Guided by Friday epiphanies, Cameron Mitchell learned the restaurant business from the ground up and stakes CMR's future on values.

It's a rare thing in business for professionals to hit the ceiling in their 20s. But Cameron Mitchell is not a common businessman. When he had reached his full potential as director of operations at 55 Restaurant Group by age 29, he holed-up with a legal pad and a pen and began planning his own restaurant company.

"I had a one-bedroom apartment up at the Continent, no money. I spent the first three weeks before I did anything writing out our company culture and values and what kind of restaurant company I wanted to build," says Mitchell.

He opened Cameron's by the time he was 30. That was in 1993. By 2007, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants had grown into a group of 33 restaurants in nine states with peak annual sales of over $120 million.

In 2008, Mitchell sold his high-end Mitchell's Fish Market and Mitchell's Steakhouse brands for $92 million to Ruth's Hospitality Group. Today, CMR is growing again with 24 restaurants using 12 different concepts.

Mitchell attributes the company's success to two mantras: "The answer is 'yes,' what's the question?" and "Associates come first."

"Our mission statement is to thrive in both cultural and fiscal responsibility: 51 to 49 between values and culture, and profit," says Mitchell. CMR enjoys some of the lowest turnover rates in the restaurant industry. Mitchell believes in investing in his people and their career development: 70-80 percent of CMR managers are promoted from within and many of his executives worked their way up through the company ranks.

And CMR's fiscal success is evident. But Mitchell doesn't believe in standing still. He's set the goal of building his upscale Ocean Prime concept into a $100 million coast-to-coast brand by 2016. With the opening of a Beverly Hills location in 2014, Boston Seaport and Midtown Manhattan locations coming in late 2015, CMR's well on its way towards accomplishing the latest goal set by its visionary leader.

"As president of a restaurant company, you might think I'd say profit is our number one objective. That's not true," says Mitchell. The company values he sketched out in a north Columbus apartment more than 20 years ago remain top priority. "We want to be around for 50, 60, 100 years. Long after I'm gone. The only way we're going to do that is to be a culture-and-values-driven company."

Mitchell invited Columbus CEO into his Park Street HQ for an inside look at CMR's employees-first culture and a conversation ranging from the pitfalls of becoming a celebrity restaurateur to his goal-driven leadership style.

How hard is it to succeed in the restaurant business, let alone develop multi-million-dollar brands?

That's kind of a misnomer about the restaurant business. It has a reputation of being so difficult. But the fact of the matter is the restaurant business is a relatively low entry point in terms of capital. It's still a capital intensive business, but to open up a car dealership or a manufacturing facility requires a lot more capital.

People go to restaurants, they eat at restaurants, they have an affinity for cooking and they go 'I'm going to start a restaurant. I've always wanted to do that.' You get a lot of people getting into the business that don't necessarily have the experience or expertise.

I think any business is difficult and challenging. I don't know that it's any more difficult in the restaurant business.

I've been in the restaurant business 35 years. I started when I was 16 in high school washing dishes, from the ground up. I'm not sure if I didn't start sweeping construction sites I wouldn't be president of a construction company today. If I started sweeping car lots, would I own car dealerships today? I think it was more of, I just happened to fall into the business through my first job. I fell in love with it and worked my way up.

I've known I wanted to be president of a restaurant company since I was 18 years old and tailored my whole career towards that, all my education towards that, my self-study towards that.

Is it hard? Yes, it's a very difficult business. You've got sales and manufacturing going on simultaneously in the same facility. It's a retail business, and there's a lot of competition that comes every day. You can't ever rest on your laurels. You need to continue to change and innovate, move forward and move the needle.

And then on top of that it's highly labor-intensive so your workforce is extremely important. It's ever so more challenging to develop a great workforce and to find the actual people to come in and work in the business. As the economy improves in the United States, fewer people are out there looking for jobs, so it becomes more and more competitive.

You have all sorts of external pressures: cost of food products, droughts in California, cattle shortages, et cetera. Those can have a negative impact in the business.

But I think most businesses have threats every day, and you have to continue to deal with them. You fight multiple battles on multiple fronts. And on the same token it's just a heck of a lot of fun, too.

I enjoy that challenge and thrive in that situation.

Eighteen is very young to have such a clear vision and goals outlined. Did you have amentor, someone who helped you see that?

It was an epiphany that happened one day at work. I was right out of high school. I didn't want to go right off to college because I didn't know what I wanted to do.

It was a Friday afternoon during shift change. There was pandemonium in the kitchen, I remember it like it was yesterday, clear as a bell it just hit me: 'This is what I want to do the rest of my life, I absolutely love this.'

I literally went home that night and wrote out my goals. I said I was going to to go to the Culinary Institute of America, I was going to become an executive chef by the time I was 23, general manager by the time I was 24, regional manager by the time I was 26, VP of operations by the time I was 30 and president of a restaurant company by the time I was 35.

I self-studied a lot of leaders: Dave Thomas, Norm Brinker, all the great restaurateurs; I've studied and emulated over the years. I've emulated great companies, like Southwest Airlines. I've read lots of business books on top of that, all the leadership books, trying to prepare myself and grow in this business and eventually started my own company. I didn't know I wanted to start my own company. That was the second epiphany that happened.

I was at Spagio (in Grandview) on a Friday night in May of 1992-I joke that my epiphanies always happen on Fridays. It was 8 o'clock, I was at the bar and (Chef Hubert Seifert) was walking the dining room talking to guests. The place was humping. I said, 'I'm going to start my own restaurant company.' I left 55 Restaurant Group July 11, 1992. I got a legal pad and a pen and started to build my restaurant company.

Like Chef Seifert, you're often spotted walking your restaurants in Columbus-how important is that for people to see you with your staff?

It's important, but I don't do it as much as I used to or should anymore. My job has evolved over the years. We've gotten bigger-now we're a national restaurant company, coast to coast. Between industry events and development-I spend a lot of time in development, traveling the country looking for restaurant sites. I do president's round tables twice a year where I'm in the restaurants with a group of associates talking about our business. That's really the extent of my visits to the restaurants these days.

Between my family and the kids, I just don't have the time anymore to be out in the restaurants as much as I'd like to.

What are the challenges today's young chefs and restaurateurs can expect to face as they begin careers in the industry?

I'm not sure they're much different. I would say younger people today, to a certain extent, want to go from point A to D without going through B and C.

There's so much to be learned about the business by doing and working those hourly positions-understanding the basics of how a restaurant runs and what needs to happen on a daily basis in every department. That experience, to me, is invaluable.

Before you can lead and develop and direct, I think you need to know how things run. We see that today: Some restaurants get opened up by young people who have not laid all the groundwork necessary to excel and succeed.

When I started our restaurant company I was 29, our first restaurant opened effectively when I was 30. I think about how well I was prepared. I was very well prepared. I'd been in the business 12 years at the time. I went to the top culinary school in the country. I had worked in every different position in the business, every different management position. I had a very good understanding and grasp of the business.

But I know so much more today than I did then. I still think if I didn't have that framework and foundation in place when I started, I wouldn't have been able to be as successful as we are today, if I was able to be successful (at all). I think laying that framework is very, very important.

I talk to young people all the time (who say), 'I'm going to graduate from college and I'm going to start my first restaurant.' And I think, spend some time working for the best and studying the best and learning the job before you get out there and try to build one.

Does that explain why so many of your executives were chefs and have that ground-level experience?

Our company culture and philosophy is that we like to promote from within. Eighty percent of our managers all started as associates, hourly ranks. We like to promote from within whenever we can.

There's been a series of folks who've moved up through the ranks in the kitchen to the executive-chef level and into more senior positions in the company. That bodes well for them, because they understand that whole process of food development and food operation and now they're in a leadership role within the organization. It very much dovetails back with my original statement that I believe people need to go through the paces as they move up the ladder.

When did your process of career tracking and professional development begin for CMR associates?

Since day one. I think we as a business have a responsibility to our people. Our company culture and philosophy simply states that our associates come first. You'd think as the president of a restaurant company, I'd say the guest is most important. I don't think that-I think our associates are most important.

We spend our time taking care of our people, and our people take care of our guests, and our guests take care of our company. I don't even look at it as a direct relationship with our guests-I have a direct relationship with our people.

If that's part of your company credo, then I think we have a responsibility in that relationship with our people to take care of them and understand what their wants and needs and desires are; to help them with their career path and their career growth and help lead them through their career development.

How do you measure the effectiveness of that-the tangible results?

We have 4,000 people in the company. We all have different job descriptions. But we all have the same role in the company, and that is to make raving fans of the five groups of people we do business with: which are our fellow associates, our guests, our purveyors, our partners and our community. You have to belong to one of those constituencies to have any interaction with our company. So if we're successful of making raving fans of those five groups of people, we're successful in making raving fans of everybody we come in contact with.

Our people would not be in the business of making raving fans of all those folks if we, as a company, didn't make (them) raving fans of us. That is one tangible result.

Certainly turnover is extremely tangible. That's a number we benchmark every year. We measure everything we do. Our management turnover is about 13 percent and our hourly associate turnover is about 38-40 percent. Typical industry norm is more like 40 percent (for management) and closer to 100 percent for hourly. Turnover costs a lot of money to train and rehire.

When you have that type of longevity within your business, you have people that know what they're doing. It increases consistency with the guest experience.

We have an associate opinion survey twice a year within the company. We measure our culture and our values. We like to score 90-plus percentile in those categories, and one of those categories would be 'proud to work in my restaurant.' Ninety percent of our people say they're proud to work in our restaurants. When they're proud to work in our restaurants, they're proud to do a great job and take care of people. It's all intertwined.

Do you feel, on analtruistic level,that you're creating a better quality of life for workers in the restaurant industry by investing in them?

One of my goals is always to make it better for the people coming up behind me. We operate with the golden rule: We treat people the way we want to be treated. We're closed seven major holidays a year. We could make money on those holidays. But I don't really want to work on Thanksgiving or on the Fourth of July, so I don't really want our people to work.

We give personal days, which is also very rare in the restaurant industry. So for every week vacation, they get personal days. For every five years of service, a manager gets a week vacation. We will have managers in our company soon with 25 years; that would get five weeks of vacation plus five personal days, plus seven closed holidays. You're talking roughly two months of vacation time over the course of the year.

We quite simply want to have an A-plus work environment with an A-minus/B-plus pay package. Pay is not the number-one thing. We pay people well, but our biggest focus is on having an A-plus work environment.

How did you maintain that company culture as CMR was growing?

It's been one of our single biggest challenges over the years. As we open restaurants out of Columbus, how do we maintain that culture? The key to that is having home-grown people. We have made mistakes in the past, where we've opened up restaurants with outside-hire GMs or outside-hire executive chefs. They don't really live the culture and breathe the culture. Today, we very rarely-only when pushed, only when we absolutely have to –will open a restaurant with an outside-hire general manager or outside-hire executive chef.

We have all sorts of tools in place…I do all the orientations for the new restaurants myself personally. I talk about our company history and culture and values and how we operate. We set that expectation at the very beginning.

Some (CMR) restaurants outside of Columbus have better operating cultures than some do in Columbus. Culture's a living, breathing thing. You have to support it and develop it and manage it every single day.

Some restaurants are better than others depending on their leaders. We know though that if we don't get that culture instituted in a restaurant out of town right from the very beginning, it's just very difficult to create and get back.

A couple of cases back in our early days, it took us a couple of years to get the culture right at a restaurant that had not opened well and not opened right. We've learned through the years from the mistakes that we've made to prevent that going forward.

Whatare some positive ways your culture might be evolving as you succeed in an outside market?

It's the same as inside Columbus. That positive mental attitude, that positive culture, that positive environment permeates everything we do.

Job number-one is to maintain our culture and values. Job number 1A right behind that is to make profit-and to make a damn good profit. But we don't ever put profit ahead of our values and our culture.

To me the culture of a company or organization is the mortar that holds the bricks together…We measure it all the time. I don't ever want to wake up one day and have the brick wall collapse because we weren't tending to the culture and the values of our company.

When I talk about what I do for a living, I have five basic responsibilities in the company. Number one is chief culture officer. I tell people as long as I'm in this chair that our culture will be alive and well. I think that it's important for people who are working in our company and building careers in our company to understand that as well. If they believe that, then they believe that what they put into the company they'll get out. The more they put into the company, the more they'll get out. It keeps them fired up about the company.

What effect does it have that you're there on training day telling associates about the culture---that they see your face and hear it from you?

It's huge. They can't believe that I'm there. I hear it thousands of times: 'I can't believe the president of the company comes in and does this the first day.' What a statement that makes. It's so important to me that we deliver that message personally. Same with those roundtables…they can't believe they're sitting with the president of their business and talking about how things are going in their restaurant.

Those are very powerful tools and send very powerful messages.

What role has Buckeye Hospitality Construction has played in CMR's success?

One day (Construction Director Don Waller) came to me and said, 'I think we should become our own general contractor. I think we could save ourselves a lot of money.'

If you pay a general contractor ten-to-12-percent overhead, plus other conditions on a $2 million project, that's a couple hundred-thousand dollars. If you're doing five restaurants a year, that's a million bucks. You can save that. Ultimately we end up saving about five percent on our construction projects. We have our own labor now through Buckeye Hospitality Construction.

A couple things happen with that. We build our restaurants better because it's our own company. They work for us and they understand what we want a little more. So our construction overruns are always a little less.

We can make some of those mid-project revisions; before we'd have to go back and fix something. A lot of changes and corrections we can make along the way. Our restaurants open on time and within budget when it's our own construction company.

It generally results in a better quality of work, more efficient work and a lower cost of construction. Over time, we save enough money basically where we're paying for our restaurants. That's the benefit more than anything.

You introduce new concepts in Columbus then develop those brands (like the Ocean Club) on a national scale. Whatmakes Columbus a good launching pad for your restaurants?

First and foremost, it's my home. Usually we can pick good real estate because I know the market pretty well. Secondly, it's also just the fact that our home office is here. If we're opening a new concept in, say, Detroit, it'd be harder for us to get to and see and touch and feel.

When we open a new concept, it's not just once we open the doors; it takes a lot of tweaking and whittling and rethinking after we open to get it just right. You can never really get it right the first time. When we open up new concepts, some perform better than others. Some need more tweaking than others.

We don't always get it right the first time. A perfect example is the Barn we just opened up in New Albany. The concept was confusing our guests. We had the barbeque combinations, and succotash and baked beans, and then we had steaks. It was a high-end kind of facility, and yet we had servers in jeans. We had a menu in plastic, and yet it was expensive.

It was hurting our business and we weren't resonating with our guests the way that we'd like to. It showed on our OpenTable scores and everything else. We retooled that concept and made it more of a traditional steakhouse. We changed the china out, changed the menus out, changed the menu itself and the uniforms. Now, the Barn at Rocky Fork has some of our best OpenTable scores in the company. If that restaurant had been out of town, it would've been much harder to do that.

Columbus has a great reputation out there for being a great test market, and it is, I will absolutely agree with that. But I also think that plays far less importance than proximity to a home office: the fact that we're here and it's our home.

In the age of the celebrity chef, do you see yourself as having a public role to play, being a successful restaurant entrepreneur?

No. I've seen far too many people in this industry get hot. They get on the speaking circuits or the industry event circuit, the television shows. I've seen their restaurants become obsolete or struggle.

One of the things I've learned over time is that mental capital is the same as physical capital. You only have so much mental capital to spend.

If your mental capital is over here on building your career as a celebrity and on all the speaking circuits and so forth, then you're not over here running your business. I prefer to spend my mental capital on running our business.

I could spend my whole day doing speaking engagements if I wanted to. I try to shy away from that as much as I can. I still maintain a profile. I don't want to be a recluse, but at the same time my job is at the helm of the company.

Kitty McConnell is assistant editor.