Interviewee Name: John Fink, Chief Financial Officer
Company Name: Dinosaur Restaurants
Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
John Fink: I was raised in a small town in Wisconsin, kind of a company town. My dad was my hero and is to this day even though he’s passed on. My life has generally been about adventure and achievement and I guess that may sound kind of strange, but that’s the way I like to position it. I was the valedictorian of my high school class and a letterman athlete, graduated college with high honors, was the President of my college fraternity, passed the CPA exam on the first shot, was a VP for a company by the age of 28 and became a CFO at 35. I moved from Wisconsin to Florida to Missouri back to Florida to New York City back to Florida to Wisconsin to New York State. I have an amazing wife who shares my love of adventure, we have a couple of kids who give me the gift of love and laughter every day, and I’m really looking forward to the future.
Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?
John Fink: I get up at about 6:30 am and I do what I need to do to get ready for the day. Then, I like to make breakfast for my little girl. I make her pancakes or biscuits, or scrambled eggs. I have some sort of focus on making breakfast for her. She is in kindergarten and I like to get her off well fed. I usually drive to work after that, work hard all day and typically have lunch at my desk. After work, I head home and we have supper together because that’s a big thing in our family. We focus on that and I really enjoy it, and that’s how I learn about everybody else’s day. Then it’s my job after supper to walk the dog. I typically play with the kids and we put them to bed. I spend an hour or an hour and a half to make coffee and my lunch for the next day, catch up on the news, do any emails I need to do, have a period of reflection then go to bed.
Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
John Fink: Quite a few years ago I came across Steven Covey’s book and I internalized the saying to begin with the end in mind. I stay motivated because I want to look back on my life some day and I want to be able to have the satisfaction that I pushed as hard as I could and did as much as I could, and went as far as I could and I didn’t create my own barriers. I also tend to be in an environment where others are counting on me, so I guess I don’t have to motivate myself. If others are counting on me, I don’t want to let them down.
Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
John Fink: As a younger person, I would have a hobby or some sort of avocation to pursue rather than casting around as kids do. Perhaps playing a musical instrument, a sport, or learn a language or something. Certainly, by the time I reached high school, I would focus hard on learning another language and would continue with it to college. I believe that’s critical in today’s world, people being as mobile as they are. I would certainly shoot for the stars as far as college selection, I would work harder at that. Kids at 17, 18 have a tough situation in that they have to make decisions that will impact them significantly throughout the remainder of their lives and they have to do it in a very short period of time without a lot of life experience. I’d certainly work harder at choosing a college that gave me every opportunity. Then I’d get an advanced degree immediately. Sometimes people think they’ll leave college and enter the workforce and go back later, but it doesn’t happen, so I’d continue on and get the advanced degree immediately. I’d network or pay attention to networking much earlier in my career, and I’d try harder for a non-US job assignment early in my career.
Avil Beckford: What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
John Fink: My wife and I adopted a son from Russia and we brought him home in June, and we also adopted our daughter from Russia and brought her home just after Christmas 2008. As a result, one of the things I’ve learned in the last year is that kids don’t make linear progress when they are learning. Time goes by when you think they are not picking up much of anything, and then all of a sudden they make a big jump in their abilities. It turns out that kids are always observing, but don’t always let you know when they pick something up. They choose the time and place and the way they let you know that they’ve learned something.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the biggest advances in your industry over the past five years?
John Fink: It would be the concept of the fast-casual restaurant. I find it fascinating that there is a new genre of restaurant or type of customer intervention that makes people somehow feel special while being processed through a cafeteria line, carrying their food to a seat, dispensing their own drink and bussing their own table. It’s definitely a new sector of our industry that came up over the past five years and it’s really quite interesting.
Avil Beckford: What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
- The first one would be complacency. In any business, particularly the restaurant business, it is subject to the whims of the customer. Complacency about sameness, whether it’s the food or decor, or the experience, is something that’s always a risk. Restaurants typically develop a concept that works, play it out and overstay their welcome, and are forced to grapple with updating all at once very rapidly in order to stay relevant.
- I’d say arrogance is another risk. Thinking you can sit around the table and let the management team decide what it is they want to be and to provide to the customer. The customer will decide that. There is very little decision-making on the part of the senior management team as to what the organization wants to be. Either the organization provides a service or experience to the customer that will matter, or provide a value proposition, or they don’t, and that’s not up to them, it’s up to the customer. Good organizations continually test things with customers and roll out the ones the customers decide they like.
- Another would be fear, perhaps putting the breaks on growth or change in the organization because of fear of making a mistake. There is a quote out there that says, “People who make no mistake lack boldness in the spirit of adventure. They are the breaks on the wheels of progress.” You can’t develop a terrific product and then let it sit, and expect to make money.
Avil Beckford: What’s unique about the service that you provide?
John Fink: I think it’s a combination. I think it’s the cuisine we provide which is legitimate, genuine cuisine that cannot be shortcut. It’s also the environment, which is authentic in terms of its decor. It’s a rough, roadhouse feel that is legitimate in the fact that we locate our restaurants in non-traditional areas, we outfit our restaurants in such a fashion that it gives the customer a feeling of possibility along the lines of a roadhouse type environment, but at the same time it’s safe. And last but not least, it’s the guest experience. We treat customers like adults. We don’t bring cheerleaders or kindergarten teachers to their tables and tell them the latest gimmick on the menu to get a free appetizer if you order just the right entree. You tell the server what you’d like and he or she gets it. It’s not a sanitized version of some other great experience, it IS the great experience.
Avil Beckford: What do you observe most people in your field doing badly that you think you do well?
John Fink: I’d say keeping the overall goal in mind and not getting caught up in the process. We desire at Dinosaur to create a customer environment and experience that brings them back, and we understand it’s a combination of the food, which we’re unapologetic about. We are not going to get caught up in the process of becoming a sort of trendy, green, health conscious, all-things-to-all-people sort of deliverable. We are a legitimate barbecue place, and that keeps us relevant. We are going to do the best we can to execute against that. We are not going to try to broaden our demographic by watering down our product. We deliver the finest barbecue that we can, and continue to do that every day. As long as customers like barbeque, we are set.
Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it. What kind of lessons did you learn in the process?
John Fink: The most recent challenge would be a year and a half ago, I found myself in a position professionally that was too comfortable. I was not challenged. I had limited prospects for growth and I had a high level of risk of going soft. As a result, I opened my mind to consider other opportunities, and an opportunity presented itself. There was risk, because the opportunity happened to be halfway across the country from where we lived. I discussed the opportunity with my family, we agreed, and we moved and I took the new job.
Avil Beckford: Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
John Fink: It would be Tom Silveri. Tom was the CFO of Drake Beam Morin, and I worked for him. Tom gave me more responsibility at a relatively early age than my credentials and age warranted. He put me in front of heavyweight individuals, decision-makers, and learned professionals, and to some degree he let me swim or sink. He didn’t bury me in the engine room or make me wait my turn or otherwise keep me away from the action, and I thank him for that. That allowed me to see and be around individuals at senior positions and watch them and see what made them tick, and how they thought. It advanced my career significantly.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
John Fink: I had to fire a friend of mine. I was working in an organization for a long time and I had a co-worker, a peer, and we developed a strong friendship. At one point I was promoted and took charge of a group of individuals, and he was one of the individuals. Things changed within the organization, the structure changed, the ownership changed, the capitalization changed, the very mission of the organization changed. My friend was a good guy, a good performer, a valuable individual, but the organization had changed and didn’t need his particular skill set at his location anymore. I had to make the tough decision, I had to let him go and it was very difficult, and it hurt him. While this friend of mine was an outstanding guy, I couldn’t put his feelings, his well-being, ahead of all others. He’s since gone on and done extremely well.
Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
- When I was 14 years old, my sister’s husband died. He was a brother to me, a young guy, he was 31 years old. He was a big guy, a strong guy. I admired him. He took me fishing, bowling, to the state fair, etc. and treated me as a brother. He passed away very suddenly. That taught me at a young age that bad things can happen to me and to my family. My family was never the same, and I mourned that. I guess at age 14 I wasn’t prepared to mourn, so I didn’t handle it very well. However, I came out the other side of that stronger and understanding more about who I am and the fact that I’m not immortal or protected in some special way, and that bad things can happen to me and my family.
- The next thing was when I moved away to college. I was born and raised in a relatively small town in Wisconsin and I moved to attend the University of Florida, which was and still is the premier state university in Florida. It’s a large university and you can become lost if you are not a relatively assertive and ambitious individual. So I had some culture shock there, and I had to deal with that, and I did. I understood how it worked, and I made the best of it I believe, and that shaped me.
- Finally, while I was at college, I had a roommate who was 21 years old, a terrific guy, picture of health, we thought. We were playing soccer one day and he collapsed and died right there on the field. It was a shocking, horrible event in my life. Again, it reinforced the fact that bad things can happen to me and those around me. There is no expectation, or shouldn’t be, that there is some sort of deal in the cosmos that will allow us a free, healthy, happy existence throughout all of our upbringing, career, golden years and things of that nature. There is a certain amount of randomness in the universe and we should live every day to the fullest. That’s the cliché, I guess. Bad things happen, and we have to seize opportunities when they are presented to us because there may not be a tomorrow. We have to jump on what we are capable of, and pursue what we can.
Avil Beckford: What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
John Fink: I believe I am a decent father, a good dad. My kids are why I do what I do. I want them to be safe and happy and loved. I put a priority on that. I can’t claim it necessarily, because my kids will judge many years from now, but I believe that I’m a decent dad. Beyond that, I’ve had a good academic record and I’ve had a great career so far, so I’m proud of those as well
Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?
John Fink: When I was young, early in my career, I was a very intense individual. I had a very strong view of how I felt things should be, and mentors softened me at points when I needed to take a different perspective. They prevented me from making some rash decisions or perhaps being too blunt or too fixed in my views. They helped me keep my eye on long-term goals and not let either my ego or my view of the world get in the way.
Avil Beckford: What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
John Fink: I think the most valuable message that I’ve ever received, is to be slow to bruise and quick to heal, and not hold grudges. You simply must work with others to accomplish objectives. You can be idealistic about the ultimate goal, whether that’s a business or personal success, however you define it, but not the steps or the process or the people involved in getting there.
Avil Beckford: An invisible mentor is a unique leader you can learn things from by observing them from afar, in the capacity of an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
John Fink: It’s not anything new or groundbreaking, but it’s the old axiom that you have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. People pay big money for training seminars, executive coaches, and other types of interventions, when in fact there is a live training session happening in front of you every day. Wherever you are, whatever business you are in, watch the successful people, the heavy-hitters. Take the good from them. Accept the fact that most times the heavy-hitters got there by earning it. They are not there because of a lucky break that you didn’t get. You can’t always do it better than they can. Don’t co-exist with these people, watch them, observe them, figure out what’s important to them, what they focus on every day, how they react to certain situations, and take that in. Make your own judgment about whether you are going to use it or not, but observe it and take it in.
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