Stan Fuller sits in a booth at the Yaletown location of his 66-store, 7,000-employee Earls Restaurants Ltd., takes a sip of water and pauses before revealing that he has started to step away from the business.
The inductee in the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame remains CEO of the company that he and his father founded and his family owns, but he now works what he calls “half days” either in the business or on the business.
No, this is not his lead-up to the old joke that he works half days: 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.
“That’s not me,” 65-year-old Fuller said with a laugh. “I’ve taken lessons from generations past and I don’t want to have one foot in the grave and still be toiling away. I don’t need to. We’ve got the best team we’ve ever had, and it shows.”
As part owner and someone who has many decades of experience, Fuller said he believes he has insight and instincts that contribute to Earls’ success while enhancing the guests’ experience.
His team, he stressed, does the real work.
“Must-attend meetings” for him are those with Earls’ other executives when capital spending, new locations or the menu is discussed, he said.
His job is to be accessible and to keep up with emails.
“My first hour and a half to two hours is to go through my emails and respond to people, and make sure that it doesn’t go longer than a day [without responding],” said Fuller. “It’s my job to make sure that if they are asking me, or if I can provide an insight or a cultural decision, I’ve got to play in the game.”
He and his brothers, Clay, Stewart and Jeff, and their father, Leroy Earl “Bus” Fuller, all own part of the successful upscale casual dining chain, as well as the similar Joey Restaurants. (Fuller’s mother died when he was a teenager.)
Stan Fuller owns a disproportionately larger share of Earls, while Jeff Fuller, as CEO of Joey Restaurants, has the largest minority stake of that chain.
The men also combine to have a 65% stake in Cactus Club – a venture that was built largely by former Earls server Richard Jaffray. Jaffray recently lost a court battle to try to keep Cactus Club’s financial information from the Fullers because he feared that they were using it to help the Joey Restaurants chain.
Stan Fuller did not want to say much about the lawsuit, although he said he was “disappointed” with Jaffray.
Bus Fuller is 90 years old and as “feisty” and sharp as ever, Stan Fuller said, chuckling. He added that he hopes he has similar enough genes to allow him to have such a long and healthy life.
The two opened the first Earls in Edmonton in 1982, and the chain’s first 10 years were punctuated with regular expansion. The ambitious pace saw them open an average of five new locations a year.
When Fuller realized that more openings might cannibalize existing business, he started to concentrate on ensuring he had the best locations. He balanced each new restaurant opening by closing a different restaurant somewhere else.
Sometimes being just half a block in the wrong direction can be fatal for a restaurant, he said. Other times a location can be good for many years only to suddenly turn bad. The key is to recognize that change and to take action, he said.
One of his first U.S. locations, for example, was a successful restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“They ended up putting a freeway at the front door and taking away some of our patio,” he said. “It diminished that location, so when it was time to renovate it, we decided to move on.”
A successful restaurant, he said, is a “marriage” between shareholders, employees, customers, landlords and suppliers.
“You treat your people like gold,” he said when asked for principles of successful restaurants that were as important when he started as they are today.
Many other aspects of the business have changed dramatically.
Credit card commissions are higher, for example. So are labour costs. In recent years, payroll taxes and fringe benefits for workers have risen, changing the calculus necessary to run a profitable venture, he said.
“Our prices have gone up, which is another challenge that you don’t want to see,” he said. “We have to manage our way though that.”
He allows prices to rise because the alternative would be to cut back in other areas, and he is convinced that skimping is catastrophic in the restaurant business.
That happened a lot during the 2008-09 global financial crisis, he said.
Other restaurant owners said, “‘Oh my God. The sky is falling. We’ve got to buy cheaper steaks,’” Fuller said.
“I’ve seen that one before and it’s a tragedy. You can cheap out on products or cheap out on training – either one is deadly, and people fall into both traps.”
Earls trains each new server for about 30 to 40 hours with the regimen including sit-down training to learn about wines and menu items, how to bus a table and how to speak to guests. There is also on-the-job training.
Observers say the systems that the Fullers put in place at their restaurants transformed dining across the continent.
“Stan changed the way we eat, drink and dine out in B.C., and abroad,” said British Columbia Restaurant & Food Services Association CEO Ian Tostenson. “Without Earls, the restaurant scenes would be noticeably different.”
Fuller has four sons: Keaton, Marshall, Harry and Kirklan. Marshall, restaurant manager at the Earls at the corner of Fir Street and West Broadway, is the only one who is working in the business.
Fuller described his romantic life as “complicated.” •
What sort of leadership style does a CEO have to cultivate in the 21st century?
A CEO is the gatekeeper for an organization’s brand and culture. The promises an organization makes to its customers and employees must be kept. All the stakeholders – shareholders, employees, suppliers, consultants and financial institutions – need to be included in every long-term strategy and business plan.
A CEO should have a complete recollection and recognition of the past history of the organization. There is gold in the knowledge of the causes and outcomes of an organization’s biggest successes and, more importantly, the biggest failures. Be aware of the internal threats and disruptors. Location, location, location. People who achieve, thrive.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Co-founding a hospitality company with my father and growing from one small restaurant in Edmonton into 66 restaurants in Canada and the U.S. Making equity investments available to our management right from the very beginning. Meeting hundreds of bright people who worked with Earls. They all tell a similar story: their Earls training and development gave them numerous advantages when they embarked on new careers.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
Creating a leadership training and development system in the premium casual hospitality segment where no precedent organizations existed. A system which taught and reinforced the philosophies of our culture, our relationships with guests and supplier partners, and our partnerships with one another.
What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?
None; it has been a great roller-coaster ride!
What is the one business lesson you’d like to pass on to others?
Being loyal to your stakeholders means being loyal to all your people. They deserve the best and brightest leaders to sail the ship.
Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2019 BC CEO Awards November 13, 2019, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.