Sally Smith

The down-to-earth CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings took a small but promising restaurant chain and has it flying high.
Sally Smith

WINGED VICTORY

 

1958: Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

1980: Graduates with a BS in business administration (with an accounting focus) from the University of North Dakota.

1993–1994: Serves as chief financial officer and treasurer of Dahlberg Inc..

1994: Becomes CFO of Buffalo Wild Wings.

1996: Named CEO.

2003: Takes Buffalo Wild Wings public (Nasdaq: BWLD).

2005: Named Restaurants & Institutions magazine's Restaurant Executive of the Year.

2007: Restaurants & Institutions names Buffalo Wild Wings Chain of the Year.

2009: Awarded the Gold Plate by the International Food Manufacturer's Association.

2009: Buffalo Wild Wings makes Forbes' list of 200 Best Small Companies for the third year in a row.

2012: Buffalo Wild Wings celebrates its 30th anniversary.

For a business built on a foundation of good times, making someone as financially disciplined as Sally Smith your CEO might be like having all the beer at the party replaced with ice water.

 

In fact, Smith has made the party better.

The party in question is Golden Valley–based restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings, where Smith has served as CEO for 16 years. During her tenure, Buffalo Wild Wings has expanded from roughly 50 locations when she first walked in the door to 840 today, with its sights on 1,400 to 1,500. “I know more about chicken wings that I ever thought I would,” says Smith, 54.

The North Dakota native focused in accounting in college, though she jokes that isn’t sure she could pass the CPA exam today. Her first adult job, with the accounting firm KPMG, led to an 11-year stint with legendary Minnesota entrepreneur Ken Dahlberg’s businesses, primarily his Miracle Ear hearing-aid franchises. In 1994, Dahlberg sold Miracle-Ear to Bausch & Lomb.

“When we were bought by Bausch & Lomb, it was kind of like moving back home with your parents,” Smith recalls. “They had their way of doing things. It was like having a curfew after years of doing your own thing.”

Among his outside investments, Dahlberg had some money in a small chain of Cincinnati-based restaurants called Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck. The curious name referred to two popular food items from Buffalo, New York: barbecue chicken wings and roast beef on a weck. (A weck is a Buffalo version of a kaiser roll.) Founders Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery were transplanted Buffalonians who brought a taste of their hometown to Columbus, Ohio, and Ohio liked what it tasted.

Smith, then 38 with young children, signed on as a part-time chief financial officer for the chain, which by that time had about 70 locations and was headquartered in Cincinnati. She didn’t need to move there; one of the founders had married someone who lived in Minneapolis and was commuting back and forth. When Smith was hired, a friend let her use an office here in Minnesota. Eventually, as they hired people, they needed more space. For the first year or two, Smith would go to Cincinnati a couple of times a month.

She held the CFO job for about two years. When a CEO candidate chosen after weeks of search and interviews bailed on the day he was supposed to start, the board gathered in a cramped conference room and simply decided to simply offer the job to Smith.

“I really didn’t have a chance to say no,” she recalls, “If I had, I might have given it a little more thought.” It’s just as well she didn’t. The easygoing, relatively prosperous chain had been content to add a new location here and there.

“When I joined, the company knew it wanted to grow, but it didn’t know how,” Smith recalls. “Jim and Scott were great at understanding franchisees and guests. What we did was apply some business discipline. I always looked at myself as a caretaker for their vision. The company has changed a lot on the outside, but the passion Jim and Scott had at the beginning is still here.” (Scott Lowery has retired from the company; Jim Disbrow is deceased.)

By the time Smith took the CEO job, Buffalo Wild Wings was in several states besides Ohio—Minnesota, Texas, Indiana, Michigan—and had developed a loyal customer base. Smith strengthened the company’s business from the ground up—computerizing the accounting system, generating monthly financial statements by restaurant, annual budgets, annual audited financial statements, recording all bank accounts, leases, and payables.

In 2003, Smith’s leadership in tightening up the company’s business practices and pushing its expansion culminating in an initial public offering (Nasdaq: BLWD), which brought in new capital.

Also noteworthy: A number of Smith’s top executive team members are women—a bit of an incongruity for a restaurant concept founded on guys watching football on a hundred screens while chowing down on wings and beer. Smith herself insists there was no grand plan in bringing in the women she’s hired, “other than that it was me working my network and asking, ‘Do you know someone who’d be good for this position?’” But she believes the female executives have helped her broaden both the internal discussions as well as the menu and restaurant experience.

Smith notes that the while Buffalo Wild Wings has a reputation as a guy-centric sports bar, “the clientele in mid-July is a lot different than it is on a weekend in October. We definitely focus on sports and that experience. But it is our goal to make all the restaurants very comfortable for women and families. I think the balance we have on our team has helped us broaden the concept.”

Smith says that at the level of franchise fundamentals there isn’t a lot of difference between restaurants and, well, a hearing-aid company.

“Really, the problems, concerns, and challenges are the same,” Smith says. “It’s a partnership. So you’re always checking: What are you asking the franchisee to do? How well are you protecting their interests? How well are you growing the brand? And are you making an investment as well?”

Bob McDonald, retired Allianz CEO and chairman, and a Buffalo Wild Wings’ board member for eight years, observes that “it almost goes without saying about Sally that she’s innately talented. But observing her as I have, what impresses me most is her desire and capacity to grow. She’s obviously very accomplished. But her continuing search for improvement is a quality that she has instilled in her staff, to great effect, I believe.”

With Buffalo Wild Wings operating 40 percent of its stores (330 as this issue goes to press), Smith says the feedback she gets shows that her franchise groups (the largest owns about 25 locations) like the company’s vested interest in the brand.

The company will “refresh” with the unveiling of two new prototype restaurants this summer, after adding 10 new menu items this past January; nearly doubling that current 840 number is a very real and serious consideration. In other words, there’s always something new to do and learn. “I love my job,” Smith says. “When people ask me, ‘How much longer?’ I tell them I don’t even think about it.”

Among the things she’s learned: “You don’t want to become so structured that you can’t move as you need to.” At the same time, ”you have to plan ahead. For a while, it was kind of one restaurant at a time. Expansion just happened. But you have to ask, ‘What do I need to get to where I want to be?’ If you want to get to 1,000, you can’t be 200 at year nine.”

In short, you can call Sally Smith the ultimate party planner.