Sandwich success served up at Cousins Subs

At the next IB Icons in Business presentation Dec. 5, President and CEO Christine Specht will share her leadership lessons learned leading this iconic Wisconsin family business.

There are a lot of contenders for the perfect food — pizza, burritos, jellied cranberry sauce — but it’s hard to argue with a good sub sandwich.

With a focus on “Better Bread. Better Subs,” that’s been the foundation of success that Milwaukee-based Cousins Subs has operated on for 45-plus years. Now Cousins’ story will be on display at the next IB Icons in Business breakfast, Dec. 5, as President and CEO Christine Specht shares her leadership lessons learned leading this iconic Wisconsin family business.

Cousins Subs began on June 19, 1972 when two cousins, Bill Specht, Christine’s father, and Jim Sheppard brought the taste of East Coast-style subs to Milwaukee.

“My dad was originally from Atlantic City, N.J. and after relocating to Milwaukee he missed the taste of those classic subs made on real Italian bread,” says Specht. “My father worked in the printing industry for a few years, but after a while he felt he was destined to do something else. He created a business plan and convinced his cousin Jim to move from New Jersey. They leased an old pizza restaurant and bought used equipment. From there, they created a menu that focused on recipes with the driving belief that there is no substitute for quality.”

Being a family operation, Specht was involved in Cousins’ business early. She started as a cashier when she was 15 at the company’s Germantown restaurant.

“It was a great working experience throughout high school because I was able to work with many of my friends and we always kept busy,” she notes. “My older brother also worked at that location, so between him and our friends it was like one big family. I worked there for a number of years, but then decided to take on new experiences as I went through college and grad school.”

After college, Specht volunteered as a social worker in Florida for one year. While there, she helped to convert families from homeless shelters into transitional housing. “There, we would provide them with the tools necessary to earn independence and stability. It was very rewarding work.

“After that, I went on to graduate school and earned a Master of Public Administration degree,” Specht continues. “From there, I worked at the Legislative Audit Bureau in Madison. It was at that time that the human resources manager position opened up at Cousins, and I decided to return to the family business. Originally, I did not have plans to join the company; my parents always gave me the opportunity to explore my own interests. Though I enjoyed my varied experiences, I was delighted to return to Cousins in 2001.”

Sandwich successor

Specht notes that the transition from her father running the company to herself was somewhat unconventional.

In 2007, her father’s partner passed away. From there, the company became involved in litigation from his estate. At the same time, Specht explains, there was a president in place at Cousins who was from outside the company.

“In 2008, my father decided to part ways with the outside president and promoted me to president and COO,” says Specht. “There was not a perfect transition plan, but at the time I could see the challenges the company faced. I put together a plan for how I would remedy those challenges and presented it to my father. I’m sure he sought advice on his next move, but it didn’t take him long to put me in the lead position. Even to my surprise, he easily relinquished control. I think, in retrospect, he was just pleased to have someone that he could trust in that position. He didn’t fully retire until 2015, when my title changed to president and CEO, so he has been a continual source of knowledge for me. Even now, there’s a space with his name on it and he is regularly in the office. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Specht says her father is, and always has been, loyal to his employees. He treated them well and in turn they respected him and worked hard for the company. “He portrayed qualities of a servant leader and he was always concerned with their wellbeing. Along those same lines, he also realized that he could not do everything himself, so he relied on good people to help build the brand. His approach to leadership is still relevant today.”



Changes and challenges

Specht says Cousins Subs has undergone a lot of changes since she took on the president’s role in 2008.

“After settling the litigation and reorganizing the staff at our support center, we set about evaluating our brand as a whole and our stores individually,” she notes. “We closed underperforming and noncompliant stores, determined what units would be viable for the next 10 years, and worked with our franchise community to secure their commitment to reinvest in the remodel of their locations to meet current brand standards. We updated our entire look and feel in a way that is more relevant to our consumers.

“We also made it a point to talk about the things that are important to our brand, such as our cuisine philosophy, our commitment to the community through our charitable acts, and the fact that Cousins started in Wisconsin, where our roots run deep,” adds Specht. “We will continue to evolve the brand along these lines, with a continued emphasis on the quality of our food. Additionally, we will explore how technology can play a role in our future success.”

Among the company’s biggest challenges today is working through the labor shortage. Specht says staffing is difficult and the company is constantly looking for people who want to lead others, as well as those folks who can demonstrate a willingness to serve others. “We work hard to keep our employees once we have them, but admittedly there is a lot of competition for high-quality employees.

“We are also carefully approaching growth in new markets,” she continues. “This is not as simple as finding someone who wants to open a restaurant. We evaluate any new market candidates in terms of their ability to open multiple restaurants and build momentum in a new market. These pioneers have to be aggressive, optimistic, and unafraid.”

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