey, Sherman Hospital and University of Chicago.

MO: How did you initially get into the catering business? What are some of the key changes that you’ve witnessed in the industry over the past 20 years?

Thomas:  My brothers, Kevin and Larry, and I owned several independent fast food restaurants. Clients approached us to provide items like deli meat lunch trays and cold sandwiches, and to produce outdoor events such as company picnics. We centralized this service out of one location. Eight years later we bought a building just for catering. Another eight years and we bought a building 4.5 times the size of the first building. Seven years after that we bought an adjoining building for storage.

Some of the key changes has been the influx of bricks and mortar restaurants who now offer “catering” services. They compete on price and national reputation. Due to the economic conditions, some of these restaurants have been successful. Yet, when quality of food and service matter, we are the preferred vendor.

MO: As a serious serial entrepreneur, you’ve participated in the startup of 29 companies and acquired three others. What are some of the key lessons that you’ve learned so far?

Thomas: There are many key lessons for a successful start up:

• The three capitals – financial, human, and psychological

• A strong people-centric culture statement that is used/repeated daily and includes values, vision, and mission

• Advisors – peer consultants, professional organizations, and any other sources. Learn from other entrepreneurs.

• Cash control – understand the importance of cash

• Human capital –screen for skill, but hire for attitude. Skills can be enhanced but attitudes can’t.

• Understand the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a CEO

• Be a leader, not a manager. Learn the difference between the two roles.

MO: You have a strong belief in encouraging and investing in young people’s ideas. What kind of ideas and people most excite you and motivate you to invest?

Thomas: Young people understand emerging markets far better than I do. It is only natural that at my age, my buying needs are diminished. I have bought my last houses, my last set of tools, my last …. So to keep connected, I pay attention to young people that I know and trust. In 2010, Millennials became the largest generation in the workforce. In 2011 women became the largest gender in the workforce. 80% of all consumable items are purchased by women. So, being a male Boomer, my odds of investing in an emerging product/market are slim.

I like to invest in people that I know and trust, people that share the same values and work culture. We hire the best and brightest talent from the local high schools for summer jobs. The best of those stay on staff through college. The best are offered internships and then full-time positions. Therefore, by the of the time they’re 25, we have actually observed these young people for 10 years. We have watched, and helped, them mature. If they have an idea that makes fiscal sense, we invest in them more than we invest in their business. Then we provide our acquired knowledge, contacts, capital, and emotional intelligence to help them on the business side of their new venture. We trust that they will have command over the product side of the business.

MO: After finding great success as an entrepreneur, what inspired you to write a book? Was the process easier or harder than you initially anticipated?

Thomas:  Writing the book, It’s My Company Too! (www.itsmycompanytoo.com, was the result of mentoring young entrepreneurs. After years of working in and observing businesses, it became apparent that the path to entrepreneurial success was not complete. Academia does well, but entrepreneurship cannot be taught. It can, however, be learned. Entrepreneur organizations do not provide evidence-based research and proven theories for success. My co-authors consist of several successful individuals in a variety of fields. One is an internationally renowned professor who has authored several academic business books. The second is a retired US Air Force colonel who wrote his doctoral dissertation, “An Ethnographic Study of Culture in a Small Workplace,” on Tasty Catering, and received awards for Best Doctoral Dissertation of the Year. We thought that if we did some evidence-based research on award winning companies along with ethnographic studies, we might find some key common denominators. We could then create an instructor guide so the book could be used at the university level, and business guides so the book could be implemented in businesses. During the process, we realized that three different approaches were working together: academic, career military/professional consulting, and my serial entrepreneur viewpoint. However, we are all Boomers, and we needed a younger voice to help make the project readable to the largest generation in the workforce – the Millennials. We asked Molly Meyer to help us with the investigation and writing. Molly was 23 years old at the time, and a brilliant writer.

The process was harder than anticipated due to our editor’s decision to combine our multiple voices into one. But, the outcome was what we expected. A great read backed by scientific proof about what makes an organization achieve high performance. We thought the book would consist of solely leadership or culture, but those turned out to be just important subsets of course. The key metric was employee engagement with l and culture as two of the eight pieces of the engagement puzzle.

MO: Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind and the process of building a succession plan that ensures the sustainability of your companies (and its employees) while providing the funding of employee led/owned companies?

Thomas:  Leaders have responsibilities to their followers. Part of that responsibility as a business owner/leader is ensuring the company survives the leader. We have invested resources in finding young talent that shares, to the root of their core, the same values and culture that has led to our organizational success. That talent will continue the mission of the company past the current owners. They will achieve short-term goals and our long-term vision. We have a plan that will transfer ownership to our young leaders or staff without crippling the company with a large capital buy-out. The buy-out will be at an affordable pace, over the extended lives of the owners. The real estate investments that house the businesses will continue to pay rent, and we use personal cash or leverage our real estate to fund the start-ups.

MO: Why do you think that it’s so important for managers to engage with their employees?

Thomas: Managers don’t engage. Managers give orders. There is a big movement underway to promote leadership and diminish the role of managers. Systems and processes should be managed, not people. The young workforce generation generally distains managers and embraces leaders. Leaders engage the hearts, the souls, and the emotions of their followers by demonstrating dedication to the betterment of the followers. The average US employee engagement is about 33%. Those companies that achieve employee engagement in the 90 percentile have leaders, not managers, in charge at almost all levels. This answer could be expanded upon by two or three pages because it is why some companies have high performance levels and others do not.


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