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National Restaurant Association - Serious business: Women take charge

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Serious business: Women take charge

Melissa Strait, Arby’s new chief people officer, discusses her experience, advancement opportunities for women, and the characteristics of a successful career. Today she is responsible for leading the strategy, development and execution of key organizational effectiveness and talent management programs for the company’s 71,000 employees at nearly 3,400 stores worldwide.

How did you get involved in the restaurant business?
I started when I was 20 years old, back in 1984, so I’ve spent 30 years in the industry. I started as an hourly employee on the front line when I was in college. I was going to school to be a psychologist and was attending graduate school, but decided I didn’t want to do that. So I ended up back at the restaurant I worked at during the summer. Working the day shift helped teach me this was more of a business than I’d understood previously. I was intrigued. I became a manager and not long after that, part-owner of our small franchise.

What are the lessons you’ve learned being a part of this industry?
I learned how to please the guest and make people happy. It’s about getting things done quickly. No matter what job you do, it’s about making a difference for people and responding quickly to their needs. It’s also about having a team environment. You can’t achieve anything unless you work well with everybody around you.

Have you had many mentors?
A lot of people believed in me and gave me opportunities. Steve Tripp, the owner of the first Arby’s I worked in, in Muskegon, Mich., saw something in me. He let me try out ways I thought could improve the restaurant. He had faith in me, inviting me to partner with him as we opened more Arby’s restaurants. He sold me on why I should have a career in this industry, and he has played a huge role in everything I’ve done. Russ Umphenour, the owner of RTM Restaurant Group, an Arby’s franchisee, is another. He convinced me to move into training and move to Atlanta. Every time I thought there was something more I could do, he let me do it and encouraged me all the way through. Last, I’d say Arby’s CEO Paul Brown. We’ve had our ups and downs at Arby’s, but when Paul came in, he put an incredible emphasis on people and culture and was willing to listen to what I thought we needed to do. He encouraged me and allowed me to succeed.

What have you learned as a woman in this industry?
One of the great things about the restaurant industry is that anyone can be successful if he or she is willing to work hard. If you want to succeed, you have to find great people, encourage them, engage them and empower them to do their jobs well. That’s the piece that will get you to rise.

What advice would you give to other women in this industry?
Being able to have a work/life balance is one of the things that concerns women the most. Our business can require long hours, but there’s an ability to raise a family and have a great career if you set your priorities and do your work smartly.
      I think back to my earliest days when I started coming up through the ranks. At the time, it was a very male-dominated business, and I often was the only woman. I felt intimidated and wondered whether I should be in the room. But as time passed, I learned that none of these executives were holding me back. What can hold you back is your doubts or concerns. Having confidence in yourself and knowing you have something to offer allows you to contribute. Don’t feel intimidated. And if you are intimidated, pretend you’re not.

Visit America Works Here and learn more about the women and men impacting the restaurant industry.

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