G.J. Hart | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

G.J. Hart


California Pizza Kitchen is a casual dining chain founded in 1985. From its first restaurant in Beverly Hills, the company has expanded to more than 250 locations around the world. G.J. Hart took the helm as CEO in August 2011, shortly after California Pizza Kitchen was acquired by the private equity firm Golden Gate Capital

The Mistake: 

We tried to do things too fast and without the understanding among all the team members as to what the vision was.

There was a company I previously worked for back in the late-'80s, early '90s. It was a food manufacturing business that supplied to retail and foodservice providers. We were a small company trying to grow with a few products and we needed more production capacity.

This very large company came to me with an opportunity to have a manufacturing plant with lots of space, lots of capability and a couple brands in the frozen hors d'oeuvres line that were pretty successful. Almost at the same time, [two other brands] came about [with an interest in merging].

We had to move fast, and that's where the mistake and the learning occurred. We were combining the acquisition of a couple of brands as well as a brand we built from scratch into a major food production facility and trying to unify those brands and go to the marketplace with economies that scale. All of this happened within about a 12 month period of time. It really should have been a several-year period of time, given the magnitude of change.

And so, anything that can go wrong did go wrong, whether it was manufacturing challenges or distribution challenges, quality challenges …You can be as optimistic as you want to be, which in this case I was, but it is almost as if you can't see when you are out front that you don't have people aligned.

I wasn't as in touch and didn't have enough of an organizational structure and a solid team to have the communication upwards, sideways and downwards. People were doing their best, but they were not living up to the expectations that I certainly believed we were trying to achieve.

I wanted to know how people on the front lines viewed things.

The Lesson:

Being methodical and thoughtful about sharing the vision and getting people to understand and have a within that mission is really what leads to success.

[In retrospect,] I underestimated the length of time needed to get people up to speed on a daily basis at 100 percent efficiency. I underestimated the communication required of the middle management folks to execute that and understand what we were up against and what the plan was.

[Now, at California Pizza Kitchen,] it all centers around team members, front line [staff] and communication. [When I started], the goal was figuring out how to make this company relevant and vibrant today and take the brand back to its essence and start to grow again. It has great brand recognition but became somewhat stagnant in the 2000s, so I focused on understanding why that happened and what needed to happen.

I wanted to know how people on the front lines viewed things. I talked to every general manager and managing partner in our system and got a lot of perspective. Shortly thereafter I traveled and talked to every manager in the system out in the marketplace and gained more knowledge. After that, I talked to more than 5,000 employees in town hall meetings. We called it the "Why?" Tour.

It really takes a long time, but once you get people unified and they understand that you are willing to come to them, there is a mutual respect that is fostered. If you don't have people totally understanding, buying into, having a voice and understanding why they matter in the scope of an ultimate vision, the journey will not be optimized.

Follow California Pizza Kitchen on Twitter at @calpizzakitchen.

Pictured: G.J. Hart. | Photo courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen.