As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Schultz.
Infuse Hospitality Founder and CEO, Michael Schultz, brings over a quarter century of experience in the hospitality industry and a proven track record of success and profitability. From casual restaurants to fine dining establishments, his expertise and leadership combined with his passion for top-notch hospitality has yielded a very loyal following. Throughout his tenure, Michael has created numerous brands, built successful leadership teams, and has mentored countless individuals. With his many years of experience, he founded Infuse Hospitality. Infuse Hospitality creates and operates first-in-class F&B amenities for companies and organizations without the resources to do so. From mobile cart solutions, to full cafe and restaurant branding, to operational services and supply chain management, Infuse Hospitality is a one-stop-solution for the best in specialty food and beverage experiences. Operating more than 25 million square feet across North America, the Infuse Hospitality portfolio includes partners such as the Chicago Board Options Exchange (Cboe), Spaces, Conagra Brands, and Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL). The portfolio also boasts Infuse Hospitality’s first brick and mortar concept, Fairgrounds Craft Coffee & Tea, a first-of-a-kind cafe offering a variety of craft coffee roasters, specialty teas and fresh, chef made food under one roof. With eight locations across the nation, Fairgrounds is redefining the coffeehouse experience with more options than ever.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
We had other holdings in the coffee and tea space, and would be in meetings and when we’d break for coffee, everyone would have to split up so they could go to the cafe of their favorite roaster of choice — we could never all go to the same place. If you went to Blue Bottle you could only get Blue Bottle, and so on and so forth. It blew my mind — the lack of consumer choice that existed in the market. At the same time, if you’d walk into a bar of any size, they’d have five, 10, even dozens of beer choices. So why not do the same thing with coffee? It didn’t make any sense to me — it was crazy! The idea of variety and choice was lacking, and I wanted to change that.
Beyond the coffee itself, I saw room for vast improvement to the entire coffeehouse experience. The craft coffee cafes felt dark, hyper-masculine, and the entire notion of service and hospitality was lacking. Too many times, I saw people made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because they didn’t have a hip mustache or sophisticated coffee knowledge. It bugged me. I wanted to make people feel good, be comfortable asking questions about coffee, try new things, bring their families, have fun, and enjoy a variety of coffees, teas, and good food.
So, I created Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea, a first-of-its-kind coffeehouse experience, serving over a dozen craft coffee roasters (think Verve, Colectivo, Counter Culture), specialty teas, cold brew and Kombucha on tap and fresh, chef-made fare under one roof. Whether you were 8 or 80 years old — there was something for everyone.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t funny at the time, but in hindsight now, my wife and I have a good chuckle together about the fact that I quit my stable “job” to begin my entrepreneurial career a few days before she gave birth to our first child. As soon as we found out she was pregnant I realized I wanted to do more for my family than just make money as a successful restaurant executive. It was my “ah-ha” moment; I realized I wanted to leave behind a legacy of providing folks an opportunity to make a better life for them and their families. I wanted to create organizations that value their people, have a sense of duty to them — a different experience than what I had working my way through the industry. Those things were much more motivating than dollars and cents. I want my kids to be proud of me — and that’s what fuels me. Find your reason for being — what drives you — and do that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
All of my mentors/bosses over the years — both good and bad — have helped shape me and the path I forged. Sometimes the most important lessons are what not to do.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
All my companies were started out of my obsession with the legacy I will leave my children. I wanted to control and improve the experience for our team — so they didn’t have to make the same sacrifices I had to make to grow my career. I believed that even in the restaurant industry you could be a mom and a CEO, that you could have balance between work, personal life, health and that by having balance you could achieve higher levels of success and well-being in all areas of your life. I wanted an organization not driven by money but an understanding of fiscal responsibility, and that financial success provides us the resources to create jobs and provide opportunities for others to make a better life for themselves and their families. That true success means we can make the communities in which we operate better because of our presence and our philanthropic efforts. In the end, when I move on to the greatest adventurous journey of them all, I want people to come to my children and tell them stories of how their Dad helped them or gave them an opportunity. No one will count my things and all that matters is that my children grow up to be kind and that they are proud of the person I was and how I treated others.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Many businesses struggled this past year during the pandemic, but especially the restaurant industry. The biggest challenge was trying to navigate or plan for the unknown. With COVID, there wasn’t a playbook, we didn’t know what was coming next or how long it would last.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The incredible effort by our team and good solid planning made it so we never got to the point where giving up was a consideration. I made a promise to all the folks who work with us and who believe in my vision, they depend on me to take care of them and their families, giving up and failure is not an option. I gave them my word.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s much easier to be a leader during great times. When times are tough, that’s where people show their true colors. My focus was on spreading light to fight off all the darkness. The dark cloud can overshadow everything so very quickly, I wasn’t going to let it in. I focused on searching for the lesson we were meant to learn, not the reason why it was happening. Time is of the essence during challenging moments and all the things you overlooked, swept under the rug, or put off for tomorrow during the good times, they can become your worst nightmare during the tough times. Never put off something until tomorrow that can be done today. And never ever plan for things to go smoothly, they don’t. Good planning, data-driven decisions, and hard work are critical during good times and bad, there is no substitute, especially for the hard work part.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I always look for the silver lining. Mr. Rogers said it best, “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’”. There is so much to be thankful for in this life. So many people truly don’t understand, our most valuable resource is time, we don’t know how much time we have and once we spend it — it’s gone. Our companies exist to provide opportunities for folks to make a better life for themselves and their families. We put a strong plan and vision in place so we have a clear path forward. That way, we can focus on being present in the moment. This vision and culture motivates and engages the team. That and I remind my team, not to take ourselves too seriously — we’re selling coffee, it should be fun.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honest and straightforward is the best path, in my opinion. Your team members, clients, and guests deserve transparency as well as detail.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans change. If you plan on everything being perfect you are in for a big disappointment and potentially failure. Make a solid plan and then plan on everything that can go sideways and how you will adapt. Everything changes, nothing is perfect, be flexible. Have the systems and processes of a large institutional organization but with the nimbleness and entrepreneurial spirit of a small business.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
This is where it’s so important to have a vision document when you first start your organization. This is the time for you to go back to it and decide if you are wavering from it or if you need to create an addendum. Sometimes businesses are like dying your hair — once you start messing around with it it’s almost impossible to find your way back to the original. Play the long game if you can and try to stay true to your vision. In the end sometimes you have no choice, make sure the decisions are data-driven and coming from a good place.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Never ever play “not to lose” I call this circling the toilet bowl. It is a slow circle of death.
- Introducing too many variables makes it very difficult to analyze what’s happening. Pick your plan and execute it to the best of your ability, that way if it doesn’t work you can pinpoint why.
- Don’t stray from your vision because of a temporary roadblock, figure out how to overcome it without losing your vision.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Focus on the basics of your business and keep it simple. Sometimes people make things so complicated for no reason whatsoever. I call it block and tackle, during good times and bad — striving for perfection is always a good plan. You may never obtain it, but at the very least, you will function at a high level of excellence.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have a very well-thought-out vision and plan. It starts with the most important question: why am I doing this? If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons it’s probably not going to work.
- The most important people in your organization are not the ones sitting in the boardroom. Servant leadership is more than something that sounds good in your handbook, practice it every day.
- Be honest with your teams and don’t be shy to ask for help or show weakness. If your ego is more important than the well-being of your people, you need to take a serious look in the mirror.
- There is no substitute for hard work, your people need you, and they need your time. Invest in your people.
- Make sure you look far enough ahead. Getting out of the woods is the first step, but where you exit the woods can determine your fate. Don’t forget to plan for that as well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
At least in my line of work, no one is going to die. Don’t take yourself too seriously, the worst-case scenario is that you must start over. As an entrepreneur, especially the first time around, taking the leap of faith in yourself is scary; remember if you don’t believe in yourself no one else will. For me, it was scarier to not try and look back and wonder “what if” than it was to fail. Try your best and play to win.
How can our readers further follow your work?