This quarter’s Storyline Webinar featured Case Dorman, Chairman of Jack Stack Barbecue! Keep reading for highlights from the conversation, and watch for more information about our NEXT Storyline Webinar. There’s nothing like a leadership story to sharpen, challenge, and inspire.

When the teenaged Case Dorman saw the “Help Wanted” sign on the door of the BBQ joint his family had stopped by after a tennis meet, he couldn’t have guessed the dominos of his future were about to start falling.

With the job application quickly filled out and a position offered and accepted on the spot, Case found himself spooning up beans the very next day – Mother’s Day, the restaurant’s busiest day of the year. In the space of just a few minutes, he:

  1. set eyes on the beautiful girl who would someday become his wife, and
  2. met his future father-in-law, the restaurant owner himself, when the man wheeled around a corner, stuck a finger in Case’s beans, and threatened to fire him unless he got them up to the proper temperature.

Case’s lifelong career in family business was about to begin with all the joys and challenges that seeming oxymoron involves.

Forty years later, Case is the Chairman of Jack Stack Barbecue, the enterprise that his father-in-law’s simple business has become. He has successfully navigated both sides of the succession process coin and created an unparalleled people-first professional culture at all six of his restaurant chains. In addition to this, he has weathered 40 years’ worth of changes to the restaurant industry as well as the shock of the pandemic, and all without his family being torn apart by the challenges and hard conversations that are so unavoidable during the running of a family business. We were honored to hear his story.

Key Takeaways from the Webinar

Do what you love.

Case pursued a career as a computer technician early in his marriage, but he soon found himself practically sprinting away from his day job to work the night shift at the family restaurant. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he was passionate about the restaurant business and to accept his father-in-law’s request for help when a general management position opened up. Years of working in different restaurants had taught Case what kind of restaurant he wanted to run, and leaning into that passion soon became a gratifying joy.

Working with family takes courageous and intentional communication.

Anyone in a family business will tell you how challenging it can be, if only because family members have higher expectations for one another than they might for unrelated team members. And there’s a tricky balance to be kept, Case asserts. On the one hand, you have to put your emotions aside while at work and just focus on the task in front of you; on the other, the family needs to have strong, loving relationships that they foster to build something warm and real enough to withstand the challenges that can absolutely wreck a family business.

For Case’s family, the key boiled down to courageous and intentional communication. Throughout his father-in-law’s 15-year-long transition plan, everyone involved worked hard – but it was only in the last few years that difficult topics were finally, and sometimes explosively, addressed. To avoid the same problem as he now seeks to transition the business to the next generation, Case made sure to begin the hard conversations early with his own children through scheduled, business-focused family meetings where the values of courage and speaking the truth in love were emphasized.

An example of when courageous communication is key? When a family member isn’t performing. Case has had to speak the truth in love on several occasions, delivering the message of what everyone sees but no one wants to say with humility, with the best of intentions, and while understanding that the recipient of the message may need time to absorb and react. “It hasn’t always been pretty,” says Case, “But we’ve never lost a family member. We’ve survived well as a family because we’re willing to do that.”

Putting people first is always worth it.

While working at a handful of restaurants as a young adult, Case experienced first-hand how the front-line, hourly workers in the hospitality industry were treated – as commodities, warm bodies needed to fill a spot until they moved on. It was a pass-through industry, powered by young people working for the paycheck while they prepared to kick off the rest of their life. Case knew from the get-go that this was not how it should be.

A manager named Joe taught Case, purely by example, what a good restaurant could do for its team members. Joe just had a way with people – he understood human dignity, the dignity of work, and the respect people need when they show up at a job and are asked to do their best. When he became a business leader, Case knew that culture and attitude were what he wanted to emulate: one of transformative respect that could create hope in unexpected places. Today, Jack Stack’s purpose statement is “Hope through Hospitality,” and the entire team even shares daily “hope stories” through an inter-company web portal.

Case has also worked hard to create a working environment where team members can truly build careers as hospitality professionals. He provides his team with benefits a professional in any other field could expect – health insurance and a 401k, and the opportunity to succeed and thrive in an upward-moving career path. During and following the pandemic, Jack Stack grew by around 80%, in large part thanks to the new team members who flooded in, hoping to experience the respect they needed to commit to a company and do their best work.

As a result of that respect, and thanks to standards of intentionally open, honest communication, Case has a team that tackles challenges together! During the wild card of the pandemic, Case turned the microphone to his front-line workers throughout the search for responsive solutions. He let the team tell him how they could do their best during a tough time, and the ideas kept rolling in. Jack Stack responded much more quickly than many of their competitors, and Case takes no personal credit for that fact. He often tells his children, “Never underestimate the work that others do – and never overestimate your own.”

Invest in a community of peers who recharge your batteries and don’t hide behind boasts and posturing.

For Case, that community has been Acumen. Case joined Acumen over a decade ago while searching for a CEO group he could engage with and embrace. He loved the spiritual component of the Acumen program and was struck by the fact that there was no posturing when the group members sat down together in the room. While similar groups he’d experienced featured business leaders boasting loudly about their successes, sales, and wins, leaving no time or space for vulnerability, the Acumen group proved to be a community of brothers who were uniquely, humbly aware of their faults and most significant challenges – and who were willing to ask for help solving those challenges. “That’s what sold me,” he shares, “and that’s why I’ve stayed involved.” Today, Case’s group has filled up with younger business owners who he describes as “on fire,” to such an extent that he mostly shows up just to get recharged by their spiritual and professional passion!

Did you enjoy this post? Watch the full recording of our conversation with Case here.