September 19, 2014

What's It All About, Barry?

Joan Chrissos | 2/1/1996
Ask Barry Gibbons who his hero is, and he turns uncharacteristically quiet. He thinks about it for a moment, his gray-green eyes transfixed in thought, then slowly a grin crosses his face.

"Eric Clapton."

No, not just for his music -- although the British-born Gibbons is a big fan. It's the way Clapton strives to test himself.

"The guy is always trying to reinvent himself, to do something new, to never be satisfied," says Gibbons.

An apt description, too, of Gibbons.

These days, the former chairman and chief executive of Miami-based Burger King Corp. is testing himself in a variety of new ventures, from investing in a magazine spanning the music spectrum from classical to rock 'n' roll, to starting a fast-food turkey chain from scratch, to writing a business column for the Miami Herald.

And he's the new chairman of the board of Spec's Music, the statewide chain of music stores that has had its own troubles of late.

Gibbons, who turned 50 last month, has no intention of returning full time to the executive suite. In the more than two years since he walked away from Burger King, Gibbons has had too much fun to turn back.

No more 1.2 million miles annually on frequent flyer trips between Miami and London, home of Grand Metropolitan plc, Burger King's parent. No more three-piece suits (current dress: jeans, Calvin Klein denim shirts, penny loafers with no socks). No more "notes on the fridge door" as a way of talking to Judy, his wife of 28 years.

Besides, he adds, proudly fingering the gold earring embedded in his left ear lobe, "I had it pierced. I can't go back now."

He and his wife have moved out of the 5,000-square-foot executive manse owned by Grand Met and now live in a 3,000-square-foot house in South Miami. It's a comfortable home with a clay-tiled roof and brick walkway. They love Miami, but they also have a house outside London, where their two sons attend boarding school and college.

Most days he works out of his home office, which is decorated with memorabilia of his past. There's an English pub sign, a cornflower blue soccer jersey from his hometown Manchester team and, in a small black frame, a copy of a check for $1.6 million made out to Goldman, Sachs. The money came from his Grand Met contract buy-out, which he invested with the New York banking firm.

He spent 25 years on the corporate bandwagon before jumping off. He played well. He spent the 1970s with Shell Oil, then went on to Whitbread, the giant British brewery and restaurant-chain owner. In 1984, Grand Met, a London conglomerate whose products include J&B Scotch, Bailey's Original Irish Cream and Smirnoff Vodka, hired him to run its pub operation.

In January 1989, after a testy takeover battle, Grand Met bought Pillsbury Co., then Burger King's parent, for $5.7 billion. Gibbons, then 43, was named chief executive of Burger King, the nation's No. 2 fast-food chain. At the time, it had $5.4 billion in annual sales, more than 5,550 restaurants and 40,000 employees. But sales and market share were slipping, profits were down and the Miami company had gone through four chairmen, five presidents and six marketing directors in eight years.

Gibbons was brought in to reverse the slide and, by most accounts, succeeded. When he left in December 1992, Burger King's number of restaurants had jumped by 1,000 to 6,800 worldwide and U.S. restaurant profitability had risen 50%. Sales in 1992 topped $6.4 billion, up 12% since 1989.

"He came in to prove that the substantial investment Grand Met made in acquiring Burger King was prudent," says Jerry Ruenheck, a former Burger King president who owns 15 franchises in Tampa Bay and Orlando. "I think he proved that."

Gibbons' proudest accomplishment, however, was rebuilding the company's South Dade headquarters -- and the lives of about 300 employees who lost their homes -- after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

He turned the company's lawns and parking lots into relief centers, chucked the dress code, instituted flex time, and when the worst was over, threw his 750 corporate employees a New Year's Eve bash that included fireworks and a 90-minute private performance by Huey Lewis and The News.

"The hurricane gave Barry an incredible challenge," recalls Burger King's Cori Zywotow, who with her husband and then 11-month-old daughter stayed at Gibbons' house the night of the storm at the Gibbons' behest. "What CEO in America is faced with rebuilding a corporate headquarters, when 300 of our employees not only lost their offices but lost their homes?"

With the company rebuilt, the challenge was gone for Gibbons. Actually, Gibbons' defining moment had come a few months before, when he was sitting in a board meeting in London.

"A particular enemy" on the board launched into a diatribe against men who wore earrings. The next day, Gibbons, on a bet from one of his boardroom buddies, returned to the meeting wearing an earring.

"I started to think, 'Is this what the future holds for me? Traveling in a bloody jet, sitting in some room with a crystal chandelier and a Queen Anne table, and getting nowhere? Then going back and firing someone else because corporate life is pretty much about downsizing these days?'"

So, on the day Burger King's headquarters officially reopened -- 11 months after the storm -- Gibbons called the employees into the cafeteria. He turned on an opera aria (a few months back, he had promised them he wouldn't leave until the fat lady sang), handed the keys to his hand-picked successor, James B. Adamson, had the technicians crank up "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" at full blast -- then he sprinted out of the building.

"I gave it almost everything I had that year," Gibbons says. "What was left? I could have put another zero on the salary, or [added] another five zeros to the company's sales. But the issue was, 'What more do I want to do with my life?'"

Gibbons' first foray into the entrepreneurial world began with a confrontation. "We started off completely wrong," says Maurice Keizer, a Dutch music industry executive who founded Tutti, a national music magazine and CD package, in Coconut Grove in the fall of 1994. What happened was that Gibbons expressed interest in buying a piece of the magazine to Keizer, who balked, saying he wasn't looking for investors.

After a few cups of coffee, the two European businessmen took to each other. Gibbons was particularly attracted to the concept: targeting women and their kids by writing about classical composers, jazz greats and rock 'n' roll stars in a hip magazine packaged with CDs, digital video discs in the future. Today, he's one of three investors in the company and serves as the company's chairman.

Gibbons had vowed after Burger King that he wouldn't get involved in fast food again. Then, Ken Marlin came calling.

The Miami real estate developer had once been a Nathan's franchisee and, over the years, had built several shopping centers where fast-food outlets were located. In recent years, he had tracked the meteoric growth in fast-food chicken restaurants (Kenny Rogers, Boston Market, Pollo Tropical) and decided there was a market for a fast-food turkey franchise, called Gobblers.

He met with Gibbons, who liked the concept, particularly turkey as a healthy alternative. Along the way, Gibbons tinkered with the logo, tweaked the menu, changed the restaurant's design and became a minority partner and chairman.

Today, there's a Gobblers in Fort Lauderdale, and another one slated to open in Coral Springs.

Gibbons' latest and biggest challenge is as chairman of the board of Miami-based Spec's Music. Last year was one of the toughest years in the music retailer's 48-year history. Facing competition from discounters such as Circuit City and Best Buy, it lost $1 million for the quarter ended Oct. 31. Sales in stores open at least a year dropped 12% for the same period, and its stock (traded on NASDAQ) began 1996 trading at $1.69 per share, near its 52-week low.

Gibbons won't say what his strategy is for turning around Spec's, but possible new ventures include developing a catalog, forming joint ventures in the music business, managing artists, running a music cafe business (possibly by teaming up with Hard Rock Cafe) and opening stores in the vast Latin American market. "My role will be to figure out how to get new sales and new earnings," he says.

Spec's 90-year-old founder, Martin W. Spector, becomes chairman emeritus. His daughter, Ann Spector Lieff, remains CEO and his other daughter, Rosalind Spector Zacks, vice president.

Ask Gibbons today about his new life after Burger King, and he says he doesn't have "one single minute of regret." Not that there haven't been some adjustments. In the early days, the transition from CEO to regular citizen was tough, especially when his successor, Adamson, started criticizing Gibbons' record. Gibbons says he "let it all go" when he left the company, although his wife, Judy, suggests otherwise: "I think he did have a difficult time. He was giving up his baby to someone else."

Gibbons also acknowledges it has been frustrating raising the capital needed to finance the growth of Gobblers. "You can get money, but it takes a year longer than planned," he says.

As a weekly columnist for the Miami Herald business section, Gibbons' tongue-in-cheek essays on management strike some as self-indulgent and others as a bit daft. He evoked a vulgar response from a store manager after he criticized Benetton's provocative ads featuring a body stamped with the words, "HIV Positive." Wrote Gibbons: "Every week, I go into a Benetton store and unfold 20 sweaters to make my position clear on their advertising."

Gibbons is writing a book about what's right and wrong with business today. The title was supposed to have been, "Earring in the Boardroom," but the publisher decided women might not like it. The new title: "This Indecision is Final."

His life, he says, is much fuller. In addition to Tutti, Gobblers and Spec's, he also owns stakes in Plain English (a British start-up trying to teach people -- particularly Americans -- how to speak and write clearly), a London pub and a Wales country inn.

In speaking of past triumphs and aspirations, Gibbons is characteristically expansive. "There's an intellectual challenge for me, to take the success I had with a big company and try to do it with a start-up. It's the creation, to look back, to say, 'Hey, that was my doing.' In the history of Burger King, I might get a chapter. In the history of Grand Met, I might get a paragraph. But in 15 to 20 years from now, if they write the history of Tutti or Gobblers, I would be a big part."

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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