A marketing legend steps down
By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published March 9, 2005
It's the end of an era.
A high-profile and influential business leader who co-founded and grew Outback Steakhouse Inc. into Tampa Bay's most successful and best recognized hometown company stepped down Tuesday as chief executive.
Chris Sullivan, 57, is widely recognized in business circles as a tireless advocate of free enterprise and for his steady opposition to mandatory health insurance rules and efforts to raise the minimum wage.
On Tuesday, Sullivan handed the Outback CEO job over to successor Bill Allen, 45. Sullivan's long-time business partner, Outback co-founder Bob Basham, also stepped down as chief operating officer. Sullivan and Basham will remain at Outback as co-chairmen.
News of Sullivan's departure as CEO rippled across the state Tuesday as other business executives expressed dismay (or envy) at his leaving, delight at his competitive spirit, laughter at his scorching sense of humor, and respect for his contributions to Tampa Bay and Florida's economic development.
"With Chris, what you see is what you get - a smart, high energy, straightforward businessman who lives and sleeps his company," says Peter Rummell, the CEO of the St. Joe Co. real estate business who works with Sullivan at the statewide Florida Council of 100. Rummell will succeed Sullivan as chairman of the powerful business advisory group later this year.
In the Tampa Bay area, where few business leaders are able to transcend the parochial interests of a St. Petersburg, a Tampa or a Clearwater, Sullivan was a regional force. His longstanding support, through Outback, of the Tampa Bay Partnership played a key role in making the economic development group the clear go-to organization for such regional business issues as water, transportation and work force training.
It was Sullivan who stepped up in 2002 and agreed to more than double Outback's annual contribution to the Partnership so the group could broaden its role and be an advocate for business issues with the state government. Now 14 other companies of the Partnership's 170 members have matched Outback's funding commitment.
"Chris has been in spirit and in person right behind our regional efforts," Tampa Bay Partnership marketing chief Chris Steinocher says. "He has set the bar."
On the flip side, Sullivan rarely participated on the local level, such as in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce leadership. As the CEO of a nationwide restaurant company with eight chains, more on the drawing board, and a growing international presence, even Sullivan had his limits.
In annual surveys of Tampa Bay business executives conducted by the St. Petersburg Times, Sullivan ranked consistently among the area's "emerging business leaders." In the 2004 survey, Sullivan for the first time ranked No. 1 in the survey. In an interview at the time, Sullivan laughed and expressed appreciation for the vote of confidence.
"I am the beneficiary of the efforts of a lot of people in our company and the Outback brand," Sullivan told me. "Why do you want to talk to a C student from Kentucky?"
Grades, it seems, aren't everything. Sullivan is a major contributor to his University of Kentucky alma mater, where he received a degree in business administration in 1972. And he is a frequent visitor to the business school to talk about entrepreneurship.
"He is a big deal up here," says University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton.
In the Times' 2005 annual survey, conducted in January, Sullivan's ranking as a business leader dropped sharply from last year's top spot. In an earnings teleconference last month with analysts, Sullivan was present but - uncharacteristically - barely spoke. He left Outback chief financial officer Bob Merritt to handle the bulk of comments and questions.
Sullivan was never one to make himself easily accessible to the media. But his actions through Outback, and later the clout from his accumulated wealth, frequently put him in the spotlight.
In 1995, Sullivan, Basham and several other partners tried to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a reported $163.3-million, only to be outbid by Malcolm Glazer.
Sullivan and Basham then turned to baseball and became partners in the ownership group that acquired the area's new Major League Baseball franchise, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That deal later soured and Sullivan and others last May sold their stake in the team to Wall Streeter Stuart Sternberg.
Sullivan and Outback are marketing legends on many fronts. Outback Steakhouse has flown multiple times to the Middle East to support and feed U.S. troops with Outback steaks and fixings. Sullivan was instrumental in the corporate backing of the Outback Bowl played each year at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The annual Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am golf tournament, played last week, attracts top players.
Sullivan also was named in 2003 to the Scripps Florida Funding Corp., the oversight organization created to oversee the state's $500-million-plus investment in the Scripps Florida Research Institute to be built in Palm Beach County.
Under Sullivan, an avid Republican, Outback assembled one of the country's biggest corporate PACs.
But Sullivan's real clout lies in his 17-year role in building a powerhouse among casual dining restaurant companies. He transformed one Outback Steakhouse in Tampa into a multichain giant with $3.3-billion in revenues, a market value of $3.5-billion, and more than 69,000 employees.
Rarely can the Tampa Bay area boast of a homegrown company that not only dominates an industry niche but boasts one of the best known brands in the country. In this month's Fortune magazine rankings of the "most admired companies," Outback jumped two spaces to No. 3 in the food service industry. It is just behind No. 1 Starbucks and No. 2 McDonald's, but ahead of such direct competitors as Brinker International (Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill) and Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster).
Whether Sullivan stays front and center in the business world or takes time off to relax remains to be seen. Without the Outback CEO title, his clout inevitably will fade.
But what a ride!
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8405.
[Last modified March 9, 2005, 05:21:20]
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