Frank Gleeson (MD Aramark) dicusses the importance of innovation and thoughtfulness in his leadership style.

Frank Gleeson 2I was particularly keen to meet with Frank Gleeson to understand more about his leadership style and to discover a little more about one of the hidden giants in the Irish food and retail industry that is Aramark.  To date, Frank’s most prominent position was with Topaz Energy Group, where he spent 12 years, culminating in his role as Retail Director.  He served as Vice Chairman on the Board of NACS for five years and Chairman and board member of Retail Ireland (IBEC) for six years.

Aramark is a massive $7 billion company, with 270,000 employees worldwide, based out of Philadelphia. It listed on the stock market 18 months ago with a share price that’s already increased by 15% since launch. Aramark in Ireland is the largest supplier of integrated services (food services, facilities and property management) in the country. The Irish business employs 4,300 people in the food service business and about 5,500 people outside of Ireland across the European business.

Frank joined as Managing Director of their Food Services business in Ireland 18 months ago. His honest and open appraisal of doing business in the Irish economy and his own transition from Topaz to Aramark is refreshing and provides some good insight the into success factors required for great leadership.

Aramark has undergone a business transformation in recent years and is currently experiencing considerable growth. In your opinion what has been the secret to it’s success?

I believe the most important factor has been the clarity of vision from the very top, provided by our global CEO, Eric Foss.  Eric set a very clear vision for the organisation, to double the size of the business over xx years and to bring in the best talent to the business.  I joined the company at a good time. I was ready for a career change after 12 years in Topaz so I myself have that refreshed energy that goes with a new role and it is been particularly rewarding to be part of this global transformation plan. Ireland has always had a really solid business with great clients and we continue to play an important role in the success story.

It’s the first time I’ve seen global alignment in action.  When I worked with Statoil, we weren’t always fully aligned to the rest of the organisation, so one thing I found about Aramark is they are very clear about where they want to go and they empower the business units to actually be the best they can be.

The Ireland business under Donal O’Brien has come on tremendously. We’ve broadened our service range from being a food business to being a facilities management and a property management business.  Effectively we’re an integrated services provider for our clients in Ireland and in some cases they’ve chosen to give us EMEA business as well and we’ve got some really blue-chip clients.

Understanding different consumer needs is obviously a fundamental part of getting your food service offering right in Ireland. What new trends are you seeing in this area?

Let’s just use the Millennials as an example. They’re well-travelled and they want fast but fresh food, not just fast food.  So they look for quality food, freshly served that has some health benefits and that’s where we need to position our business. The biggest change I’m seeing worldwide is the general acceptance of all the different cultural food types.  So, we need to serve up Northern European, Mediterranean, Asian, Latin-American and Mexican food.  This is current growth particularly in Latin-American and Mexican food and huge growth in Asian food continues.

The other key aspect of our business is the shortened lunch break.  You might only be taking 15 or 20 minutes to grab something quick to eat and it’s no longer good enough just to serve sandwiches so innovation is key in this area.

What are the key advantages of working with a global business like Aramark?

aramarkWhen I was first approached to join Aramark, I didn’t really understand the scale of the business.  It wasn’t a branded business like I was used to at Topaz where you couldn’t help but see the brand everywhere you went.

When I first met the key people from the organisation both in Ireland and abroad, I was of course excited by the opportunity of working for a truly global company.  My job involves a lot of travel which means I learn best practices from around the world, and I get to learn from really high performing executives in other parts of the organisation and they’re always willing to help you. I always know that there’s somebody somewhere that’s had the same problem that may be able to give you a solution, or, there’ll be some innovation somewhere that you know we’ll be able to take that back into our Irish business.

The Irish business is actually very innovative and we’ve brought some innovation to the global organisation which is then implemented globally. We have an international business excellence team, some of whom are based here and they can connect in with the guys in the UK and the States. It means that ideas are shared and it leads to more rounded plans and consistency across the group.

What else, beyond having a clear vision and having everyone aligned across the organisation works well for the business?

One of the key things I’ve learned in my thirty years in business is that the leaders can have a great vision, but if nobody knows about it, you’ve got a problem. And then it needs constant reinforcing and you need to put the tools in place to allow people to achieve their potential.

I think that’s one of the beauties about an organisation like Aramark. They have all the tools and they’re willing to communicate so, getting it down to the front line is seen as paramount and then showing real leadership.  I spend as much of my time out in the field as I can just alking and trying to understand what are the key messages or they key things we want delivered which have been filtered right down to the front line because that’s really where the moment of truth is. We’ve got some great programmes, I mean..I suppose, being part of a mutinational means you don’t have to think about everything. Some of the stuff is ready out of a box so you’ve just got to be brilliant at execution. Okay, and you need to be relentless about getting that execution right and you know, smaller companies have the challenge that they’ve got to come up with the ideas and have got to figure it out and have got to try and implement it, so you know there’s benefits in being part of big and there’s benefits in being part of small. I’d say the benefits of being part of a big organisation probably outweigh the benefits of the benefits of being smaller

What’s your view on how the economic has and is affecting change in Irish business, particularly in retail?

As former chairman of Retail Ireland and current chairman of the Energy committee and IBEC, I am very committed to doing my best to support Irish business.  Part of my job is to influence and to comment on what’s going on from a business perspective and I think it’s incumbent on all business leaders to educate our politicians and our civil servants because they can’t know everything. They have their side of the story and we need to tell them the business side of the story, and what moves things along in the economy.

My biggest concern is still the domestic economy and everyone has heard me state many times that we have a tale of two economies. The export economy is flying and thankfully Aramark deal with big multinational who have been growing and investing in people and we’ve seen the benefit of that.

However, other businesses such as Topaz, are solely dependent on the domestic economy, and this is still under a lot of pressure. Retail particularly had a really tough time over the past six years and it hasn’t really recovered, being still 20 % lower than at the height of the market. I suppose the concern we have is that there’s such upward pressure on costs and some of the larger costs like rents haven’t really righted themselves just yet.

I am however very positive about the future of our economy and our growth trajectory as when I look at all of the macro factors, they are all pointing in the right direction. I think the government have done a decent enough job of putting us in a position to trade our way out of this and I’d be very optimistic about the next 10 years. We’ve just come out of a recessionary cycle and since I was around for the 80’s, I remember the last one.  This one was certainly tougher and took its toll on the Irish people, not withstanding that we are amazingly resilient.

Coming from the retail environment and now being a service provider to the retail environment, how would you advise a retailer to grow their business or to shape their business for the future?

For the last seven years it’s been about survival and now it’s absolutely about growth and growth can only be achieved through investment and innovation. So my advice to anybody is to take a deep breath, innovate and invest in your business and, bring yourself to the place where you’re better than your competitors.  Competition is great and it’s usually the those who have the best vision or the best execution that win out.

And what about the people at the front line, how important are they?

Crucial. A company like Aramark is right at the front line of service and we’re in food service primarily which is very complex. You’re judged by every single meal, every single cup of coffee so the moment of truth is every single day, every single minute and with service delivery it’s non-negotiable, because customers have choice and that’s the beauty and the tragedy about retail and hospitality.

You’ll Aramark pic 2only do it with the right people and service and retail is not for everybody so we would typically hire for attitude and then train the expertise as a happy, smiley can-do attitude is vital. We can then develop that person into anything they want. I’m always keen to tell people that most of us in this business have probably started at the front line and worked in some sort of a service job and probably ended up being the managing director after 30 years of hard work and development. That’s a key message as the opportunities are there.


So what have you learnt about Leadership over the past few years?  How has your view of what it takes to be a great leader changed over the years, particularly now you’re part of a truly global organisation?  And has your own style changed as a result?


I still believe that the fundamental DNA of leadership is being a self-starter with high level of motivation and a can-do attitude. You rarely see leaders that haven’t got some of those attributes. However, as you progress throughout your career you move from being a manager to a leader by understanding the emotional intelligence of people and that there are more ways than one to motivate somebody.  My view is that ‘followship’ is better than having positional power.  People need to believe in leaders and be willing to follow them and this is actually the key attribute to being a great leadership. Obviously you also need to have the resilience to see it through, even through difficult times and the ability to change direction if necessary.

My own style has changed hugely over the year. I would have been a classic manager with the ability to get things done, however, with a significant amount of collateral damage. As you push through and get things done, you tend to not bring too many people with you and maybe you are very abrasive and that’s how I would describe my style maybe 15 years ago. I had a wake-up moment when my mentor at the time sent me on a 360 degree programme and I was horrified to see the results of how people felt about me. It wasn’t who I wanted to be, but it was how I was perceived by the organisation. I can only say that it was like stepping off a cliff when I made that decision to change. I had to go out and get some behavioural training, and fundamentally I had to actually reinvent the way I did business. It was difficult but it hugely beneficial, not just in business but across my whole life as it made me much more thoughtful about the way I behaved and the decisions I made.

Do you think it’s important to have career mentors and who specifically has been influential in your career to date?

I‘ve been lucky enough to work with and learn from some great leaders in my career and I would say that I’ve picked up something from every CEO or boss I’ve had.  Padraig Ryan in Statoil was the best marketer I ever met.  He brought the Statoil brand into Ireland and from him I learned how to market and deliver for consumers and then, when I had the responsibility to build the Topaz brand so I brought him back to help me with it because he was such a fantastic mentor and thinker.

Internationally, Hank Armour, Global President CEO of NACS (National Association of Convenience Stores), is the most amazing guy I’ve ever met.  He’s also been an entrepreneur and every time I interact with him I learn something and he has been a great mentor for me for the last 10 years.  So I think it’s important to find somebody that gives you inspiration and knowledge and who isn’t afraid to tell you some home truths!

Of course, the other person that gives me a different and vital perspective on things is my wife, Marion.  Her perspective is a more humanistic and less clinical and she’s definitely helped me change my mind on certain things that turned out to be a better decision in the end.

So how do you go about identifying the leaders of tomorrow in your own organisation and mentoring your own team for success?

I believe in a structured approach and for middle-managers up to senior managers we give them a lot of behavioural training. It allows them to understand the impact they have on themselves and others and then, if they have the makings of leadership, they need to understand the style of leadership that they need to adopt.

Another critical part of the programme is training senior managers how to review the past objectively, learn from it, draw insight from it and strategically plan for the future. Typically, managers look back and leaders will look forward.  So as you progress, learning how to look forward and strategise is a critical part of leadership career progression.

The other thing we tend to do well in Aramark is work in collaborative, cross functional teams so everyone gets exposed to different viewpoints across the organisation.  A lot of organisations have silos and I think breaking down these silos and having people working in effective teams is crucial.

What Career Planning insights can you share that you think are critical, even if someone doesn’t necessarily want to progress into Leadership?

My first piece of advice is to keep learning so avoid getting stuck in a rut and staying too long in any one role or organisation.  If the organisation doesn’t match your ambition you need to make a call on it and move on before you become disillusioned.

I also believe in reinvention throughout your career. Where possible as a young manager, you should try and learn about business by working through a variety of roles.  I’ve probably worked across most disciplines and it certainly helps my understanding of different viewpoints.

Joining associations and being involved in your industry from a wider perspective gives you a better understanding of the broader business issues which I think is fundamental today, particularly if you really want to influence things.

We’ve talked a lot about how important great talent is to Aramark. In your opinion, how can working in partnership with a talent organisation like Alternatives, add real value to your business?

We need to work with partners that understand our needs and then help us deliver on our challenge of finding great people. I think the more you understand about our business the better and the more connected you are when we’re going through our changes the better. And then, offering us solutions and the right people with a good understanding of our business is.. well that’s the ultimate.

Charley Stoney, MD Alternatives Group

Charley Stoney, MD Alternatives Group

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Shelflife Magazine.