Neal Lavender: Successful Transplant
Childhood pleasures: Raised in a military family—his father was in the U.S. Air Force— Lavender was exposed to a wide variety of foods throughout his childhood. His mother took great pleasure in cooking and continually tried out recipes she collected from fellow Air Force wives. “I think that started me appreciating a wide array of flavors at a young age and she encouraged my experimenting in the kitchen. Then, on weekends, Dad would be on the grill, cooking various meats and kabobs. They both evidently loved to cook and that sparked my interest, which led me to a food-related college degree and a career.”
Holding down jobs in restaurants and hotels during his high school and college years, Lavender enjoyed the foodservice scene, first as a dishwasher, then as a cook. Having earned a bachelor of science degree in hospitality management with a minor in business administration from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., he was quickly recruited by Marriott Management Services for a healthcare position on the retail side at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Further contract management company training accrued under the Sodexo banner (following its purchase of Marriott), and later with ServiceMaster. Interestingly, it was during his tenure with ServiceMaster that he got his first chance to be the director of a self-op location, Lavender recalls.
“I had trained an executive chef who then went to work for ServiceMaster and I soon followed when they offered me a job at St. Luke’s Shawnee Mission Health System in Kansas City, Mo. Six months later, the account went self-op and the client asked me to stay on. I said, ‘Why not give me environmental services, too, and pay for me to earn my master’s degree at night?’ St. Luke’s Northland Hospitals worked it out with ServiceMaster and I was able to earn my master’s in health services administration over the next two years from Central Michigan University.”
The learning curve: Subsequently, in two venues for two different contractors, Lavender took on demanding jobs where few of the essential systems were in place. The first of the two accounts was for Aramark at the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore (UMMS), which he recalls as being “a very hectic, intense job—a real trial by fire. It was the biggest job I’ve ever taken on, being over three facilities after the departure of the general manager.”
The second job came two years later, in 1999, when Lavender joined Morrison Management Specialists as the system director over food and nutrition services for three hospitals, with a total of 1,300 beds, that are part of Grady Health System in Atlanta. “This was another very intense job; I had about 185 staff members, including other directors, reporting to me,” he points out. “There was high turnover, especially among the management team. Meanwhile, I was also working one-on-one with a lot of high-level administrators. Because it was a start-up account, we had to get all the Morrison systems, including payroll, up and running, and also implement a hostess system that was new at the time. Grady is a tough place to work; indigent care is provided in the facility and there are metal detectors—but no furniture—in the front lobby. I had to learn to be a quick-change artist since, minute to minute, I could be hit with multiple issues,” he asserts.
A ‘mini CEO’: Lavender says he really honed his organizational leadership skills at Grady; it was there that he felt like “a mini CEO,” dealing with a leadership team, coaching and bringing people up to speed on the start-up programs that needed to be put in place and made operational. It forced him to be even more creative and make good decisions quickly.
Focus on health: During the past year or two, Lavender has focused on increasing customer awareness of healthful eating as well as reducing trans fat. Today, both cafeterias—Jackson and Cafe Presby—are 75% trans fat free, with a goal of 90% by September.
“Customers expect great tasting, chef-inspired, RD-supported food with lots of innovation,” Lavender asserts. “Once you set the vision and the mission in place, you must constantly coach on ‘here’s what I expect.’”
Today, with one goal after another achieved, he’s convinced he has “the best team in the country.”