A part-time job in college helped Phil Hickey determine his major and pointed him to a career path in the restaurant industry. Twenty years later, he assumed the role of chairman and CEO of a billion-dollar restaurant company. He recently was named chairman of the National Restaurant Association.
School daze: At Michigan State University, I bounced around from major to major. After two years, around the time I was to declare a major, I was managing the Shaw Hall cafeteria. I loved the teamwork aspect and looked forward to going into work every day. So at the urging of a career counselor, I began exploring opportunities in the restaurant industry.
Early career: At first, I didn’t fully appreciate the hospitality business for what it eventually would mean to me. One of my most compelling reasons to get into the restaurant business was to make some money while putting myself through school. I was intrigued by the opportunity to travel and even move to different cities; a restaurant career was an opportunity to see the world and get paid for it. Along the way, I realized this business had so much more to offer than just the tangible benefits.
Rising star: Upon graduation, I convinced a recruiter from Gilbert-Robinson, which owned Houlihan’s, to take a chance on me. Three years later, the company took another chance on me and asked me to move to San Francisco and manage 10 restaurants. My belief was that I wasn’t talented enough, but NRA board member and Gilbert-Robinson CEO Ken Hill saw something in me. My other stops at Gilbert-Robinson included Boston, Milwaukee, New Jersey and Kansas City. Along the way, I acquired more skills and a bride – I met my wife Reedy while working in the business.
Industry of opportunity: Over the years, the industry kept opening up with more opportunities. Eventually, George McKerrow Jr. asked me to run RARE Hospitality, which we grew to a billion-dollar company with 20,000 employees; we operated Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse and Bugaboo Creek. I wondered what he knew about me that I didn’t, but we had a wonderful run, and it opened more doors for me.
Learning from others: Everywhere I worked, I would interview successful people (including guests and industry icons) and enquire how they got to where they were in life. Their reply was often the same: Give more than is expected of you; help those around you, especially those with less than you; operate with integrity; and don’t be concerned with who gets the credit. I had the good fortune to have had great mentors.
Opportunity knocks: I was a general manager at 23, an area director with multiple restaurants at age 25, and president by age 30. Throughout my career, I’ve been given the opportunity to do far bigger things than I could have expected of myself. I believe in passing that blessing on, and look to inspire people to discover the incredible gifts that lie within each one of us. It’s that discovery that allows us to achieve great things.