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Boston Pizza CEO Mark Pacinda has led the firm's growth as a national chain. Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Boston Pizza CEO Mark Pacinda has led the firm's growth as a national chain. Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

AT THE TOP

Boston Pizza CEO makes his mark in casual dining Add to ...

The Boston Pizza story is the stuff of legend – how an ex-RCMP officer and an accountant from Western Canada built a national restaurant chain. Then the ex-cop, Jim Treliving, became the savvy, laid-back investor on TV’s madcap Dragons’ Den.

But much of the Dragon’s managerial firepower these days is generated by Mark Pacinda, the Mississauga-based CEO, a U.S. MBA grad who engineered Boston Pizza’s eastern expansion, and its rise to become Canada’s biggest casual-dining chain with almost 350 outlets.

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What is the busiest restaurant in the chain?

The highest volume Boston Pizza last year was in the Timberlea area of Fort McMurray. It’s unbelievable what’s happening up there. They are busy 24/7. In fact, the two stores in Fort Mac are No. 1 and No. 2 – and No. 3 is a store on Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls. It booms in the summer when all the tourists come through.

Is the upheaval in the market good for the casual dining chains?

Upheaval is never good for any business. People get nervous. The big driver in any retail business really is the consumer confidence index. If people are feeling good about their job, about their security, they will spend money. If not, they will spend less and save more. We wouldn’t be immune from that. And the U.S., where we have 50 restaurants, is a lot tougher than here.

How did you get pitched by Jim and his accountant partner George Melville to join them in 1997?

At that point, almost all their restaurants were in B.C. and Alberta. They tried to go into Ontario in the early 1990s. They didn’t set up an office in Ontario; they tried to run it from Vancouver and it didn’t work. Then it got caught up in the GST and economic downturn.

They went back and rethought it, figuring that the next time, they would have a local management team on the ground. So that was the pitch to me: ‘You’re the first employee hired outside our Richmond, B.C., office. Go ahead set up an office in Ontario, build a corporate training centre, and grow the business in Ontario and the East.’

So the pitch was really a startup. After almost 20 years of big multinational corporate gigs – I was working for Arby’s in Toronto then – I thought this might be pretty cool.

You were already looking to move?

I had the opportunity to move back to the U.S. in a couple of jobs but we had lived in four countries in three years and my wife [a Canadian]didn’t want to move again.

It was so funny. I met with Jim on Thursday, George on Tuesday and had a job offer the following Wednesday. By contrast, I had been interviewing for three months with Citibank for a job in Chicago, and I was going for my fourth interview. Then these guys came along.

To expand into Ontario, what had to change?

The first thing we did was change the look of the buildings. The concept out West was an older version, and it didn’t really pop – it didn’t compete well in this market – although we kept the menu basically the same.

The store look we introduced was more contemporary, more sophisticated, and we introduced the same look everywhere else. But we needed to do that before we pushed into Ontario. People in Ontario were going to see that brand for the first time.

Now, we have 107 stores in Ontario, 26 in Quebec and 18 in Atlantic Canada. We had a huge growth spurt five or six years ago, when we peaked at 40 new restaurants in one year. We’re at a track now of five to 10 openings a year.

Was it hard to walk in the footsteps of a couple of legends?

Not really. I knew them back when they had a much smaller chain. And they are two great guys. You can sit down with either of them and have a beer and talk hockey, and they are not intimidating. I consider both of them friends. They are the co-chairmen and so I report to the two of them.

Is the business culture different in Canada than in the U.S.?

It is more civilized. It’s competitive but it is not cutthroat. I became a Canadian citizen five years ago so this is our home now. People do say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ here. And you could argue the Canadian economy now is stronger than the U.S. economy.

What does the competition look like in your business?

We break the restaurant sector down into three broad groups: quick service; mid-scale casual [which includes Boston Pizza] and fine dining.

Quick service means a reader board, no menu, no alcohol, no tips. With mid-scale, there is a hostess; there are tables; there is alcohol; there are tips. With fine dining, there is white linen, and $200 bottles of wine.

In quick service, you have Tim Hortons and Harvey’s, both Canadian chains, but the balance consists mostly of U.S. multinationals, such as Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s. But in mid-scale, the chains are almost all Canadian; none of the U.S. guys has been able to come up and be successful.

Why is that?

The supply chain is different. You have dairy boards in Canada which you don’t have in the U.S.; you have poultry boards; and liquor is distributed differently. The U.S. mid-scale models are built around a certain set of U.S. economics; they come to Canada and it is different.

And the Canadian chains tend to be entrepreneurial ventures, such as Jim and George at Boston Pizza, the Fuller family at Earls and the Gaglardi family at Moxie’s. The U.S. guys just haven’t cracked the code up here. They may, but they haven’t yet.

What do you bring to the game at Boston Pizza?

Jim and George are very entrepreneurial; my background is more corporate – running organizations. So I think I bring a strategic approach that they like. It means looking at it, planning it, making sure the right strategies are in place, and forming great teams and relationships with franchisees, employees and suppliers.

Do you run the chain from East or West?

We have a dual head office, with part of the staff in Richmond, B.C., and part in Mississauga. We also have an office in Montreal. When we went into Quebec, we decided we needed an office there that would speak French. We don’t want our Quebec franchisees calling Ontario and so we have a French-speaking management team there.

What’s the biggest challenge now?

We’re the No. 1 casual dining brand in Canada; so it’s about trying to maintain that position, and not losing our edge.

You have an undergraduate history degree. Do you put it to use?

I still love history. Every couple of years, I’ll pick a historical figure and read everything about them. I would argue that in Canada I’m the foremost authority on Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve read almost every book you’ve ever heard of on that guy.

Do you get leadership ideas from reading about historical figures?

A little bit, but you find your own style. Coming up as a manager, you pick and choose from people who are successful, and you model your approach after them.

The times change too. When I was growing up, the boss sat in the corner office and had his coffee delivered to him every morning. You never just walked into his office, and if you did, you got in trouble.

Today leaders can’t do that; people don’t respond to that. You hire good people and you make them accountable.

___________

MARK PACINDA

Title: President and CEO, Boston Pizza International Inc., Richmond, B.C. and Mississauga, Ont.

Born: April 28, 1955, New Britain, Conn.

Education: MBA, Binghamton University; BA in history, University of Southern Connecticut

Career highlights

* Seven years in Houston with Monsanto’s oil and gas division.

* Joined PepsiCo for eight years, including Australia and New Zealand stints.

* 1994: President of Arby’s International out of Toronto

* 1997: Joined Boston Pizza as executive vice-president, Eastern Canada

* 2002: Named president; in 2009, COO.

* 2011: Named CEO

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