Chuy’s, a 51-unit Tex-Mex chain growing at about 10 locations per year, attributes much of its expansion success to the diversity of its employees.

Austin, Texas-based Chuy’s Holdings Inc., which went public in July 2012 and has units in 14 states, currently has women in six of its 10 leadership positions. Additionally, more than 30 percent of general managers are women.

The company “has always had a strong mix and strong balance of gender diversity,” Steve Hislop, president and chief executive since June 2007, told Nation’s Restaurant News Thursday.

When he joined the company, more than 50 percent of Chuy’s operators were women, Hislop said, and 60 percent of headquarters office employees were women.

“That was great for our culture. It was a safe haven, a safe home for both men and women alike,” he said.

For six of the past seven years that Hislop has been with Chuy’s, he added, women have earned the company’s “Operator of the Year” award, which recognizes the top general manager in the system.

“Our two top-volume stores, which do $8 million a year, are run by women, and they have won it each twice,” Hislop said. “The key for us in attracting great people in general, and women in particular, is having those really successful women at the top. That helps any organization attract more managers.”

That is why the company is looking to attract more women into management ranks, he said, which has slipped to 30 percent of the total.

“Applicant flow is heavily toward men,” Hislop said. “We really want to be on the forefront and would love to get that balance back to 50-50.”

A recent Gallup study of gender-diverse business units in a hospitality company found 19 percent higher average quarterly net profit than in less-diverse business units.

Sharon Russell has been with Chuy’s for 26 years and served as chief financial officer until being named chief administrative officer two years ago.

“When I started, we had two restaurants in Austin. I worked closely with the founders, Mike Young and John Zapp [who both remain on the company’s board]. They developed a culture that is open that promotes from within,” she said.

Headquarters management roles have always been between 60 to 70 percent female, she noted.

“It was the environment,” Russell added. “It was a very safe environment. Mike and John were very supportive of us growing in our professional roles and growing in our families. It was a work-home life balance. It’s always been part of our culture.”

Tenure for female managers at Chuy’s headquarters averages between 10 to 12 years, with a number of managers in the roles more than 20 years.

“It’s important for us to maintain that,” Russell said. “We’re looking for great women. We feel our company and environment is more approachable for women to work with us. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

Hislop said the company is taking steps to increase the diversity of its workforce so it better reflects the diversity of its customer base, which is generally a 50-50 gender split.

“Recruiting in general has been nice for us,” he said. “With that downturn in the industry in 2008 and 2009, we still grew rather rapidly. We got a lot of applications, but, quite frankly, we haven’t seen a really great number of really strong women who want to be in the restaurant business.”

Chuy’s is currently putting its female executives and managers out front at career fairs and with students at colleges to help in recruiting, Hislop said.

“We also love promoting from within,” he said. “We’d like to see about 40 percent of our managers come from within, be they servers or cooks in the back of the house. We like to develop our own people and put them in management. The more you can promote from within, they understand your culture and can train with that culture.”

Hislop said he believes his company, with the current high level of women in leadership, is several steps ahead in doing that.

“You are always going to hire the best person, those with the passion to serve people,” Hislop said. “Great role models attract great people.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
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