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How This Once Runaway Teen Went on to Build a $250 Million Restaurant Empire

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/04/2016 Jonathan Alpert

2016-04-02-1459617062-839918-CameronMitchellHeadshot.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-04-02-1459617062-839918-CameronMitchellHeadshot.jpg
Cameron Mitchell. IMAGE: Andy Gottesman
Recently, I was in the waiting room for a medical procedure for which I had to fast, and while thumbing through a magazine I saw a profile piece about restaurateur Cameron Mitchell. As it turns out, I had the pleasure of dining at one of his newest locations, Ocean Prime in New York City, in the fall. As I battled my hunger pangs, trying not to dwell on thoughts of the delicious food I had enjoyed there, I read with great interest Mitchell's story.
As impressive as that meal was, Mitchell's personal tale is even more so. You see, for this successful CEO who runs 48 upscale eateries in 18 cities, life wasn't always easy and certainly not as glamorous as it is today. The 52-year-old Mitchell, whose business brings in more than $250 million in revenue annually and in 2008 sold a portion of its restaurants to Ruth's Chris Steak House for $92 million, was at the age of nine starting to spiral out of control after his parents' divorce. By middle school, he began to use alcohol and drugs, and in high school he dropped out and ran away from home after his mother threatened to call child services. After contemplating suicide at the age of 16, he phoned home and made his way back. He then re-enrolled in school and started working nights as a dishwasher. That time in his life proved to be defining, and he knew with certainty he wanted to work in the restaurant industry.
I recently spoke with Mitchell about his path to success and his views on business. Here's part of my interview with him:
JA: Your "dish room to boardroom" story is remarkably impressive. So many people I know have had a difficult past--some go on to achieve great success and some don't. What did it take for you to overcome your past and become so successful?
CM: At the age of 16, when I came back home, I decided that there was only one person who was going to take care of me and that was me. I decided right then and there to take control of my life.
JA: What's one thing you can attribute your success to?
CM: Our incredible company culture.
JA: What lessons from your past have you applied to growing your business?
CM: It's all about the people. Take care of people and they will take care of you. If we have happy associates, we know they'll take pride in their work and treat our guests well. People really are the No. 1 asset in our business.
JA: What inspires you?
CM: Other people's amazing stories.
JA: Many CEOs and business leaders I know feel bored after reaching a certain level of success. Do you ever? If so, how do you handle it?
CM: I am a true entrepreneur. I am Chicken Little--success never goes to my head. I love the challenge every day. I know the sky could fall at any time. I find challenges to maintain my interest.
JA: You're in a business for which there is competition everywhere. How do you deal with it? What sets you apart?
CM: Our Great People Delivering Genuine Hospitality philosophy--I watch our competition all the time, yet I don't let it really concern me. It will always be there, as sure as the sun comes up every day.
JA: I like how you wrote down your goals as a teen and had a vision. It's one very important exercise I have my clients do. Where did that idea come from? Do you still do that?
CM: I have always been a goal setter since I was 16. Yes, I still do that. I am in the fourth quarter of my career and am working on my legacy goal.
JA: You rolled up your sleeves and got your hands dirty as a dishwasher. Nowadays there's lots of talk about lazy and entitled-feeling Millennials who don't want to work hard and get their hands dirty. How do you feel about that?
CM: I do not believe there is a substitute for hard work. To achieve success, sooner or later everybody realizes that.
JA: What's the No. 1 attribute or quality you look for in a new hire, whether a dishwasher or an executive?
CM: Attitude. I'm an optimist. I'm definitely a the-glass-is-half-full-type of guy and there's a pitcher of water next to it to fill it again. So I look for people who are positive. I get to know them as a person and try to understand what drives them and what excites them. I want to know who they are now, not necessarily their past. There's no place for negativity.
JA: How do you find good employees?
CM: We don't find good employees. We hire people and inspire them to be good associates. We get the same people that other companies get. The difference is we have a great culture and values and our No. 1 goal is to have good relations with colleagues. Our company is 22 years old, and the average tenure of top management is 16 years. So we really create a culture that people want to be part of.
JA: When dining at Ocean Prime in New York, I noticed your staff is extremely attentive and meticulous. Are these qualities innate or learned?
CM: Both. Hopefully they are innate, but this is a business of 1,000 details and we teach that. We have great people delivering genuine hospitality. We take care of people first.

JA: What's the most valuable advice you've ever received?

CM: I actually learned that mental capital is the same as physical capital. You can overspend both.

JA: How do you maintain balance in your life?

CM: I never work at home. If I'm on a call driving home and I'm still on it as I get close, I'll drive around the block until I finish it. I knew that I was working for my wife and kids before I even had them. I know how important they are to me.
JA: What advice would you give to readers of this column?
CM: Believe in yourself and paint your own vision. Also, have patience. Build your career or business one block at a time. When I was looking to go to culinary school, I wanted to go to the prestigious CIA (Culinary Institute of America). I applied and was rejected. I then took some courses at a community college and improved my grades and was later accepted. Fast forward several years and at the age of 44 I was asked to sit on the board of the school--the youngest board member ever. I'm now chairman emeritus.
JA: Is there anything you'd do over if you had the opportunity?
CM: My only regret is I didn't go the four-year college route. I wish I had a more well-rounded education. And I would have made a great fraternity guy!
JA: You've reached huge success in the restaurant space. What's next?
CM: Hopefully, just continued success.
JA: Your peanut butter pie dessert is simply divine. What's the secret ingredient?!
CM: The tender, loving care of our incredible company pastry chef, Summer Schott.
To read more stories about success check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

CAREER NETWORKING EVENT © kristian sekulic via Getty Images CAREER NETWORKING EVENT

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