Milwaukee Talks: Cousins Subs president Christine Specht
Even though Cousins Subs president and COO Christine Specht is the daughter of the company's founder, it wasn't a given she'd someday lead the popular Milwaukee sub chain.
Rather, Specht spread her wings, only to return to the organization a decade ago to head its HR department. She's been been president of the company for the last three years, and in that time, Specht has overseen a new brand identity campaign that has ushered her in as Cousins' spokesperson. In her early 30s, Specht admits she's relatively young to run a company of 150 stores – and growing – but Specht says the new creative reinforces that her business is a family one that focuses on quality and dining experience.
Specht lives in Brookfield, but Cousins is based in Menomonee Falls. Halfway through our interview, an announcement came over the intercom. "Attention, there's free bread in our training kitchen. Help yourself."
"This is the beauty of having a training kitchen here," says Specht. "When we have new franchisees or store managers, they're making subs."
In this latest Milwaukee Talks, we discussed coming home, differentiating Cousins from its competitors and the growth strategy of the 40-year-old local business that hangs its hat on "better bread, better subs."
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me the Cousins story, in your own words.
Christine Specht: The short story is that it was founded by my parents and my dad's cousin in 1972. My dad and his cousin are from Atlantic City, so when my dad moved out here and married my mom, this is where his home was. He was in the printing business but missed the East Coast style sub sandwich, so he recruited his cousin to come on out and open the first Cousins Subs. That's where you get the name; they really are cousins.
Cousins grew organically from there. They didn't have a master plan of developing more and more units. They really just wanted to provide a business for their families and do something they really loved. It worked, and it was successful, and Milwaukee really caught on.
OMC: Back in the day, there weren't tons of sub options in Milwaukee, were there?
CS: There are so many more competitors today than there were back then. Really, the main competitor would've been Suburpia. We were very fortunate to have the market share in the Milwaukee area. Now, Subway is the giant.
OMC: You didn't just walk into the role of president of this company, did you?
CS: I was working in the restaurants when I was 15 – I couldn't wait. I worked at our Germantown location, and it was great. But there was no dinnertime discussions with my family where they said, "One day you're going to be doing this."
I have an older brother who is a franchisee of three restaurants. Same with him – he grew up in the stores and moved on, and my parents allowed me to explore my own interests. I have a bachelor's degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette. I volunteered for a year after college with homeless families in Florida. I went to grad school at American University with a degree in public administration. I held two internships that had some HR focus, but I didn't know at the time the importance that would play in my entree back into Cousins Subs.
I had the opportunity to come back to Cousins professionally in 2001, running the HR department. I felt it was the right time to be part of the business again. Even then, there still wasn't this succession plan.
OMC: Did it feel like you were working for the family business at that point?
CS: It always feels like a family business. I'm the president and COO; my dad is the CEO, so I report to him. Really, we have a nice group of individuals at the corporate office with a lot of tenure.
OMC: You have about 150 stores, but they're mostly in the Midwest. I did see a Cousins once in Phoenix, though. What's your growth strategy?
CS: We have 16 corporately owned stores here in the Milwaukee area, and the rest are franchised. That is our desired method for growth for the future. We really try to focus on contiguous growth. Our next major strategy of development would be Minnesota and Arizona, because we have some presence there.
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Blurondo - I've seen Wendy Selig and Wendy is no Christine when it comes to looks. That said, the Cousin's commercials come across kind of snippy.
The very best to Christine, but I vividly recall a similar scenario with a family named Selig.
OMC: Why is that when I go to Jimmy John's it takes 10 seconds to get my sub, but Cousins takes five or 10 minutes? I'm so glad you asked that question. I drive past Cousins on my way to Jimmy Johns every time, because I know they're going to be handing me my sandwich before I've even decided what kind of chips I want. At Cousins, sometimes it feels like you place your order, and then they start baking the bread for your sub. Takes way too long.
It is a family business. She was probably groomed for the job since her chi childhood. Can you imagine if a family run company went out and hired someone not in the family? My family owned a clothing store in Illinois for 100 years before it closed in 2007. I was going to be the next in line. Imagine how pissed I would have been if my dad said "You know I think i am going to hire this hot shot Northwestern Business School Graduate to run the store" It is a family business and I am happy that she is keeping it in the family. And I bet if you asked cousins they would say "yes she got it cause she was in the family" They have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. FYI: She is super hot!!
Hopefully this move works out well for Cousins because they have been a fixture in our community. I realize that the company line is that she didn't get this job because of who her Dad is, but let's be realistic here. That's a pretty thin resume to turn over a Company this size to. With succession planning being such a critical aspect of any business it's also surprising that they didn't develop anyone else internally who would have been better qualified to take on this role. I'm not going to say she can't grow into the role, but just admit that the last name had a great deal to do with getting the job.
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