Cameron Mitchell's take on leadership, entrepreneurship, and the importance of an action-oriented culture

November 20, 2013

Ohio University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Robert D. Walter Center for Strategic Leadership brought Cameron Mitchell to campus to speak to students as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week.  Baker Theatre was nearly filled to capacity with students, faculty, and staff representing colleges across campus including The Gladys W. and David H. Patton College of Education, College of Business, and Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. During his visit, Mitchell took time to sit with the College of Business and talk about his unique, entrepreneurial story, approach to leadership, and impart some valuable advice to students. 

When Cameron Mitchell walks into a room, people take notice.  But when he starts talking about his career path, the corporate culture that he works so hard to create, and his definition of leadership, it’s more like an uncle dispensing advice over drinks; if your uncle started a hundred million dollar restaurant empire based on the plan he mapped out when he was 18.

“I was really blessed to know what I wanted to do.  A lot of young people don’t have that,” said Mitchell. 

That clarity came during a busy Friday night at shift change in the Max & Erma’s restaurant where he was a line cook. 

“It was an epiphany.  I looked down the line and realized that I love this business.  This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

After finishing his double shift, Mitchell headed home and wrote his career plan.  He decided that he wanted to become an executive chef, then a general manager, oversee a region of restaurant operations, and eventually open his own business.  With great enthusiasm, he woke his mother to tell her of his plans.

“It was one o’clock in the morning and I woke my mom up to tell her that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.  Needless to say, she was relieved that I had some direction.”

Mitchell applied to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and was turned down.  Mitchell once dropped out of high school.  He then dropped back in and became senior class president, but graduated last academically in that class.  With single-minded focus, Mitchell improved his grades at a community college and applied again.  After his acceptance, the rest of his journey followed the path he’d laid out: sous chef, executive chef, and then regional manager.  He realized it was time to start his own restaurant.

“I was bumping my head against the ceiling.  The company I worked for was owned by investors and they didn’t love the restaurant business.  This was a pocket investment for them.”

Six weeks after drafting his company’s goals and values, Mitchell took the leap and started the process of getting his first restaurant off the ground.

“Getting the first restaurant going was probably my biggest challenge as an entrepreneur.  One location fell through and we were back to the drawing board, but you’ve got to work hard. That’s all there is to it.  Ignorance was a big factor though.  If I knew what I had to get into,” he trails off.  “I knew enough to move forward, but not enough to hinder me from taking risks.” 

Today Cameron Mitchell Restaurants has 19 units and eight concepts, a successful catering company, and manages the growth and development operations of sister company, Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern with 15 locations in three states. In 2008, he sold two restaurant concepts, Mitchell’s Fish Market and Mitchell’s/Cameron’s Steakhouse, to Ruth’s Chris for $92 million.  According to Mitchell, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants is currently undergoing the largest expansion in the company’s history. 

Mitchell contributes much of the success to fostering a culture of service.

“We have created a service oriented and action oriented culture.  When I started this company, I wanted to create a company culture and values that weren’t about me.  It didn’t matter if I was there or not.  The philosophy is much bigger than me, but everyone lives it because I live it.”

That culture is defined in the company’s motto, “The answer is ‘Yes.’  Now what’s the question?” 

“We have 3,000 people with one role; to make raving fans of everyone we do business with.  Not just the guests, but everyone we come in contact with from the truck drivers delivering produce to the employees.  Our associates come first.  Our primary responsibility is to take care of those people.  That is who we have contact with and if they are happy, imagine how that translates to their care of our guests.”

It’s a unique outlook, but seems to sum up Mitchell’s attitude toward life.

“Saying yes requires action.  If you tell someone no, there’s nothing else you need to do. But, if you tell them yes, you have to turn around and find a way to solve that problem or fulfill that request.  You have to take action.”

Mitchell says that his associates might describe him with words like “Tenacious…intense,” and even “a little moody.”  But as he thinks back over the first 20 years of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, he also thinks of respect.  “I’m passionate and compassionate toward our people, and ultimately they trust me.”

About the Center for Entrepreneurship

The Center for Entrepreneurship at Ohio University is a partnership of Ohio University’s College of Business and Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.  The center builds upon and raises to new levels longstanding efforts at the University and throughout the region to provide entrepreneurial education, business assistance services, and investment capital for entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.  Coordinating University resources through the center creates exciting new opportunities for internationally competitive entrepreneurial studies, enhanced commercialization of faculty research, and coordinated support for entrepreneurship, business development, and job creation.  The Center for Entrepreneurship leadership team consists of Lynn Gellermann, executive director, Luke Pittaway, director, Patrick Kreiser, director of academic programs, and Kevin Aspegren, director of student engagement.  For more information on the Center, including upcoming events, please visit www.ohio.edu/entrepreneurship or http://bobcat-entrepreneur.com/.

About the Robert D. Walter Center for Strategic Leadership

The mission of the Robert D. Walter Center for Strategic Leadership is to educate and provide professional development opportunities designed to forge leaders who will make a positive difference in any organization they join.  In these dynamic times, finding visionary leaders of high integrity is more critical than ever.  The Walter Center for Strategic Leadership prepares graduates to read the signals of opportunity in the marketplace and quickly adapt organizational strategy, redeploy talent, and execute plans to deliver extraordinary results.  Tim Reynolds is the founding executive director for the Center and joined Ohio University’s College of Business with 25 years of corporate experience leading fortune 500 companies including Marathon Oil Company, Abbott Laboratories, Johns-Manville Corporate, and Whirlpool Corporation.  For more information on the Center, including upcoming events, please visit www.cob.ohio.edu/leadership

 


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