Change is Good

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2007

I walked into First Watch in downtown Sarasota soon after I moved here in 2001, and since then I’ve been a frequent customer.

As an entrepreneur, my mind always ends up wandering to questions like: “Who’s behind this operation? How did they get to this point? Do they love what they do?” And although I knew that First Watch was a local company, I didn’t realize that it’s one of the largest privately owned, daytime-only restaurant companies in the United States, with 68 locations in 11 states.

The recent announcement that First Watch CEO Ken Pendrey was nominated as a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 awards in Florida got me even more interested in investigating what keeps Ken and his chain cooking.

Ken grew up in northern Kentucky and went to Indiana University. Before launching First Watch in 1986, he worked at Cork’n Cleaver Restaurants (a division of Chart House). He went on to help some friends launch the Le Peep restaurant in Denver, Colo. In 1983, one of the Le Peep partners started First Watch, and Ken joined him in Sarasota in 1986.

Ken has always been drawn towards opportunities where he could be the boss, and he always likes to figure out how things could be done better. His approach to managing his company is to convince people that change is good, with the realization that sometimes those changes will fail, and that’s okay. “Change for the sake of progress drives people to work a little bit harder, striving for a result that’s a little bit better,” he says.

Why were you chosen as a finalist for the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year Award? Because of First Watch’s success. That success was built by what I consider to be the true entrepreneurs of our organization, our many GMs and great staff members who serve our customers every day.

How did you get to where you are now? Hard work and a commitment to doing the right thing. Blocking and tackling on a daily basis—nothing fancy, actually kind of boring. I have always focused on the basics and believe that by doing so other things will fall into place. It sounds simple, but it requires quite a bit of discipline.

What drove you to become an entrepreneur? I enjoy taking chances, giving chances and believing in others.

How would you define your approach to leadership? Giving the ball to others and watching them achieve success.

How would your executive team describe your management style? Inclusive, team-oriented and open.

What keeps you awake at night? Failure.

How does your company build community? We are partial to fitness-based events such as charity walks, and our philosophy is to have a presence rather than just write a check. So you’ll see us at 5Ks serving fresh fruit and pancakes to participants and spectators. We’ve created a monthly employee newsletter to better connect with our employees. In addition, we are launching an e-loyalty program to connect with consumers. The next phases of this will become more and more interactive. By 2008, our employees will be able to connect with each other through a Web-based company community.

What are your company’s strengths? We have an outstanding executive team, strong middle management and our restaurant level management (GM) group is superior. We are strong in the disciplines of real estate, financial, marketing, IT, HR, training and operations.

How do you spend your free time? With my kids, both of whom attend college out-of-state; they’re my greatest accomplishment of all. I like to boat and am an avid reader of management success examples.

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