When Sally Smith worked as a waitress during college, she had no idea that she would one day run a big, national restaurant chain.
“It was really hard work — balancing, having four or five tables, so time management, remembering things — that hospitality component,” she told IBD. “It was not for a long period of my life, but having that, I have a lot of empathy for what happens at every restaurant.”
That experience has been one of the factors helping her lead Buffalo Wild Wings from a 35-restaurant chain 20 years ago to a 1,050-location behemoth in America, Canada and Mexico, with annual revenue of nearly $1.5 billion.
The stock has rocketed alongside that growth — by a stratospheric 1,300% since its IPO in 2003.
“Sally has maintained a consistent performance and track record in an industry where executive leadership turnover has been very high,” said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at food-industry tracker Technomic. “Retaining key leadership team members and with consistent strategic planning and execution, she has built a solid foundation for success and continued expansion and sales growth opportunities.”
How has she kept the Minneapolis-based chain on a growth track?
Smith, 56, looks way down the road. She figures out what the sports-bar company needs to do in order to keep expanding over the next three to five years vs., say, three to six months.
Buffalo Wild Wings opened 32 years ago in Columbus, Ohio, and has been public for 11 years.
The restaurants are part sports bar, part casual eatery, with TV screens showing sporting events from around the globe.
And it still considers itself a growth play.
“We’re not a dividend payer, we’re not doing stock buybacks right now, but rather, we’re investing in our growth,” Smith said. “When we were smaller, it certainly was a lot easier because it’s a lot easier to double when you have $10 million in sales vs. a billion in sales.”
Amid that challenge, Buffalo Wild Wings is a force in the restaurant industry. After Smith joined in 1994 as chief financial officer, she closed underperforming units, changed the chain’s name from BW3 and updated the logo.
She took over as CEO in 1996. Under her reign, Buffalo Wild Wings has expanded to all 50 states and across both borders, broadened its menu and added technology for ordering and entertainment.
She also brought structure to what had been a rather rudderless company.
“We were so small that it really had no infrastructure. In a way, it was like starting a business,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a marketing department, we didn’t have a talent management department.”
Smith also helped set up an advisory council for franchisees. Her prior experience at Dahlberg, maker and franchiser of Miracle-Ear hearing aids, helped her define what kinds of franchisees Buffalo Wild Wings wanted to attract.
Growing up in Grand Forks, N.D., she didn’t know what career path to take. But she always heard her father, who worked in banking, talking shop at home. So business became quite familiar to her.
In her first job as a 16-year-old, Smith filed checks for a bank and performed bookkeeping duties, rising to become a teller.
She enjoyed economics classes in high school and the University of North Dakota. Seeing her prowess with numbers, a professor suggested a career in accounting.
Smith went for it, joining the accounting-consulting firm KPMG.
That move turned into an 11-year post with Dahlberg, where she served as chief financial officer. After the firm was acquired, she stayed on for a year, then heard from Buffalo Wild Wings, which was still called BW3. She was all in.
It turned out to be the right decision — for Smith and the wings-and-beer chain.
After setting up infrastructure and steering the company onto a growth path, Smith took B-Dubs (a moniker it sports on its website) public in 2003, raising more than $50 million in the initial public offering. As shares continue to advance — up 10% this year — the company has scored compounded annual revenue growth of 27% and net income growth of more than 34% the past decade.
With a 98 Composite Rating, Buffalo Wild Wings is a leader in IBD’s Retail-Restaurants group. Its five-year earnings growth rate and sales growth rate are 23% and 25%, respectively.
“Her leadership has shaped the brand by remaining true to who they are and where they came from,” Tristano said. “By expanding the menu to be more relevant (burgers), and by keeping pace with technology and entertainment platforms, BW3 has continued to shine in an industry that has been struggling with low growth and weak performance since the recession.”
Aside from her nine-month stint as a waitress 15 years prior to joining the company, Smith didn’t have direct restaurant industry experience. But she has excelled by drawing on her financial background, speaking with other industry executives and studying what has worked for them.
Smith has what she calls a collaborative management style. When she meets with team members, she tells them that there’s enough work for everybody. Teamwork, not territorial behavior, helps advance the company.
“I think the more people that can be exposed to other areas, not just their own, they each would have a much better understanding of what everybody is trying to achieve,” she said. “So I’m big on collaboration and working together to solve a problem, whether it’s in your specific area (or not).”
One For All
When Smith goes on the road, she visits restaurants and interacts with management and employees to find out everything from what’s working to details about hiring and distribution to what would make the job easier or more fulfilling.
“I’ve always been a curious person,” she said. “I do a lot of reading, and I have since I was very young. So being able to ask questions helps me learn, and I think sometimes you ask questions to help the other person learn.”
Clearly, exploring fresh possibilities matters to Smith. While advising college students interested in a career at the executive level, Smith encouraged them: “Don’t be afraid to take a lateral move to learn another aspect of the business, or a lateral job. It isn’t all about up, up, up. And don’t be afraid to take a job that’s undefined. Most of mine have been.”
Take her start at Dahlberg. Her position was new, and it was a small company. Then there’s Buffalo Wild Wings, which was a fledgling, local firm when she joined.
On the personal front, Smith dives into newspapers’ business and technology sections, belongs to a book club, bikes, golfs and enjoys cooking with her two kids.
What’s next for Buffalo Wild Wings? Smith still sees big opportunities in America in terms of unit growth and individual restaurant growth. She also sees international expansion, with plans to reach the Middle East and the Philippines.
Technomic’s Tristano would agree. “BWW likely has greater opportunity to expand outside the U.S., in North America and other major international food-service markets across the globe,” he said. “There continues to be strong opportunities for expansion in the U.S. in smaller suburban and rural markets where wings and sports are in high demand.”
Meanwhile, said Smith, “I love going into the restaurants and hearing that someone’s been with us for five years or seven years, or they’ve been on 10 new-store-opening teams, or that they love working at Buffalo Wild Wings.”