What is your story?
In 1972, two years before I was born, my father Bill Specht and his cousins Jim Sheppard founded Cousins Subs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up in the family business, and it is something that has always been a part of my life. At the age of 15, I assumed my first job in-store at the Cousins Subs store in Germantown, Wisconsin, and really enjoyed my time working there. While it was my first job, I did not necessarily plan to work in the family business for my career.
I have a degree in Criminology and Law Studies from Marquette University and a Master’s in Public Administration from American University in Washington, DC. After a year of volunteering with homeless families, I intended on working in a public service related field where I could help others. One thing led to another, and in 2001 Cousins Subs created a human resources department and I joined the team. I briefly worked remotely from Washington D.C., and later left my job in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Legislative Audit Bureau and became Cousins Subs’ first HR Manager.
After my father’s business partner passed away in 2007, and while we worked through legal issues with his cousin’s estate, I became the company president. It was not assumed I would become the president; rather, I presented a case to my dad about the state of the company and how I felt I could make the business better as its leader. Since then, I’ve had a few different titles, including today’s role as CEO. Cousins Subs continues to evolve, and I am fortunate to continue to grow in my career.
What message do you like to promote to others?
Look for opportunities to live your values even when it might not be in an obvious way. As I mentioned, I wanted to be working in a public service field where I could serve others. I used to think that meant volunteering with the most marginalized in our society. However, as I grew, I realized that this public service mindset could be applied in just about any position.
While I lead a company, I really do it by serving those that diligently to make it run efficiently every single day. From the teams in our restaurants, to our franchise partners and our support center team, we all work together to meet our goals.
I see my role as one where I can inspire others to be the best version of themselves, give them the knowledge and skills they need to advance their careers and live for something greater than they imagine. The best thing about that is when we do our jobs well our business thrives and we can form even stronger connections to our communities by improving the lives of children and families through financial support or donations and company volunteering. It’s pretty magical how we can improve ourselves and our communities through a sub sandwich.
In what capacity do you LEAD UP in your community?
Cousins Subs continues to reinvest in our communities by reinvesting in our brand and our employees. Guests will see this through new and remodeled locations and also through the many nonprofit organizations, student athletes and employees we support. We continue to provide jobs to the residents of our communities and create a strong presence there. Personally, I try to lead with purpose (one of our core values). My time is best spent with our teams in our restaurants. For this reason, I frequently work in our stores as a cashier and interact with crew members and guests. It’s such a great time, and my in-store experiences give me the opportunity to interact with our teams and community members that make it better every single day. My in-store experiences also keep me grounded (another one of our core values) and ensure that I never lose sight of the value of what we do on a daily basis. I learn something every time I’m in our restaurants, and it is a great way for me to thank our teams for working so hard. Restaurant work is high pressure and not glamorous nor easy. There are daily challenges and our managers have to think quickly and solve many problems all while in the public eye. I respect the work they do and it is a privilege to connect with them at their restaurants.
Another way I LEAD UP is by serving on the boards of various organizations. I’m on or have been affiliated with boards that work to improve healthcare, higher education, and senior care as well as organizations that focus on business. I’m also the president of Cousins Subs’ Make it Better Foundation which is focused on addressing the community needs of youth education, hunger and health & wellness.
In business and/or life, share a struggle you overcame that other women can relate to?
When you are a family member working in the family business or simply in a leadership position, there often is the expectation that you will not make mistakes, will know how to handle every problem and understand every function related to the business. It takes growth in emotional intelligence and self-confidence to realize that not only is this unrealistic, but that it is okay to make mistakes and not know how to handle everything. It is during these times that you can test your leadership abilities by trusting in others to have the answers and relying on people who are talented in their given area to help solve issues.
This ability was demonstrated in January of this year. I made the decision to split my role of President and CEO to serve as the company’s CEO. I named Cousins Subs’ CFO Jason Westhoff our company President. Why? It was time for someone other than me – someone who would be better than me – to do the daily functions of a president. As we scale for growth, it is imperative that we have the systems and processes in place, that our finances are solid, and that we have the right structure to achieve greatness. Our new president is the right person to lead the charge. As CEO, I am able to focus on relationships, culture and building the brand from a higher perspective. Splitting the roles allows me to do exactly what a CEO is meant to do.
Did you have a Mentor, Coach or Sponsor along the way that was essential to your growth and success? If so, who was it and why?
My dad has always been a mentor to me, especially since I have grown in the business. While he is retired, he still freely gives me his advice. Over the past 47 years the business has changed immensely, however the principles by which he founded the company have not and are as relevant today as they were in the beginning. My dad and I are very different and approach issues in our own ways. I used to get frustrated when we didn’t agree, but now I see it as an advantage because hearing his perspective helps me to be more well-rounded in my decision-making.
I also take the opportunity to learn from the leaders of the organizations of the boards on which I serve. They are dynamic, accomplished people who face very challenging situations. I’m amazed by their capacity for leadership and how they overcome obstacles.
Lastly, in general, I take almost any opportunity to listen to or meet with leaders and try to glean something from that encounter.
To be successful, you don’t necessarily need to establish a formal mentor. It’s beneficial to surround yourself with people who care about what you do and for whom you have a great deal of respect.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
I love engaging with Cousins Subs employees and franchise partners. As I mentioned earlier, I work in our stores. In addition, I meet one-on-one with each member of our support center team – usually over lunch. The conversations give me the opportunity to see how their job is going, what challenges they face(d) and what level of job satisfaction they have. During these discussions we talk about their careers, but that’s not all. Oftentimes we talk about their family, interests and anything else that’s on their mind.
I also meet one-on-one with our franchise partners. Our time together gives me the opportunity to celebrate successes, understand their challenges first hand and learn how their experience as a Cousins Subs franchisee has been. I find people connections rewarding because they keep the relationship aspect of my business at the top. People’s career choices are not the only things that define them, and I believe keeping a holistic view of individuals is important. Not only does it give me a deeper understanding of what drives them and what is important to them, but through our touch points I can take the knowledge I was given and apply it to decision-making.
The goal is always to have a win-win relationship – Cousins Subs has the best people working for and investing in our brand and they are meeting their life goals and achieving their dreams.
If you could give one piece of advice for women who are entering the workforce or launching their own business what would that be?
It is up to you to make your dreams happen. Don’t think about who is trying to get in your way or stop you from succeeding. Ignore the naysayers, and align yourself with people who support you and help you achieve your goals.
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