Is There Something Foul at Buffalo Wild Wings?

from “If You’re Not Making History, You Are History” by Bob MacDonald

 

The generally accepted norm is that success is difficult to achieve. And indeed it is, but the reality is that retaining success is far more difficult than attaining it. There is a tendency to believe that success is the end of the road, when it is really just a confirmation that you are on the right road. It may seem counter-intuitive, but surviving success is almost always more difficult than surviving failure. Fail and that is the end of it, you can move on, but success demands more and more, and that can lead to what some have called the “agony of success.”

Many prepare to achieve success, but surprisingly few prepare to deal with the way success has a way of weakening the behavior that spawned it. I have seen many individuals and businesses who made yeoman efforts to be successful, only to fall prey to the “agony of success,” once it was achieved.  All too often when an individual or company achieves success, it leads to what may be an unconscious lessening of the passion, commitment and effort that led to success. Without the threat of imminent failure present, the fear of failure dissipates and is often replaced by the curse of complacency.

The only antidote to this malady is to make it your goal to always get better at what you do, if so, you will never fall prey to the feeling that you have made it, because for you, success will be defined by how good you can be, not how good you have been. Continued success means always making history and if you’re not making history, you are history.

Buffalo Wild Wings can be a learning lesson when it comes to dealing with success

Few companies in any industry have enjoyed the growth and success of Buffalo Wild Wings. From a single store opened in 1982, just off the campus of Ohio State, BWW expanded to operate stores in every state and is now an international presence. I joined BWW as a director, just prior to its initial public offering in 2003 and served on the board for over a decade.

It was a heady time of growth. More important, it was profitable growth. During my time on the board over 1,000 new stores were opened and the initial foray into the international market was initiated. Each year increases in sales, revenues and profits were at the top of the “casual dining” segment of the restaurant industry; only outperformed by the steady increase in stock value.

From my perspective as a board member, the entirety of the credit for the success of Buffalo Wild Wings belonged to CEO Sally Smith and the outstanding management team she led. Over a long business career, seldom had I seen a management team as dedicated, hard-working and as creative as was this team.  

But as time went on, I began to be concerned about a mentality of inevitability and entitlement that had crept into the psyche of management and the board. It was not any one thing, but there was an almost imperceptible shift from the feeling that continued success was something to be earned, to something that was preordained. Management and the board began to, even if subconsciously, feel entitled to the benefits of success achieved to date. Those concerns when raised were masked by a steep increase in stock value and continued growth (although the growth had begun to slow) and were, for the most part, ignored.

The company began a steady evolution from an entrepreneurial to a corporate culture. Some evidence of this includes:

  • Senior management began (a fully disclosed and legal) systematic sale of their stock. Management was (and still is) taking its earned reward for past success, but this is the action of a manager, not an entrepreneur who believes there is even greater success in the future. It sends a subtle message to employees and others that management believes best is in the past and, “I am going to take what I can, while the taking is good.”
  • The company began to hire from the outside, rather than making a commitment to identify and develop talent from within. Successful companies maintain success by recognizing the talent of those who are committed to the company and by creating a path to advancement for them. It sends the wrong message to employees, and is a sign of a lazy management, not to commit to developing internal talent.
  • Independent members of the board of directors (only two of whom I respected) began to be more concerned with process and procedure (making sure meetings started and ended on time) and their own personal compensation, rather than challenging management to seek out creative growth options. (It should be noted that all but the two outside directors I felt were qualified have been replaced.)
  • Management and the board seemed to be satisfied with what worked in the past, rather than trying to identify new ways that would work better in the future.

Individually, these and other changes that were taking place, would not impact the success of Buffalo Wild Wings, but taken together, they started a process of deteriorating success that continues today. They may not even recognize it, but the reaction of management in this type of situation is to shift focus from seeking success yet to be achieved, to protecting past success. In short, management becomes defensive rather than aggressive. This mentality rarely works and in reality puts the very future of the company at risk.

Sharks in the water

When a company loses its drive and direction it begins to flail about like a wounded fish in the ocean and that attracts sharks who move in for the kill. Unfortunately, that is the position BWW is in today. There are predator investment groups that prowl the business seas looking for successful but wounded companies. When the target is identified they sweep in, take a big chunk of the company, and then attempt to impose their will on the company. The only objective of these killer sharks is a quick meal of increased stock price and then they move on to the next target; leaving the prey wounded and struggling to survive, which rarely happens.

Unfortunately, this is the plight that Buffalo Wild Wings finds itself in today. Management and the board are spending most of their time attempting to fend off the sharks and this leaves little time to focus on making what was a great company great again. This did not have to happen, but it is a great example of what can result when the management of a company allows itself to fall prey to the “agony of success.”

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