Executive Spotlight: Charlie Lousignont
Supply Chain Scene: For those unfamiliar with you, let’s start with a quick overview of your career.
Charlie Lousignont: I earned my BA in Finance from the University of Central Florida then received my MBA at the University of Miami, Florida. Initially, I was interested in banking, but the industry wasn't very healthy at that time. I had been waiting tables through my undergrad and graduate studies, and surprisingly, I was making more doing that than what was being offered for a commercial loan officer position. This led me to explore other opportunities.
A friend working at General Mills Restaurant Group, now known as Darden, told me about openings in their finance and accounting department. With my background — an undergraduate degree in finance and a master's in finance and management — I started working in accounting and later became a financial analyst. An opportunity then arose to become a seafood buyer for Red Lobster, which was a significant role within the group.
Afterward, my career path led me to S&A Restaurant Corp, which is Steak and Ale/ Bennigan's. Though they don’t exist exist anymore, it's interesting to note that they are opening their first new Steak and Ale in 30 years soon. Following that, I worked for Burger King, Long John Silver's, and spent about a decade at Fazoli's. My journey continued through Applebee's, P.F. Chang's, ARAMARK and finally Brinker.
I've had numerous stops in my career. Even though I was part of a generation that had the idea that you go to work for a company and stay there 30 years, that didn’t necessarily make a lot of sense for me. My wife and I have had eight houses together so she’s been a great partner in this journey. We’ve moved all over the country – California, New Jersey, Kansas, Kentucky with the last stop being with Brinker here in Dallas.
Supply Chain Scene: Looking back, can you identify any key moments or decisions that changed your career trajectory?
Charlie Lousignont: Certainly. A pivotal moment was when I was working as an investment analyst. I remember sitting in front of an IBM x1 computer, which was quite a privilege at the time since we had only three computers shared in the department, not everyone got a computer back then. It was during this time that HR called to inform me about an opening for a seafood buyer position. I didn’t even know what a seafood buyer was, but the role involved international travel, working with suppliers, and negotiating, which all sounded very exciting to me.
I was initially included in the hiring process just to round out the field of internal candidates. The company had already earmarked two other candidates for the position, but they wanted to consider additional applicants. I managed to connect with the people in the department, many of whom were ex-military. Having grown up in a military family, I found common ground with them. Surprisingly, I got the job.
At 24, I started traveling all over the world. I went to Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Spain, the UK, the Canary Islands, and many other places. To date, I've been to 36 different countries. This international aspect is a significant part of sourcing seafood, which is inherently a global endeavor.
This role was the key turning point in my career. I had no prior knowledge of supply chain or purchasing, but taking this job shifted the trajectory of my career. Initially, I was on a path toward finance, potentially aiming for roles like CFO or VP of Corporate Finance. However, knowing my skills, interests, and where my strengths lie, I believe I wouldn't have been as successful had I continued in finance and accounting. That moment was the game-changer for me.
Supply Chain Scene: There was a time many professionals transitioned from finance and accounting to purchasing and procurement. Do you think this is still a good pathway for entering the supply chain field?
Charlie Lousignont: Definitely, it's an excellent entry point. My view, which I firmly believe, is that supply chain is essentially a control function. It's fundamentally about being responsible stewards of a company's resources, and ensuring we fulfill our fiduciary responsibilities. When spending money and purchasing products, it's crucial to have robust controls, audit trails, and transparency.
Having a financial background lays a solid foundation for a career in supply chain. It instills financial discipline, which is vital in this field. Without it, there's a risk of becoming desensitized to the significance of managing substantial contracts. It's important to always remember that the funds being managed belong to the shareholders. Being accountable for managing these resources efficiently and effectively is a key part of the role.
Supply Chain Scene: Continuing on the topic, let's discuss the skills crucial for success in supply chain management, particularly for young professionals. What are your thoughts?
Charlie Lousignont: In the food service sector of supply chain, what stands out to me is the paramount importance of relationships. This includes relationships both internally with your colleagues and externally with your supplier community. It's about more than just entertaining and socializing; it's about working with people, not just companies.
Building trust is essential. This trust isn't derived from company annual reports or contracts. In fact, if you're relying on a contract to manage a relationship with a supplier, it's likely not a strong relationship. Contracts are more like a safety net for worst-case scenarios. Successful relationships involve mutual commitments made through personal interactions.
The ability to communicate effectively and build relationships is foundational. It's a key differentiator in the success of supply chain professionals. This applies to dealings with suppliers and internal team members.
Additionally, analytical skills are vital, and this isn't limited to managing spreadsheets. It involves the ability to quickly evaluate situations, identify buying opportunities, and make informed decisions. While a comfort with numbers isn't a prerequisite for success in supply chain, it certainly can be beneficial.
Supply Chain Scene: So, a combination of analytical and people skills is key, which is an unusual mix.
Charlie Lousignont: Absolutely, it's a unique blend. Personally, I've always been more introverted. My initial Myers-Briggs assessment showed a strong tendency towards introversion. Over time, though, I've adapted and now find myself more balanced. Despite this, attending large events, like the NRA, can be quite draining for me. I'm the type who, after spending a day surrounded by people, needs to retreat to recharge. Extroverts, on the other hand, thrive on such interactions.
Supply Chain Scene: How many people did you manage at Brinker?
Charlie Lousignont: At the peak, it was a little over 60 people.
Supply Chain Scene: How did you manage talent development and training? What was your approach to career advancement for your team, especially considering the challenges in this area?
Charlie Lousignont: Managing talent, especially in a high-profile field like supply chain which has gained even more prominence post-COVID, is indeed a challenge. It's impossible for one person to personally develop 60 people. The key is to empower your team leaders to consistently focus on talent development and career progression.
When you’re a Category Manager, you’re focused on your category. As you rise in leadership, the focus shifts more towards people management. You're responsible for guiding and developing those who are making critical business decisions. This means ensuring they have the right tools and align with the company's philosophy and priorities. As the leader, I had to establish the department's approach and priorities.
It's vital to engage with your direct reports, the directors, and discuss talent. Conversations should revolve around identifying emerging talent, assessing high-potential employees, and determining if anything is hindering their professional growth.
Looking back, I didn’t realize early in my career how critical it is to build an engaged team. My primary role wasn't just understanding products, pricing and commodities, but rather how to effectively develop and grow people. That’s what truly differentiates a leader in supply chain management.
Supply Chain Scene: You've had many colleagues attend the National Restaurant Association Supply Chain Expert Exchange conferences. What are your thoughts on the benefits of attending?
Charlie Lousignont: These conferences are invaluable for career development and networking. They provide opportunities to connect not only with supplier sponsors but also with peers from other brands. While we're careful never to share pricing information due to antitrust concerns, the conferences facilitate discussions on non-competitive matters.
For example, you can discuss with colleagues from other companies best practices on vendor relationships, distribution management, managing internal stakeholders, the regulatory environment, commodity management just to name a few. These interactions provide insights that wouldn't be accessible otherwise. Building these connections is key, allowing for information sharing that's not competitive or proprietary.
The value of these conferences lies in creating a network of peers. Once you've met someone and established a rapport, it becomes much easier to reach out, exchange emails, or call for advice or insights. This kind of network is a powerful resource in the supply chain industry.
Supply Chain Scene: Reflecting on COVID-19's impact, what lasting changes do you see in supply chain management? How do you think technology, particularly in response to the pandemic, will shape the future of the industry?
Charlie Lousignont: COVID-19 was an unprecedented event with impacts that couldn't have been fully anticipated or solved for, given our global economy. The pandemic highlighted the vulnerabilities in our supply chains, especially when consumer behavior shifted drastically.
Post-COVID, there’s a focus on understanding and managing critical lead times for certain products. We've learned the importance of balancing multiple production points against single sourcing. Diversifying suppliers mitigates risks like weather events or strikes but dilutes your spending power. Conversely, relying on a single supplier increases risk but ensures greater importance and priority with that supplier. Finding the right balance is an art form and more critical now than ever.
Another major takeaway is the role of technology, especially AI and blockchain, in enhancing supply chain visibility. Real-time visibility into every aspect of the supply chain would enable more timely and impactful decision-making. We experienced moments during the pandemic where we were closely tracking inventory levels to make immediate decisions. The ability to have that level of detail and foresight in supply chain management has become invaluable.
Supply Chain Scene: As we wrap up, do you have any advice for the next generation of food service supply chain professionals, or for those considering a career in food service?
Charlie Lousignont: Absolutely. We're in an era where social media and digital communication have transformed how we build relationships. While this brings efficiency, especially for the younger generation who find it more intuitive, it's essential not to lose sight of the fundamental nature of our industry.
Food service is inherently about connecting with people. Even in fast-food restaurants with kiosks, human interaction remains a core part of the experience. More profoundly, in casual dining, the essence of our business is about bringing families together for meals, creating memorable moments. I always encourage people to remember that.
My advice to the next generation is to balance the efficiency of digital communication with the necessity of personal interactions. Building relationships requires being present, visiting manufacturing facilities, attending conferences, and engaging in face-to-face interactions. While remote working and digital tools are valuable, they can't fully replace the need for in-person collaboration and relationship building.