CEO of the Year: Donatos' Jane Grote Abell

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Jane Grote Abell wants employees to feel comfortable bringing their principles to work. And the board chairwoman for Donatos leads by example.

It's a business philosophy she learned working alongside her dad, Jim Grote, in the family's original pizza shop on Thurman Avenue in the South Side of Columbus.

"He wanted to treat others the way he would want to be treated," she says. "We want people to be able to be their whole selves at work."

Grote Abell, who in 2003 spearheaded efforts to buy back the company from McDonald's, focuses on operating a company that offers a quality product, good customer service and a rewarding work environment. Donatos was the leading pizza chain in Technomic's Top 2014 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report released in May. Gross sales last year were $162 million.

To create the right work culture, Grote Abell teaches a class for new managers-and even hands out her cell phone number in the event that they have a concern that they feel should be brought to her attention.

The only time a manager ever reached out was in July when the company's computer system mistakenly created a coupon for a free 14-inch pizza. Customers shared the coupon on social media and local stores were inundated with orders-some even ran out of dough.

The team at the home office did everything it could to support its restaurants, Grote Abell said.

The home office compensated restaurants for the pizzas they gave away and extra wages they incurred during the incident. Grote Abell and others were on Facebook monitoring the situation and trying to appease customers.

She says she did not have to tell her team to make things right for the stores-a mix of franchise and company-owned operations-because they know the company's values and ethics.

"I don't have to be in those meetings," says Grote Abell, who stepped into the chairwoman role in 2010. "They know the right thing to do. The company is in such great hands."

By doing the right thing, they were following Grote Abell's advice for success in business: "Be yourself. Be true to who you are. Don't be afraid to live your values at work."

Assuming the role of chairwoman has allowed her to focus on the chain's mission of promoting goodwill through product and service and principles and people and public service. She and her father are heavily involved in revitalization efforts on the South Side. The Grote family donated $1.5 million to help fund the Reeb Community Center, a social services hub that is in the works at the former Reeb Elementary School. The center will offer job-training services, children's programing, hot meals and much more.

Her new role also allows her to spend more time with her family. She enjoys attending her daughters' school and sporting events. She likes to talk business with her son, who owns several fitness centers. When she and her father purchased back Donatos, she worked long hours restoring the business. It took her away from her family. The experience taught Grote Abell the value of work-life balance.

"I don't believe in regrets," she says. "I had to go through it in order to change who I am."

Moving forward, Grote Abell wants her team to focus on continually growing the business. She remembers standing with her father under the Donatos sign at the original location and him telling her that one day they would have stores around the world. The company currently has 154 locations in seven states. She took on her current role in part because she felt others in the company would be more suited to helping it grow.

"I know where my strengths are. I was influential in turning things around. CEO Tom Krouse is the person who can take us to that next level," she says. "It's about hiring people smarter than yourself and knowing when to get out of the way."

Future challenges would include things the company can't control-the price of cheese and other commodities and the economy, says Grote Abell, who adds she's more likely to wake up at night excited about possibilities for the business than worries.

"It won't inhibit our growth," she says. "Our people are the reason we are going to grow-our mission of making a quality pizza and bringing families together and our engagement with the community."

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.

Hear a selection of Grote Abell's favorite songs