How successful CEO chose his own replacement
Elk Grove Village-based Tasty Catering is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The company and its 150 employees also are celebrating the appointment of Kornel Grygo as chief executive officer; he replaces founding partner and long-time company guiding force Tom Walter as CEO.
Tasty Catering without Tom Walter? Is that possible?
It's possible. In fact, and with full recognition that every successful entrepreneurial business is different, a look at the process that led to Grygo's elevation to CEO might be useful to other leaders who face the challenge of choosing their own successor.
Grygo, of course, is a rather important part of the process. His leadership and decision-making abilities surfaced as he navigated various positions during his dozen years at Tasty Catering; affirmation came from an informal conversation Walter had with a UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) professor following a presentation to one of Grygo's classes.
There also were Tom and Kornel conversations during the work week; observations of Grygo's critical thinking skills; and the fact that Grygo scored well on employee ratings of company leaders.
Although press materials say that Tasty Catering is "a privately held company founded in 1989 and owned and operated by the (three) Walter brothers," it's pretty easy to trace Tasty Catering to 1971, when Tom Walter started his first business: Tasty Pup, a fast food restaurant that evolved into Tasty Catering.
An important chunk of Tasty Pup's start-up money came from Tom's wife Bobbi, then his girlfriend. Brothers Larry and Kevin have been key parts of the business as well.
Overall, the company says, Tom has been part of 32 start-ups, three acquisitions -- and two failures. Two children, Erin (a one-time professional soccer player) and Tim, have their own entrepreneurial interests.
The question to be answered, though, is how a nationally respected entrepreneur finds his successor.
"We started to take a step back in 2013," Tom Walter says. Part of the reason can be found in "Finish Big," a book by Bo Burlingham with the intriguing subtitle, "How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on Top." Burlingham is an editor-at-large of Inc. Magazine.
Concepts espoused by Burlingham in both "Finish Big," and "Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big," and the open book management style that is the hallmark of "The Great Game of Business" first promulgated by Jack Stack are central to the Walter philosophy.
Culture -- personified by personal and corporate values -- matters at Tasty Catering, where Tom continues in his role as Chief Culture Officer. What Tom Walter calls Tasty Catering's cultural revolution -- implementation of a more open, participative operating style -- began in 2005.
The books and conversations within the Walter team -- which in a way is everyone at the company -- help explain how the choice of a new CEO was made.
But why Grygo? Remember that the Walter brothers began to step back in 2013: There deliberately was time for someone to step forward -- or for adjustments to be made.
"Kornel picked himself," Tom Walter says. "He understands hard work. He worked his way through college. His personal values match our company values.
"Kornel told Tim (Tom's son), 'I'm bored.' His solution to the issue? 'I want Tom's job.'"
That didn't happen overnight, which is one reason the search for a successor is something entrepreneurs should begin early. "We began to defer to him," in great part to judge Grygo's response to business challenges -- including a "catastrophic problem" that Grygo assured the Walters he could solve.
Then he did.
Of course, there's more to the tale -- including Grygo's thoughts. They come next week.