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Leadership

Edna Morris: Amassing a collection of concepts

This tough-as-nails chain veteran is no shrinking violet.
Edna Morris

A South Carolina company in the heart of tobacco country decides it needs help in stoking the testosterone-laced operation with talent. Who better to handle the task than a highly educated local belle steeped in the genteel styles and practices of Southern womanhood? 

The franchisor of the Hardee’s fast-food chain would discover with its 1979 human-resources hire what other major operations would learn in the 36 years since: Typecast Edna Morris at your own peril.

From the day she entered the restaurant business as a job analyst for Hardee’s Food Systems, Morris has grown from leadership role to leadership role by dashing preconceptions through a combination of learning and resolve.

She would move from HFS to the top HR job at its multibillion-dollar franchisee, Flagstar—a company started by two football stars with one’s bonus check from winning the 1959 NFL championship. In its early days as Spartan Food Systems, the company would hold full-blown games of tackle at corporate events, and its staff wasn’t exactly a model of gender or racial diversity well into the 1990s.

Morris expanded her team to include Flagstar’s first two African-American vice presidents and oversaw the creation of a diversity program as the business grew to encompass six restaurant brands.

Bucking preconceptions, the corporation, by then renamed Advantica Restaurant Group, offered Morris the presidency of its steak-and-buffet concept, Quincy’s Family Steakhouse, though she had no operations, finance or marketing experience. Morris remains to this day one of the few people in the industry to rise into a concept’s top job through human resources.

More recently, Morris, age 63, became what she calls the “reality checker” for Axum Capital Partners, a private-equity firm co-founded with former Carolina Panther Muhsin Muhammad II. Its first acquisition was the Wild Wing Cafe chain, and the hunt is on for more brands to buy. Her job as managing director of the restaurant practice is to assess the upside potential of an acquisition candidate by studying the people, operations and business model. “It takes advantage of all that I’ve learned in the last 30 years,” she says.

Morris also runs two City Range Grill restaurants in Spartanburg, S.C. She and her husband run the polished casuals in partnership with Cory Wilk, whom she'd hired to run the concept while it was part of Advantica. Wilk and a partner bought the concept from Advantica when the company broke up. Morris bought out the partner and helped to recast the restaurants into chef-driven operations.

In all facets of her career, Morris says, she’s tried to remain true to a leadership style that was forged more by listening to her parents than by reading textbooks, memos and corporate mission statements. Her mother taught her to always be nice and pleasant, two skills that don’t necessarily fit the job descriptions of CEOs. “I hear her all the time about being pleasant. I worked my way through that,” she says.

Morris’ motto: Speak what you need to speak, but be pleasant about it

Her father was at the other extreme: outspoken, direct and forceful, a realist who saw no value in rosy delusions. When Morris was named to head the human-resources department at Flagstar, her father responded to the news with, “That’s great, Edna. Now you’d better get off your ass and do something.”

The yin and yang translated into a tendency to be pleasant but tough to associates who missed a grounding in politeness during their upbringing. While the fearsome Elliot Spitzer was attorney general of New York, Morris was recruited by The Beard Foundation to restore the organization’s reputation and integrity after a highly publicized embezzlement scandal. The head of Spitzer's Charities Bureau chewed her out days after taking the job for the transgressions of her predecessor. Morris retorted that the ink on her business cards was still drying, and there was no reason he couldn’t treat her civilly. “I’m such a believer in the idea that business and humanity can be combined,” she says.

“I always try to be pleasant and polite when I’m talking to people, no matter who they are, but I can be tough as nails,” Morris says. Some of the leadership roles she’s assumed were, indeed, nail material. She took the top job at Quincy’s—a promotion she describes as transformative for her career—at a time when diners were shifting away from bargain steak-and-salad places for tonier choices, like a bumper crop of new casual options.

It was a moment when she felt the meanness of prejudice. Financial analysts didn't give her credence. “They were awful to me—not because I was a woman, but because I wasn’t from ops,” she says.

She learned enough to win the chief ops job at the Red Lobster chain of Darden Restaurants, one of the most respected operators in the business. That led to her appointment as president of Red Lobster in 2002, at a critical time for the chain. It was a turn of events that Morris recalls as an invaluable learning experience, but one tinged with anger.

The brand had drifted out of alignment with the times because it’d been so successful for so many years, and Morris was charged with snapping it back into line. Despite the chain’s size and age, the correction didn’t come fast enough for Darden’s brass. They suggested Morris take another post at the company and let someone else have a crack at Red Lobster. She declined, and they parted company.

“I’m still angry that they didn’t give me enough time to make it happen,” she says. But she’s quick to hail the positives from the experience, and describes then-Darden chairman Joe Lee as a beloved mentor.

It all factors into what she does now for Axum. “I’m the one testing all the assumptions,” Morris says; and a single meeting is usually all that’s needed to signal a no-go. “If it’s all talk and no data. If they’re nasty people. If there’s BS. Do we look like tourists?”

Just as readable are the signs of a worthwhile acquisition. “We look for something with strong leadership, someone who’s a face of the brand,” she says. “We look for things that don’t require a remaking of the brand,” and ideally “one with an approachable price point.”

It’s unclear what will be next on Morris’ learn-and-conquer path, but there is one certainty. “I’ve always worked with people who know I have to be myself,” she says.

Edna Morris’ resume

2009 – present
Axum Capital Partners, Managing restaurant partner (current restaurant holding: Wild Wing Café)

2008 – present
Range Restaurant Group, Co-owner-operator (currently 2 CityRange units)

2006 – 2007
Blue Corral Seafood & Spirits, President (test concept of a Bloomin’ Brands/Paul Fleming partnership)

2005 – 2006
James Beard Foundation, President (one-year contracted position)

2003 – 2005
Consultant (Clients included Women’s Foodservice Forum, Unicru)

2002 – 2003
Red Lobster, President

1998 – 2002
Red Lobster, EVP-operations

1996 – 1998
Quincy’s Family Steakhouse, President

1992 – 1996
Flagstar Corp., EVP-human resources & corporate affairs

1987 – 1992
Hardee’s Food Systems, SVP-human resources, Director-employee relations

1981 – 1987
Cummins Engine Co., Employment specialist/personnel manager

1979 – 1981
Hardee’s Food Systems, Job analyst, personnel manager-manufacturing

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