Author: Chris Starrs

Published

Doug Benn
Benn is executive vice president/CFO of the California-based Cheesecake factory, which has 162 properties and annual sales of $1.6 billion.

Although he’s built his career by developing winning strategies for the restaurant industry, Doug Benn (BBA ’76, MAcc ’82) admits he enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1972 without a clear blueprint for his future.

“I thought I wanted to go to law school, so I originally majored in political science,” says Benn, executive vice president/CFO for the California-based Cheesecake Factory, the highest volume-per-unit casual dining restaurant in the hospitality industry with 162 properties and annual sales of some $1.6 billion. “But by my second quarter in school, I had switched to accounting.”

When Benn talks to his daughters about their future, he tells them, “Do what I say and not what I did. You’ve got to have a plan about what you want to achieve. And while I didn’t have an overall plan, I was disciplined in my direction.”

A Delaware native who earned his high school diploma in Columbus, Ga., Benn’s first job out of college was with Arthur Andersen in both the tax and audit practices. After 10 years, he went to work for one of his clients, the Rio Bravo Cantina brand, and as vice president, treasurer and CFO he helped the company grow from three restaurants to 26 by the time it was purchased in 1995 by Applebee’s International for $68 million.

After a short stint as an independent business consultant, Benn again went to work for one of his clients, Atlanta–based Rare Hospitality International, which owned the LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille brands. During his time as vice president–finance/CFO, the company grew from 123 to 332 restaurants, with annual sales of $1 billion.

When Rare Hospitality was acquired in 2007 by Darden Restaurants, Benn was invited to join the company; he declined, not wanting to move from Atlanta to Florida. But when the Cheesecake Factory came calling, Benn willingly listened to their offer, and signed on in early 2009, even though it meant a cross–country move to Southern California.

“This is a premium-quality brand and a highly differentiated brand,” says Benn, who still maintains an Atlanta home with wife Mickey. “It is a brand I thought could continue to grow from where it is—and, most importantly, it was a company that has been entrepreneurially run for 31 years. And the person who started the company was still the CEO. I felt I could make a difference here.”

In these trying economic times, the Cheesecake Factory is not immune to a decrease in sales, but the company has made tactical adjustments that have resulted in a steady bottom line.

“Over the last year and a half, sales in the restaurant business have fallen off . . . pretty dramatically for some brands,” says Benn. “The Cheesecake Factory is not excluded, as our average volume used to be almost $11 million and has gone down about $1 million. What we did was take a very close look at our cost structure and tried to figure out what we could do without and not impact our customers.

“We measured guest–satisfaction scores with even more precision during this period o f time because we wanted to make sure our guests’ satisfaction wasn’t deteriorating. Our great accomplishment for last year was growing our sales and guest counts, and we were able to cut our cost structure so that we improved our margins. At the same time, we were able to increase our customer satisfaction scores. All that added up to a pretty good 2010, despite the economy still being sluggish.“

Benn is enjoying bicoastal living—and he and Mickey spend as much time in Atlanta as is possible, although California is growing on them.

“We talked about the immense advantages of living in California, which has a wonderful climate, lots of sun, and we’re close to a lot of outdoor things,” says Benn. “We can go hiking in the mountains or walking on the beach in a matter of minutes. Everybody is coming to visit us here.”

Asked what difference he’s been able to make with the Cheesecake Factory, Benn says, “Part of it is in developing ultimate credibility with our investors on Wall Street. The way you do that is to do what you say you're going to do—and the best way to do that is to not over–promise. I think I’ve made a difference in that regard.”