Gary Coyle: Charging Ahead

WSU's Gary Coyle believes strongly in the power of being proactive.


GARY COYLE has improved dining services at WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY by:

  • CREATING brand recognition for WSU Dining Services
  • SPEARHEADING the renovation of Southside Café and improving menu diversity
  • IMPLEMENTING a comprehensive well-being program called Eat Well, Be Active, Live Fit
  • DEVELOPING sustainability initiatives including switching to compostable serviceware and fostering the use of local products

Gary Coyle is a man with time on his hands, courtesy of a 70-minute commute to his job as director of dining services at 17,700-student Washington State University. During that daily drive to Pullman from his home in Spokane, Coyle says, his mind reels with so many ideas about improving his department that his staff sometimes wishes he didn’t have so much time to think things over.

“I get so many ideas during my commute,” Coyle says, “my staff is threatening to take my car keys away.”

Despite the fear of a staff “intervention,” Coyle says his daily musings feed perfectly into his management style.

“I’m all about being proactive and getting back to the basics,” Coyle says. “We need to listen to our customers and anticipate what their wants and needs are. I also believe in the idea of management by walking around. I tell my managers to walk from the front of the building where the customers enter, and learn to walk the same path that the customers do. I want them to continue to monitor their operations to ensure that what they expect is actually happening—inspect what you expect.”

Becoming a brand: One area where Coyle has put his proactive philosophy into action is in creating a brand for WSU Dining Services. Coyle says when he arrived at WSU in December of 2007 he found a department that was “very scattered.” Coyle says the previous management had had each dining center operating independently.

“There are good and bad things about that,” Coyle says. “When I got here I started seeing that the teams weren’t working together. So I started the process of creating brand recognition for our department [as a way to create unity]. I looked at the university’s mission statement and realized that we needed to have our own mission statement. I brought the team together to think about what our business is. Through that process we defined ourselves as a team that is all about the customer, so we came up with the tagline, ‘making a difference—one customer at a time.’”

To create the actual brand, Coyle brought in a student as his first marketing employee. She helped come up with a logo to create brand recognition.

“Now that we have a brand and mission statement it’s easy to go back to check how we are doing,” Coyle says.

Terry Boston, senior executive director of housing and dining services, says that Coyle’s team approach has helped him achieve success.

“Gary is both engaging and a good communicator, which is critical to having a successful team approach,” Boston says. “His strategic approach to listening to customers and staff allows him to anticipate needs, then implement training and direction setting for successful delivery.”

Another aspect of bringing the team together was getting his team to work more efficiently. When Coyle came to the position and saw each of the dining centers purchasing products separately, he saw an opportunity to consolidate purchasing to save money.

“Our goal was to cut our food costs by about $100,000 [that year],” Coyle says. “We ended up cutting $200,000, and the following year we cut $600,000. We went over what the vendors had to offer and we looked at which products had the best yields. For example, just switching from one brand of salad dressing to another we saved $40,000. We did a lot of testing to make sure it was the right product and that’s what drove all of our cost savings.”

Coyle says he learned many of his purchasing practices when he worked for Sodexo. After attending the University of Montana, where he worked in dining services, Coyle got a job with Saga Corp.

“I thought I’d give it five years and see where it goes,” Coyle says. “I worked in college and healthcare accounts. Next thing I knew I’d worked with them for 31 years—first with Saga, then Marriott, then Sodexo.”

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