Executive Spotlight: Gary Nash, Director of Purchasing, Zaxby's
SCS: Gary, you've worked at Hooters, Focus, and now Zaxby's. You've got a really interesting background, tell us about the roles that you've held, your journey, and how you got where you are now.
GN: I was raised in the Midwest in Kansas City, Missouri, and I entered the foodservice industry early when I was about 14 years old. I got my first job at a Taco Bell drive-thru. I wanted to earn a little income and help my family since we didn’t have much at that time. What I learned quickly working in QSR is that I love the pace and the organized chaos of a very busy restaurant. I really enjoyed that so I went to work at several other restaurants in my teens like Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald's, and places where it was the same thing - organized chaos. That's when I really started being led to identify leaders that were shaping me and helping me grow as an individual, and in turn, where I was able to apply leadership. Restaurants and kitchens I'd work at, I'd be that crew leader, that kitchen manager that keyholder who would come in and open or close those restaurants. I would find myself opening one restaurant and closing another on the same day.
There was a fork in the road for me and it was right around September 11, 2001. I had just moved and needed to find a job closer to where I lived. I was looking at a couple of chains that were next to each other. One was Bob Evans and one was Hooters. At the time I had really long hair, a goatee, and a mustache ala Kid Rock days... Bob Evans said, “Hey, you can start tomorrow, but I'm going to need you to cut your hair and shave your face.” So I went over for an interview with Hooters and they said, “You can start tomorrow” and they didn't say anything about cutting my hair. So it was decided! I began working in operations at Hooters in Kansas City, Missouri, back in 2001 and I just fell in love with the pace. It was a place where there was a lot going on, a lot of interaction between the guests, the kitchen, and the wait staff and it was really great energy.
From there I started to learn and cycle through other roles in the organization and became a trainer and then field training and then helping other restaurants with their training programs. Then I started opening restaurants on behalf of Hooters all over the world and was offered a role in corporate training in Atlanta in 2003 to lead openings for the company at that time. I learned a lot about the business but also learned the importance of being on a cross-functional team.
Corporate training is what I came to Atlanta for but I also worked in Quality Assurance going out and auditing plants. I got to work in R&D with the chef coming up with new menu items and then a position in Purchasing opened up. The VP of the department said, “Hey if you come over and work in Purchasing I'll tell you everything you need to know.” So I spent five years cutting my teeth in Purchasing at Hooters, and it was a lot of poultry buying and negotiating price agreements, cost-saving initiatives, and things of that nature.
I did that for about five years and the phone rang and it was Focus Brands. It was actually a friend of mine who was over there and asked if I’d be interested in coming to work for a little ice cream chain called Carvel. I hadn’t heard of Carvel and didn't know anything about ice cream or how to manage an ice cream Supply Chain, but it was a great opportunity and I said, “Yes, let's do this.”
So I moved over to Focus Brands and back in 2011 really just dug into supply chain for Carvel, learned a great deal about dairy management, risk management, and hedging commodities, and how to really be a leader in supply chain. We like to think of supply chain in a heavily franchised environment, being a “protector of margins”. We want to protect our franchise margins the best we can. It was with Focus Brands that I really started to apply all of those key learnings along with servant leadership. That journey taught me quite a bit about the industry and about what a level three and level four class supply chain could look like.
I was there for five years and about halfway through, Cinnabon needed some support so I took on that brand as well. I was leading supply chain for the Carvel and Cinnabon brands, as well as supporting some of the non-traditional and co-branding efforts, which was a ton of fun to do and I got to see both sides of those brands and work closely with other brand Supply Chain leaders.
Then ultimately in 2016, Zaxby's called me. They were developing a new role and wanted to see if I had any interest. It was a role in menu services so it was an R&D commercialization type role and I thought that it was something that for me would be a great opportunity. I accepted the position then and moved to Athens. For two years I led the menu services and field testing divisions of our R&D department. Then an opportunity again came up in purchasing here and that was something that I really missed. I really enjoyed being engaged with supply partners, working with cross-functional teams, and really getting back to the role of “protecting the margins” of our franchisees. Today, I'm the Senior Director of Purchasing for Zaxby's Franchising and we've got a team of six talented individuals responsible for about 400 million dollars in annual non-poultry spend. It's just an amazing place to be and work and thrive, especially during these times.
SCS: How did COVID impact your role at Zaxby's? How has your job changed and what do you think is next in all this craziness?
GN: You know it's a similar story for a lot of my peers in the industry. Our business was down 35, 40 percent for a short time. Then for us, about three weeks into COVID, it's was like hanging on to a rocket ship taking off into space. The role has definitely changed because there are multiple new challenges being presented every single day. Usually, the challenge you were dealing with was in front of your face, a distribution center issue, or with a manufacturer’s production plan. Now, some of those issues go up a few rungs, to secondary and tertiary suppliers to your manufacturers that are having issues getting labor and ingredients. So, we've had to have a little bit of grace, during this time with manufacturers, and with distributor partners. Ultimately, it comes down to the relationships that we have in place, and still today it's all about the relationships. That played a big role in helping us not only get through COVID but coming out of it we were able to learn a great deal about our vendors and who was there with us and who maybe had struggled and needed a little bit more support or maybe needed us to identify a second source of product.
Technology really played a big role in how we were able to manage. First with managing what was going on, because none of us knew what to expect. Then, it was how were we going to manage to go forward? Well, in order to understand that, you have to know where you are. So we were able to use the technology platforms we had in place and quickly see inventory distribution centers, ordering patterns, purchase history, inbound purchase orders, and we were able to create and share reports with our key supply partners. So in addition to our daily performance reports along with a snapshot of what their inventory looked like at each one of our centers with history and purchase order records. That was an additional set of eyes looking at things in the background. I think that information sharing really helped keep everything in check.
The next part of that was keeping up with shifts in the consumer demand cycle; off-premise dining, new prototype buildings, things that we have to think about now for the next iteration of our brand because a lot of those consumer behaviors that were present early during COVID are now things that consumers don't want to give up, like off-premise dining, ordering, third party delivery. Those things are here to stay in my mind. So how do we as brands make that experience live up to the same experience it would have been dining with us?
SCS: You sound pretty tech-focused at Zaxby's
GN: Yes, we're new to it actually, we onboarded our tech platform ArrowStream a few years ago. So we haven't really had these tools very long. The great part about it is they're pretty intuitive and you can figure them out quickly with the right training and use them to really support more than just your supply chain activity. It's good information for finance, for our R&D and it can support a wide variety of functions.
SCS: What skills have helped you the most in your career to get you to where you are now, and what advice do you have for younger professionals who want to follow in your footsteps?
GN: For me, what has helped me get where I am is people skills. It's the soft skills, it's understanding and learning how to develop people, relationships and how to maintain them. It can be difficult to keep those relationships in a great place because not all conversations are fun conversations. So those soft skills, people skills, but also honesty and courage to tell the truth. When I say that, it means being able to say things that you really don't want to say, the tough stuff. It's hard work and it's building a great work ethic. You got to love what you do. When I walked in to work my first shift at that Taco Bell, I knew because of that pace I belonged in this industry. You've got to be willing to put in the work, but also make mistakes. I've had to learn through my mistakes and I encourage people to learn from them when it happens. Nobody makes a mistake on purpose, but we're all going to make them….learn from each and every one.
For people who want to get into this industry, it takes a lot of hard work and you have to build those relationships. Sometimes you have to work harder and longer than anybody else will to establish that. If you're able to apply yourself and you want to make a difference and “protect margins” and be a part of this chaotic industry, that strong work ethic is key. I have a phrase on my wall in my home office that I look at often, "The struggle you're in today is building strength for tomorrow." So when things are hard, I repeat to myself…Struggle Today, Strength Tomorrow.
SCS: I like it.
GN: I know that a year ago what I was struggling with is now a strength and now whatever comes up, I just keep going. For anybody who's been through a pandemic in the foodservice industry in a supply chain role - that is now a resume builder. Ten years from now when people look back and see that on a resume, I think that's going to get you somewhere. Those are hard-earned struggles that turned into strengths.
SCS: How do you see Procurement changing in the future?
GN: I think you're going to see supply chain move in some organizations from a supporting role - managing LTO's, inventory, price, doing the things that make people think the food just shows up - into more of a stakeholder role, with a seat at the table if you will. And you'll likely see decision-making driven more through the supply chain, from the P & L side of it. When you think about all of the things that are plaguing the industry right now with labor shortages and profitability shrinking - those things are very difficult to deal with. Supply chain has an opportunity to identify and source products or programs that can help gain efficiencies. Things that can help reduce labor hours whether it's through product design, portion-controlled items, adding value in a way that simply makes a team member's life easier. I definitely think supply chain will have a more elevated role among the corporate teams over the next three or five years.