2012 Silver Plate—Quirky characters drew Mark Freeman to foodservice

Starting in restaurants as a kid made Freeman commit to foodservice as an adult.

Growing up in Olympia, Wash., Mark Freeman, senior manager of global employee services for Microsoft, quickly fell in love with the quirky characters he met when working at restaurants during high school.

“Working in restaurants was really for gas money back then, but I really took a liking to the industry at that point in time,” Freeman says. “There were so many different personalities and it was intriguing to me. Plus, I really learned how to deal with the public and interact with them. The thing that was [and is] exciting about foodservice is that one day is never the same as the next or the last. There is always something exciting going on or some challenges that you have to approach. I think that’s what I enjoy. If I had to do the same thing over and over again I think I’d go nuts. I think that’s really what attracted me even in those early days.”

Freeman also worked in restaurants while attending college at Evergreen State University, in Olympia. When he graduated, with a degree in business, he says he suddenly realized he needed to get a job. So he applied for a job in Evergreen’s foodservice, which was managed by Saga Foodservice, Inc. at the time.

“[Saga] hired me and I immediately went to three weeks of training, in Kalamazoo, Mich., to learn what this college feeding was all about,” Freeman says. “I ended up staying in that industry for about 20 years. I worked in several locations, mainly around the Northwest. However, as life goes on you start to have a family. College feeding was a lot of work—you work long hours and you have to be there for many different events. So I started looking at the business and industry side of foodservice and decided to go to that. My first account was in Salt Lake City with American Express. It was like I had died and gone to heaven.”

Freeman says the change in working conditions—two meals per day, five days a week—allowed him to watch his kids grow up, which was very important to him. After his stint with American Express, Freeman transferred to a position in Corvallis, Ore., with Hewlett Packard.

“I was feeding employees at HP and I had the opportunity to switch roles and become the client,” Freeman says. “I left what was Marriott at the time and moved to be the client at Hewlett Packard. Almost immediately [HP] went in a more global direction and I became the global foodservice person. I spent six years at HP and eventually, because of purchases and mergers, I was suddenly out of a job.”

After a brief position at Porter Consulting in Crofton, Md., working on college accounts, Freeman learned of the job at Microsoft. The rest is history, he says. Freeman has been at Microsoft for seven years now.

Listen and respond: Freeman says his management style puts a lot of focus on listening, both to his customers and to his staff.

“The customer will tell you the direction that you need to go,” Freeman says. “If you just listen to them you can add a lot of value to your operation. How you do that is you get out and talk to them. Do surveys and try to dig in to those surveys to understand what it is exactly that they are telling you.”

One example of Freeman’s ability to listen and respond to his customers was with Microsoft’s program that brings local restaurants to campus. In surveys customers were asking for more variety. Freeman and his team took that to mean they wanted local brands or different restaurants on campus.

“We found that to be very successful,” Freeman says. “We started with six and now we’re up to around 30. So when the Commons building came on the horizon we took that local restaurant program and put it on steroids. Instead of just giving the brands a station on our serving line, we gave them a restaurant and let them operate as they would on the outside.”

Listening is also an important part of managing his employees, says Freeman.

“I try not to dictate,” Freeman says. “I tend to do more of the listening and finding out where the issues are and how best we can solve them. The staff is right on the front lines and they can tell you what needs to be done in a pretty short period of time.”

Play time: According to Freeman, Microsoft’s atmosphere of innovation has translated into a fun working environment for him and his staff.

“I have the best job in the world.” Freeman says. “I’m at a company that supports foodservice. It’s not in any of the recruiting brochures, but foodservice is a major part of what we do here, especially in Redmond. We have the ability to try things, test them and see if they work. The atmosphere here at Microsoft is one of always testing. We’re always testing software and other different things so when you are testing, things break. In a sense you want them to break so you can fix them before they get out to the public. With that attitude here it gives [foodservice] an opportunity to really try things and see if they are going to work. We have 43 cafés and we try things in one and if it works, fine. If it doesn’t we take it off the table. It gives us an opportunity to play, especially with the technology aspect. We have a wealth of technology experts here so we can take that technology and apply it to the foodservice industry. If it doesn’t work at least we know. That’s what is fun for me. The exciting part of this is that it’s always changing.”