Richard Coraine, co-founder of Union Square Hospitality Group which owns restaurants like Shake Shack and Union Square Cafe, shares his knowledge with aspiring entrepreneurs.
*Please note that some of Coraine's responses are paraphrased*
What do you currently do with USHG, and how has your role shifted with Covid-19?
You first have to look at where I was before: I am a co-founder of the company with Danny Meyers. From 1996 to now I have been the COO of the company for over a decade, I have been the head of business development for a while, and I have been chief of staff; one of the decisions we made a year ago was to grow and scale with purpose (this is all pre-covid). We decided to hire someone (to act as president) with a lot of experience in larger organizations that knew how to scale businesses; once we decided this, it was again time for my role to change because we didn’t really need a chief of staff anymore. We needed somebody that was contributing as a founder with a focus on high level strategic planning.
We want to give the president a lot of autonomy to actually run the company, so in order to not cloud things, I changed my title to senior advisor which pretty much means working on strategy and helping Danny Meyers (the CEO). If we would have talked a year and a half ago, I would have said my role as chief of staff is to make sure the connectivity between Danny and the C-level is always fostering excellence. But, because we chose to hire a president, we have now chosen to modify my role. Currently, my role is primarily with the C-sweet people, and a lot of working with Danny on his strategy (we go back like 25 years). It is about strategic growth and leadership; I also handle things that don’t have a “natural home” like vetting different businesses trying to make deals with us. So, my role is a composite of many different things.
During Covid, the decision making process has changed because we are making different decisions then we have ever had to make before. In the past it might have been deciding what direction we want to go and deciding what we need to get there (capital, people, brand, etc.), and it was a very proactive sort of mechanism. Now the decisions, for a good six months, were reactive which is “what is the world telling us?” It was telling us that we all need to go inside because the city is telling us to stay inside, and we can’t open our restaurants. Reacting to this is asking questions like should we close, should we do delivery, and ultimately what should we do. The decisions become reactively proactive. What I tell people is we have optimism right now, and so it is “what are we able to do?” Contained in all of this is no restaurants are open, so we can’t have 3,500 employees because there is no work to do - how many do we need to furlough? What do we actually need for this month? We want to be able to be in the arena when the world starts to turn for the better.
We are making different decisions than ever before - most of them are reactive right now but we are trying to get to a proactive place.
How do your title changes impact how your mentality and how you interact with the company?
In 1996 when we started the company, Danny said “we’re going to do great things,” and I said "count me in." I promised to do anything we need at any time to make this successful - and I meant it. 25 years later, this is still what I am doing. I have had the professional confidence to say “my job is to be Danny Meyer's partner.” Included in that is making burgers the first day that Shake Shack opened to giving speeches to the entire company the day after 9/11. Everything in between that is doing whatever I need to be doing.
I have never had the self-image problem of “what is the world going to think of me if I go from COO to business development.” Because I made that commitment to Danny and myself 25 years ago, it’s never been “what the world is going to think of me;” it has always been “I am going to do anything to make us successful including washing the dishes if the dishwasher calls in sick.” If someone said "here’s what needs to be done," I am going to do it. I have seen people come and go within the industry and in the company where people say “I need a title;” I don’t need a title because I am not seeking power, I have already had it. I have been the COO: the whole company has already reported to me. What’s important is that people see me as having no other agenda besides making the company successful. That’s why when we changed the organization chart 4 months ago, I am the one that said I need to change my title so we don’t send a mixed message; I don’t want to cloud the CEOs decision making where people think I am really the person you go to.
I can go around the company and people know me as the founder of the company. I am an outlier, I don’t need an office - I have a cubicle because I am going out and about all the time.
Part 2 coming next week!
• USHG's website
• Richard Coraine's LinkedIn