Steve Sweeney: Owning It
At a Glance: Steve Sweeney
•President and CEO
•Chartwells, Rye Brook, N.Y.
•Years in foodservice: 35
•Years at Compass Group: 30
•Meals per day: 3,484,000
•Annual Sales Volume: $1.75 billion
Steve Sweeney knows the importance of “owning” everything he does. As president and CEO of Chartwells, a division of Compass Group, Sweeney manages three foodservice divisions: K-12 Public Schools, Flik Independent Schools and Higher Education. He takes ownership of everything he does and wants everyone in his organization to have the same mentality, a philosophy he learned early on while working for the Flik family.
“The Fliks were private owners,” Sweeney says. “They had that ‘own everything you do’ mentality. If you have an issue, look in the mirror.”
Sweeney says he always knew he wanted to be in the foodservice business. When he was growing up his uncle owned hotels and restaurants in New Hampshire and Sweeney would spend summers there.
“It always looked interesting to me,” Sweeney says. “People were having fun while they were working. I originally wanted to be a caterer. My dad arranged for me to spend some time with a local caterer, and I initially did a fair amount of catering. I soon realized it was a lot more about moving stuff and not as much about the food. I went to culinary school, then spent five years with Servomation until Flik hired me. I started at SUNY-Purchase as an assistant manager.”
Building a company: Sweeney spent a number of years at Flik as vice president of operations until Compass Group acquired the company in 1995. When Compass Group created Chartwells, Sweeney was named president. He and his team worked to craft the company that Chartwells would become, a process that Sweeney says is one of the projects he is most proud of.
“The first thing we did was bring together the different companies that made up Chartwells,” Sweeney says. “It was a very exciting time for us. When we got into education, Compass Group first bought Flik, then PFM and Daka. All those companies came together to form Chartwells. We were molding together different company cultures from different parts of the country. We brought together associates from all those different companies and during the early days we were coming up with taglines, logos and really inventing what we wanted to become—a national company.”
Sweeney says this process was tough because at the time there were only two national companies: Sodexo, which was Marriott at the time, and Aramark.
“Seemingly overnight Chartwells had a national presence,” Sweeney says. “We came out of a bunch of family businesses, so our philosophy was to always stay very close to the client and to continue to operate like a smaller family owned business, while using the powerhouse of Compass Group behind us. We knew we had to maintain and sell business to be able to compete. During that time, I think we were so busy that none of us stopped to think about the hours we were putting in. It was so exciting because we had so many different people from so many different companies and all of a sudden we became one organization.”
Since Chartwells was founded, Sweeney’s leadership has enabled the company to experience double-digit growth every year since its formation. In the first year, under Sweeney’s leadership, account retention rose from 89% to 97%. Retention rate has remained strong since.
Reimage: Despite the company’s strong start, Sweeney knew they’d have to keep innovating to stay ahead of the competition. So in 2006, he and his team decided to reimage the Chartwells brand.
“We took people from the different segments of our business and we said we need a new tagline,” Sweeney says. “We came up with a promise, which essentially says that our business is about nourishing students. Also, we are committed to the communities that we serve. Everything we do is customized for our clients and delivers value and innovative programs. So the tagline we came up with was Eat. Learn. Live. That’s something our clients and our associates can understand. It’s very simple. ‘Eat’ is all about the food. ‘Learn’ is partnering with the educational institutions that we serve and making sure that the students learn about food. ‘Live’ is the lifestyle component, which talks about the environment and community. It became about much more than just delivering food.”
Concept development: Sweeney says he also is proud of the in-house concepts he’s been able to help launch. He helped launch concepts such as Mondo Subs, Coyote Jack’s Burgers and BYOB-Build Your Own Burger. Sweeney says he is particularly proud of the two platforms the company launched for higher education and K-12: Pulse on Dining and Environments, respectively.
“Essentially those are the platforms that we go to business with and the basis for how we serve our customers,” Sweeney says. “The whole premise is that the programs pick up the vibe of the community we are serving. For example, in higher education, just the name itself takes on the pulse and the vibe of who we are serving. It is very customizable but allows us to make sure that things like sanitation, food safety and health and wellness are all taken care of.”
The programs do share some core principles, Sweeney says. Both are focused on healthy foods and putting the customer first. Both feature a community involvement aspect and an emphasis on responding to customer feedback. Sweeney says the challenge with those platforms has always been getting them into accounts at the right time.
“These aren’t the type of platforms where you just flip a switch and the next day everyone has these programs,” Sweeney says. “They are in-depth and they take a fair amount of training and facility redo. We would have to change the contract we are under to get them into the business cycle, so we wanted to time the launch when the contract was up for renewal to introduce it.”
Nutrition: Providing healthy choices has always been a hallmark of Chartwells foodservice programs. The company’s Balanced Choices program, for K-12, and Balanced U, for higher education, both offer healthy options that students actually want to eat. But recently Chartwells was challenged to improve nutrition by a bigger boss: Michelle Obama.
“I think the most exciting thing as of late is that we were asked to be part of the White House’s Let’s Move initiative,” Sweeney says. “I personally got to spend some time at the White House and met the first lady. We committed to achieving the initiative’s Gold Menu status at 200 schools this year. Like anything else, the White House wanted us to start with a certain number and build on it over time. This year, we already have 963 schools that have achieved Gold status. On the menu and health and wellness piece, we are right on board their expectations. They made it clear that they didn’t want to partner with us unless it was going to be successful.”
Having worked in school foodservice for so many years, Sweeney understands that these operations fight against a negative stereotype all the time.
“I think people would be very surprised if they were to go to one of our locations and see what students are getting these days,” Sweeney says. “It is an industry where people appreciate good food. The thing that has changed a lot over the years is our customer. There was a time where you could teach students about nutrition with a cartoon character; now they want to be treated like adults. The food goes hand in hand with that. These students are very savvy. They know international dishes and how to read menus. We take the nutrition and wellness of the meal very much to heart.”
Building a strong team: Sweeney says he has been very lucky to have pretty much the same executive team with him throughout Chartwells’ history.
We have a great core of people who came from a wide variety of different disciplines throughout the industry,” Sweeney says. “We look for people who are humble and who are really team players. Everyone is approachable. We take things seriously that need to be, but we are in the hospitality industry. People in this industry would like everyone to be their friend. You want the hospitality gene, but you want people who are going to do what’s best for business.”
After more than 30 years in foodservice, Sweeney says he is happy to be a part of the industry right now because of the way the industry has evolved.
“It’s an industry that people respect now,” Sweeney says. “These days if you say you are a chef, it’s almost like 30 years ago when you would say you are a doctor. You have to know when to lead and when to listen. It’s amazing what people will tell you just by asking a couple of questions, especially when it comes to customers and people in the company. You find out a lot by listening. Look at every day as a new adventure.”
What Others Say About Steve
Rick Postiglione, CEO of contract foodservices for Compass Group:
Postiglione can’t choose just one project where Sweeney has impressed him. He says Sweeney always impresses him.
“As we’ve grown the company together, there’s been a good bond between us and a mutual respect for each other as individuals who have worked in the industry for many years. What makes him very unique is his attention to detail. It’s impeccable. It starts with the way he articulates himself but also the way he dresses. He’s probably the best-dressed executive I’ve seen in my life. I look at him as the Bentley in the business. That’s also the way he conducts his business. He obviously doesn’t expect anything less than excellence in everything he does.”
John Cautillo, CFO for Chartwells:
Cautillo says he was impressed by Sweeney’s vision in 2004 to create a new strategy for Chartwells after seven successful years.
“I could not ask for a better business partner. When we started Chartwells back in 1997, we were just a small cog in a wheel. Over the years he has grown the business into a leader in the educational dining services division. In 2004, after years of growing the company, he was ready to reimage the company. We recreated the company into the Eat. Learn. Live. philosophy that we have today. We went from just setting the standard to really putting together a philosophy that embodied our company. All that came together in very short order, and he led the team through it.
Another thing about Steve is that he is very particular about how he dresses, how everyone around him dresses and the image that you portray. He’s reimaged me. People see me and they’ll say, ‘I can tell who dressed you today.’ I think that plays into the fact that he knows how to command respect from people.”
Keith Cullinan, president of the schools division for Chartwells:
Cullinan has seen the always smartly dressed Sweeney, take one for the team:
“I think that Steve has a real presence. We call him Mr. GQ. He is an impeccable dresser and from his shoes to his hair, he always looks fantastic. One time during our summer meetings, where we bring all our school’s directors together, he wanted to have some fun with the group. We told him he could dress up as one of our mascots, Pyramid Pete,
which meant Steve had to put on this 100-pound dinosaur suit with a 25-pound head. We wired him up with a microphone and he did a really funny dialogue that was interactive with the managers, but no one in the audience knew it was him. Finally, he took off the head and everyone saw it was Steve. He got a standing ovation. His hair was a mess and he was just a ball of sweat. Someone must have pointed out how he looked and he just said, ‘think what you may, but I know I still look marvelous.” That’s one of his lines. That just shows you the kind of person he is. He can have fun and laugh at himself and really make the managers know that he’s a regular guy.”