“I remember my first time going to a business meeting from Virginia to New York, and I remember I thought I looked okay. And what did I know? I was a country boy from Virginia,” G.J. Hart, CEO of California Pizza Kitchen told Off The Cuff,” and they actually made fun of me. I walked away from that saying, "If there's ever a chance that I can prove them wrong, no one will ever make fun of my clothes again. Other than, maybe, it's my unique style."
That Charles Atlas moment came in 1980, when he was 22. Hart and his family had emigrated from the Netherlands to the U.S. when he was five years old. They settled in New Jersey, then Staunton, Virginia, where his father was a police officer. The young Hart had to learn English, and at first, he has said, he struggled to fit in.
Still, leadership came naturally to him, he said. “When I was a teenager, I was in charge of a bunch of umpires. I had to organize the chaos - no one really appointed me that - I anointed myself, it has been that way ever since. I just feel like someone has to take charge. Why not me?”
After college, he joined Shenandoah Valley Poultry Company and worked his way up from trainee to general manager and minority owner of the company, in the eight years that he was there.
Hart became California Pizza Kitchen’s CEO in 2011 and now oversees the chain’s 250 restaurants and 13,120 employees.
“I think leadership is getting people to exceed their own expectations,” he said, “the perfect business day is when I get to be able to touch as many people to make them feel wonderful about where they are and be able to go out and carry out our mission. Truly, it's not about me, it's about how can I serve others.”
Hart’s professed commitment to his employees raised eyebrows in 2009, when as CEO of Texas Roadhouse, he held a five-day, $2 million, all-expenses-paid getaway, for one thousand restaurant managers and their guests. The event took place at the height of the recession when many other U.S. companies were curtailing their corporate junkets. He defended his decision in an interview on CNBC, at the time. “Our people are our greatest assets,” he said, “and this investment in our people will yield us great returns.”
When he’s hiring those assets, he said, he has learned to “put the resume to the side and just ask questions.” He claims “you can get to a person’s heart through their eyes, you can tell their attitude and you can tell by their passion.”
Hart told Off The Cuff that his definition of wealth is “when I have enough time and money to be able to really make a difference on the causes that are dearest in my heart, and that will make the most difference in people's lives. And I'm not there yet.” He is a member of Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics, United Way and the American Red Cross, according to California Pizza Kitchen.
As for his extravagances, “it's probably what's on my body. It's watches and what I wear. That's a pretty big vice.”
Laugh at them - if you dare.