Mike Snyder '72: Do the right thing

By Beth Luce

With corporate ethics taking a beating in the headlines these days, it’s encouraging to hear about a big company that’s serious about doing the right thing. Red Robin CEO Mike Snyder ’72 is showing that high standards pay dividends. Literally.

Snyder grew up in a family that taught him about compassion, integrity … and not burning the buns. As soon as he was big enough to push a broom, Snyder began working in the wholesale bakery his grandfather founded. “I worked every position in the facility,” Snyder relates. “And when I got a driver’s license, I was running vacation bread routes in the summer.”

Snyder said he was fortunate to have very good and strong influences from his family—reinforced by his years at Puget Sound—and it seemed obvious to him that the values he used in life should carry over into his business. He and his brother, Steve Snyder ’75, became Red Robin’s first franchisees in 1979. They operated their restaurants with a strong set of principles at the core: honor, integrity, seeking knowledge, and having fun. And when Mike took over the international chain of Red Robin restaurants as CEO, president, and chair six years ago, he incorporated those same values into the Colorado-based organization.

The recent rash of scandals among corporate giants—Enron, WorldCom, ImClone—are the result of executives that take shortcuts in doing things the honorable way, Snyder observed. The irony is that they needn’t have sacrificed ethics for profits.

“I’m sure there are decisions one could make that would be less profitable by doing the right thing,” Snyder said. “But in the long run, you’re best served by operating in an honorable way.”

Red Robin has grown from 133 restaurants when Snyder took over to today’s total of 190 in 24 states and two Canadian provinces. That’s a 43 percent growth in unit numbers in six years. Seventeen opened so far in 2002, with more coming. The average restaurant’s sales have risen from $1.8 million annually to $3 million. Last year’s revenue totaled about $450 million. The company went public this summer, with its initial common stock offering going for $12 per share—all signs that Red Robin is a big bird with a nicely feathered nest.

“Profit in our world is not a bad word,” Snyder said. “Without it you don’t have the luxury to stay in business and have this much fun. We strive for profitability, but we do it in valuing ways. Our culture helps us do the right thing in how we work with all the people in our organization.”

And the good word is out. Parents often encourage their teenage children to work at a Red Robin because they want their kids’ first job experience to be positive. He described the pay and benefits as “probably a little better than most,” then added, “but that’s not the big deal.” The big deal, he explained, is a workplace that nurtures self-esteem, honors values, and is fun and rewarding.