04/04/2015 09:23 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Carin Stutz President, McAlister's Deli

Carin Stutz was named president of McAlister's Deli in November 2014. Prior to joining the award-winning fast casual brand, Carin served as president and CEO of Cosi; president, Global business development at Brinker International, the parent company of Chili's Bar & Grill and Maggiano's; executive vice president of operations for Applebee's; and division vice president of Wendy's International.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
First, I'd recognize my parent's contribution. Dad was gentle and kind and mom was incredibly driven with an amazing work ethic. She expected us to excel and dad insisted we be generous. I think I got the best from both of them. Like many executives in the restaurant industry, I worked my way up through the ranks. My first foodservice job was at the front counter of McDonald's. You learn a lot about people working the front counter, and you also learn that you can make a difference. Even with a brief encounter, you can lift people up. I worked through every position in both company and franchise operations, up to the position I hold today. I will always have tremendous respect for all employees who work the day to day operations in the restaurants. My hands-on experience allows me to fully understand the decisions I make and the impact they will have on our people and our guests. The knowledge I gained and lessons I learned have made me a better leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at McAlister's Deli?
My experience at bigger brands like Applebee's and Wendy's gave me the insight to position a brand strategically and prepare it for growth. My timing has been serendipitously good, as I was able to participate in the growth of the QSR market, followed by casual dining boom and now have the opportunity to lead a fantastic brand in today's sweet spot, the fast casual segment. Nothing is more exciting than growing a brand to its full potential as it creates amazing career opportunities for so many people.

What do you think is McAlister's biggest strength? What do you see as its biggest challenge?
What differentiates a restaurant from its competition is the menu, people and its culture. McAlister's is known for its genuine hospitality and, to me, that is our biggest strength. The extraordinary service that our team members provide for our guests is unmatched in the fast casual space. And the McAlister's genuine hospitality reaches from the restaurant into the corporate environment. Every single member of the McAlister's team truly lives up to the motto, and I'm proud to be a part of it. I also love our menu featuring American Regional Favorites served with generous portions and high quality ingredients, which appeals to a broad audience.

The biggest challenge I face at McAlister's is moving the brand from having regional awareness to being a truly national brand. For the last 26 years, McAlister's has cemented itself in the lives of our guests in the Southern U.S. and now we are gaining traction in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest. We've come a long way, but still have plenty of opportunities ahead of us.

What attracted you to work for restaurant chains?
Opportunity! One of my first days on the job as an hourly employee, the area director came in driving a new car! Our family had never had one and I immediately knew that I wanted his job. The restaurant industry is huge with a projection of $709 billion in sales this year. It's challenging, quick-paced and always changing to meet the demands of an ever-growing, more sophisticated and knowledgeable consumer. There is a very clear career path for those who work hard, get results and can lead a diverse team.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in leading foodservice brands?
The best advice I can offer is to love whatever career you choose. How challenging it must be for those who choose positions or companies they don't enjoy. I would then say to define your career path and be open to feedback along the way, being comfortable asking what you need to learn to be a candidate for the next job. Take risks and get out of your comfort zone. You will be surprised how much you can do. In our industry, having operations, finance and marketing experience is a plus. And last, your network is critical to move up. Make sure you know who is in the room when decisions for promotions are made. Is there someone in that room who will be an advocate or a sponsor for you? If not, start making those connections now.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I sure hope that the next generation of women leaders don't have to answer this question! It's not easy, and I am especially empathetic to many single mothers and fathers I've worked with over the years. I'm blessed to have a supportive husband and have worked for companies that have some flexibility around schedules. As I've gotten older, I feel less guilt towards the work or the events I miss at home. My advice is to feel confident in the decisions you make in where you spend your time. I have always been willing to invest time in areas that I believe will have a rewarding future. Everyone's definition of balance is different. Choose what works for you.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The advancement for women is too slow. When you think about the majority of decisions involving food are made by women, we are not adequately represented. According to the People Report, women make up 57% of the workforce in limited service restaurants, but the number becomes quite disproportionate as we move up. It drops to 36% in management, 30% in executive ranks and only 17% of the board make-up. Even with the evidence being quite clear on the financial benefits, innovation and consumer insights gained by having women in the boardroom and at the table, it just hasn't moved. Is it due to the lack of sponsors or advocates speaking up for women for bigger roles or important projects? Or are women not putting their hand up and applying for the next role, making it easy to be overlooked. I believe it is a combination of both.

Therefore, we must continue to find ways to have a voice and be a champion for others. I appreciate those who have a platform standing up for women. Whether it is Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook or Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, these issues finding their way to the mainstream media to effect change is paramount.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My personal experience with mentoring has been more informal. I'm always grateful that early in my career people saw that I had potential. Those leaders challenged me to take on difficult assignments and gave me tough feedback, which provided tremendous professional growth. I worked on strengthening my leadership competencies through Women's Foodservice Forum, which is a great organization based on elevating women leaders in our industry and going back to school for my MBA.

Some of the best words of wisdom from my mentors:
• Women often audition for the role that they already have. Be confident and self aware of what you bring to the table.
• Learn to lead long before you have direct reports - what decisions can you influence or can you get others passionate about something that would benefit your company.

Now I enjoy mentoring others and giving back.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Some of the CEOs in our industry that I admire are Cheryl Bachelder of Popeye's, Sarah Palisi-Chapin of Hail Merry and Denise Morrison of Campbell's. They are great role models of servant leadership, innovation, strong culture and financial results. I also appreciate the leaders who are purposeful about helping other women be successful, like Joni Doolin, Debi Benedetti, Linda Johnson and Kathleen Wood.

What do you want McAlister's to accomplish in the next year?
I'm fortunate that McAlister's has great momentum right now, so we are building on that! We can be a billion dollar company and we are laying the foundation to get there. That starts with having the right talent at the table, adding value to our existing franchisees so they continue to grow our brand, and developing a pipeline of potential franchisees, lenders and people that embrace the McAlister's culture. My personal goal is to join a board and add great value!