Julia A. Stewart is the embodiment of the "work your way to the top" approach to business. She started waiting tables as a teenager, and now heads the largest casual dining chain in the country, which includes the longtime favorite International House of Pancakes or "IHOP", and Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar, "the world’s casual dining leader."
Citing her rise, Stewart believes her ability to lead by teaching helps even the most junior of employees. She credits her Army Veteran dad, Dan Stewart, for her unique management style and special coaching approach to the business.
"My dad did his four-year Army stint as a trainer, then got his teaching credentials and taught high school and, later, college," she recounts in a guest column she wrote for the New York Times. "He taught American history and civics, and his hope was that I would be a teacher and maybe even run for office."
The former pre-med student later chose a career in business over teaching to the chagrin of dad, but her hard work eventually won his praise as he witnessed her in action - in a previous senior position she held at Taco Bell. At the end of the day, Dad took her out for a drink and told her, "Julia, you teach and mentor, too—you just do it in a different classroom."
"That comment still inspires me, and I think about it when I’m dealing with employees, whether they’re frontline workers or senior managers. If I’m on a plane with one of our top people, I’ll ask a lot of questions about her work, ask for her expertise on a problem, and focus on coming up with a solution together. In other words, I coach—which is a kind of teaching," she said.
Stewart also credits her dad as most influential and for giving her the best advice.According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, her dad told her: "Never be afraid to be who you are." It’s harder to do when you’re younger. When you’re older something happens to you. You just wake up one day and say, "I kind of like who I am."
Flash forward to 2007, where Stewart is engineering leadership on an even grander stage. Proving IHOP is more than pancakes, Stewart led the $2.1 billion purchase of the Applebee’s dining chain. Taking over Applebee’s was a gutsy move, considering IHOP had about half the market capitalization of Applebee’s when the two companies announced the deal in July, 2007 -- "Minnow swallowing the whale," she said of acquiring the company whose U.S. operations she once headed before coming to IHOP. The merged entity was subsequently named DineEquity.
But through it all, Stewart always thinks of Dad, and is always cognizant of her roots. She is proud of the analogy comparing the honor of service to everything from waiting tables to owning the corner office.
"It’s an honor and a privilege. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve; it's an honor and a privilege to lead. I don't take it for granted. It’s very blessed that I’m able to lead this great brand. Even in a serving capacity. Even the other day I was back in a restaurant and I was helping out a food server. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve and with it comes responsibility," she said.
"It really is all I’ve really ever wanted to do and this is always what we are going to be doing in the restaurant business: making a difference in peoples’ lives."