When Wendy’s/Arby’s Group Inc. CEO Roland Smith (West Point, 1978) attended the Army’s Northern Warfare School as a Cadet, he had a pronounced fear of heights; even 10 feet in the air was a challenge for him. Yet, in the 30+ years that followed, he became an accomplished Army pilot, climbed mountains that rank among the world’s tallest, and earned a well-deserved reputation as a turnaround artist for struggling companies.
“If you are not willing to take risks, then you're a prisoner of your ability to go outside the comfort zone,” he said in an exclusive interview with Veterans Advantage.
“I also do that carefully in the business world,” he adds. “I have taken a number of risks in the business world that others have counseled me ‘You are crazy. This company is in huge turmoil. It’s going to be a mess.’ You know what? -- In every chaos, there’s opportunity.”
According to Smith, he has been immensely fortunate in his varied life experiences. They range from growing up with a military dad who rose from an orphanage and retired from the Air Force as an E-7, to enlisting in the Army and then attending and graduating from West Point; from achieving military excellence as an Army pilot against the odds, to directing multiple corporate turnarounds. Above all, he is the proud father of two sons, both of whom attended West Point, with one currently serving as 2nd Lieutenant in the Army.
Military Roots and Personal Growth
As the son of an Air Force dad, Smith travelled and relocated frequently, and acquired a wide variety of skills. An intense child, Smith says he learned to work hard and adapt to new environments.
“One of the things you learn as a military child is how to adapt to different situations. You are constantly moving, and being willing to jump into new situations and make the best of them is a big part of surviving in that environment,” he said. Smith excelled in school, and sports. In his high school years in Annapolis, he acquired a passion for music and over time, learned to play five musical instruments.
With his dad's military service as a childhood influence, Smith then pursued military service himself, and despite the odds, he realized another dream – to learn to fly. A failed eye exam in his application to the Air Force Academy turned out to be a break. After a year as an enlisted soldier, Smith was accepted at West Point. After graduating, and serving as a Transportation Platoon Leader, he finished second in his class at the Army's flight school, without being hampered by eye issues.
“Success is about work ethic and persistence and not giving up,” said Smith, who then became qualified to fly C-12s in the Army. “Now I look back [on not getting accepted to the Air Force Academy], and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Although his start at West Point was not particularly auspicious (“It was a pretty intense and painful experience,” he recalls), Smith now believes that experience molded the man he is today.
“It taught me a fabulous sense of duty,” he says. It molded in me the concept and importance of a value system, it taught me the basics of leadership, and I think those are the things -- quite honestly -- that have led to my success.”
Smith’s military background included positions as platoon leader, executive officer and pilot for the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
Climbing Mountains and Corporate Challenges
Wendy's / Arby's Group
A life hobby that continues today is Smith’s passion for mountaineering, which he developed at Army Northern Warfare School. Two years ago, Mt. Everest was the objective. Preparation for the ascent was grueling and took 18 months, including 90 minute workouts each weekday and four hours on weekends. Roland and his son Justin (a 2010 West Point graduate), climbed to Mt. Everest's Camp 3 at 23,500 feet without supplemental oxygen, and attained their personal goal.
Reaching the summit of Mt. McKinley is his most recent accomplishment, completed just two months ago. At 20,320 feet, Mount McKinley, also known as Denali (meaning “The Great One”), is the highest peak in North America, and one of the coldest mountains in the world. Of particular note to Smith, Denali has the largest base-to-summit elevation change of any mountain on Earth - rising more than 18,000 feet from the surrounding tundra - exceeding Everest’s base-to-summit elevation change by more than a vertical mile.
These achievements translate well into Smith’s corporate life. Leading a merged Wendy’s and Arby’s – the nation’s third largest quick service restaurant company with approximately $12 billion in system-wide sales and 10,000 restaurants– the CEO suite fits well with Smith’s life pattern. He is recognized for his expertise in turning around troubled companies, and setting them on a new path for growth. Two of his past accomplishments include the financial and strategic turnaround at American Golf (February 2003 – November 2005), the world's largest owner and operator of golf courses, and AMF Corp. (April 1999 – January 2003), the world's largest owner and operator of bowling centers, which he engineered out of Chapter 11. Before that, he gained expertise at Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, KFC, and leading Arby’s in the mid-1990s.
In 2009, Wendy’s / Arby’s Group’s first full year as a combined entity, Smith grew (EBITDA), a key financial measure for Wall Street, by 16 percent, placing his company squarely as one of the leaders in profitability in the restaurant business. “We are optimistic about our future, notwithstanding that we are in one of the most difficult economies I think any of us have seen in our lifetime.”
Smith’s success is grounded in a 7-point value system that he began to form in the Army. He speaks about the importance of these values throughout the company and insists that they be used as filter for all business decisions. Not surprisingly, Wendy's/Arby's believes in hiring military veterans. “They have a lot of important skills that translate well to the business world if you take the time to evaluate them and give our veterans a chance,” he adds.
For Smith, his life of growth, risk and leadership distills into a main theme and pursuit of making life better for others.
“The opportunity to join a company and make a positive difference is what gets me excited. Not only by improving business results, but also by helping to make a positive difference in the lives of those people that were already part of that company, so that they have an opportunity to accomplish some of their own dreams.”
“Leadership is service -- service to the people you have the privilege of leading.”