Christine Specht, 34, assumed the role of president and chief operating officer of Menomonee Falls-based Cousins Subs – the company her father, Bill Specht and his cousin, the late Jim Sheppard founded in 1972 – in March of 2008. Here, Christine reveals how she got to where she is today and where she intends to go.
Q: We’ve learned that nearly 40 years ago your father, Bill Specht and his cousin, Jim Sheppard opened the very first Cousins Subs in Milwaukee, WI. What role have you played in the company over the years?
Christine: I was born two years after my father and Jim opened the first Cousins Subs in Milwaukee. I have literally grown up with the restaurant concept and it has always been a huge part of my life. At the age of 15, I began working behind the counter making sandwiches, bussing tables and working the register. After college and graduate school, I returned home to head up the company’s revamped Human Resources Department. I knew at that time, I’d be with Cousins for the remainder of my career.
Q: Have you always thought that one day you would head up the company that your father built?
Christine: No! I never thought my involvement would expand beyond that of an after school job. Unlike most children whose parents own a business, I didn’t automatically assume that I would join the Cousins’ ranks. After going away to college and graduate school, I began focusing my career on human resources. When Cousins revamped their human resources department, it was a natural fit for me. When Jim passed away, I was hesitant at first about leading Cousins into the future, but I have found that all things happen for a reason. Though it was never in my plans, I have never felt more at home or happier than in my new role.
Q: How will your lifelong familiarity lend itself to your new position?
Christine: I remember hearing about Cousins around the dinner table when I was too young to work in the restaurants. Later, I had my chance to not only work in the restaurants but behind the scenes as well. I not only have a real handle on the culture of the business, but I’ve seen what has worked and what hasn’t and I plan to use those years of observation to grow the business into the future. I know the product very well and respect those that have been around for an extended period of time. Cousins has also always been a family-owned business, and that mentality extends from our most senior management positions all the way down to our franchisees and employees.
Q: What changes in the company have you seen over the past 3 decades?
Christine: In the past 30 years we have grown to a chain of 150+ stores and have entered the world of franchising almost 20 years ago. We’ve constantly been updating our menu and have grown our corporate support system in order to provide more services to our corporate and franchised stores. We’ve expanded beyond Milwaukee into 8 other states, both in the mid-West and on the West coast in California, Arizona and Texas. We have also held on to the traditions that make us the best – like creating each sub on freshly baked bread. Although this is a time of great change for Cousins, I’m confident that we will continue in our success and continue to grow with the times.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge thus far and what have you done to overcome it?
Christine: I am currently going through my most challenging time as a businesswoman. In March of this year I was named President of the company and since that time I have been realigning my corporate office staff – ensuring the right people are in the right seat on the bus. It has been important to me to get back to the basics by strengthening old relationships and building new ones within the company. This, as does any reorganization process, requires many tough decisions. So far, we’ve elicited an extremely positive response. I have also gathered my team for an intense planning session. We now have a plan that looks out at least three years instead of the more common annual plan. Aligning goals, tearing down silos and creating a team-oriented culture focused on success have been huge challenges and ones that are still evolving. We’re also implementing intelligent, strategic growth in key markets and reworking the franchisee selection process. We aren’t just expanding for the sake of expansion; we want to make sure we have the right people in place. It may make even greater challenges for us but this strategy will make our system stronger overall.
Q: What motivates you in your work?
Christine: The individuals I work with who have the passion and drive to see Cousins go to the next level. Everyone that is affiliated with Cousins works hard, is passionate, loyal, and truly believes that we can continue to grow. It’s so exciting for me to see the growth of this company over the years. As the second generation running the company, I am motivated to grow the business and build upon the success my father had.
Q: How would you advise a businesswoman who is looking to get to the top?
a.) Don’t let the fact that you are a woman get in the way of being successful. Play off of your strengths and ignore the ancillary noise. When you hold your head up high, people will respect you and follow you.
b.) As women, it is often our nature to show care and concern. It is wonderful to be empathetic but don’t let it cloud your judgment. In the end, you will still have tough decisions to make.
c.) Don’t take it personally. The business world can be tough, and I am most certain that you will run into obstacles in your climb up the ladder. Keeping your goals in the forefront of your mind and knowing that you will never be able to please everyone, will help you get to where you want to go.