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By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2005-10-19 Print this article Print

Keep it simple; don't overanalyze; focus on results and stick with your plan; manage business first, technology second; keep teams small and focused, according to Cathy Tompkins, David Johns, Mitchell Gregory, Werner Vogels and Mike Chandler

s the Beef">

Here's the Beef
Sonic's Mitchell Gregory is sandwiched between market research and technology, but remains all business.

By Larry Dignan

CIO, Sonic Corp.
Lesson: Manage business first, technology second.

Mitchell Gregory may be the only chief information officer whose job description includes monitoring taste tests for items such as the SuperSonic Jalapeno Cheeseburger.

Gregory, a four-year technology veteran at fast-food restaurant chain Sonic Corp., is responsible for the information systems that tie together the company's 3,000 owned and franchised stores. He also oversees research on how customers will react to new products such as Sonic's Toaster sandwiches, which consist of chicken breast or a burger slotted between slices of Texas toast. Telephone polls, promotion response tracking and taste tests all fall under Gregory's purview.

The combination of technology and taste tests "is a little odd, but it is still about information," Gregory says. After all, Sonic lives and dies by how its new food is accepted by consumers. Market research consists of polls, testing and customer interviews to determine how they would react to a potential product. Then, that product is tested in select regions before being rolled out nationally.

Sonic is mum on its technology initiatives and their effects on efficiency, but Gregory says an intranet allows stores connected via the Web to benchmark themselves versus peers, report sales and track responses to promotions companywide. The company analyzes top-level data, such as sales of a new burger from one of its regions, but leaves the "granular" analysis—for instance, soda sales in August—to store managers.

Sonic is ranked No. 65 in the Baseline 500 with Information Productivity of 135.1%, topping peers such as Yum Brands (No. 208) and Panera Bread (No. 357) as well as casual restaurants including Applebee's International (No. 148) and Brinker International (No. 234).

Sonic's ranking comes not so much from technology use as it does from relegating it to a secondary role. Sonic's main mission is to sell food and keep customers coming back to its drive-ins. "I.T.'s role is to support the business," Gregory says.

Concentrating on the business isn't a reach for Gregory because he doesn't have a technology background. Although in his last four years at Sonic he has focused on technology, he was the company's vice president of brand development and, before that, director of market research. He has also held sales, financial analysis, and business planning and accounting positions at PepsiCo.

The upshot: Gregory doesn't struggle to spot business needs, say, to promote the Extra-Long Philly Cheesesteak in Peoria. However, he needs help to investigate whether to standardize on one point-of-sale software system over another. "I don't struggle to grasp the business issue, but may not know the technology to address it," he says.

Gregory's solution is to have his staff meet him halfway at the intersection of business and technology. To achieve that, Gregory gives anyone who wants to learn the business the opportunity to do so. For example, a programmer who may be bored with Java code can be thrown into a market research project.

The approach ensures Sonic's technology staffers will know the business and be able to communicate with their boss. In Gregory's words: "I'm not a technology person and my background is more general business, so I come at things from the other side of the fence."

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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