Unorthodox CEO Blends 'Servant Leadership' Into a Winning Recipe

The question isn’t so much what Mike Rotondo will do for his company but, rather, just how far he is willing to go to support the franchise owners and employees that have turned the 600-plus Tropical Smoothie Cafes into a major player in the fast casual nutritional eating segment. 

A partial list includes the day he promoted the opening of a New York City store by handing out free smoothies to jaded Manhattanites. 

Or the time he bolstered morale at another store by donning a banana suit during a site visit.

Most recently, Rotondo went into the tank – a dunk tank, that is – to herald the grand opening of the chain’s 612th cafe in Wilmington, N.C.

“There is very little I wouldn’t do for this brand,” says Rotondo. “I’m kind of old school in that I don’t like asking someone to do something that I’m not willing to do myself.”  

The CEO has therefore been known on other occasions to clear tables, sweep floors and pitch in as needed should the pace unexpectedly pick up during visits to cafes spread across 43 states. 

“If you say a job is beneath you then there are very few jobs above you,” explains Rotondo, a native Illinoian who launched his food service career as a district manager for Wendy’s International.

Rotondo has embraced “servant leadership” to triple the number of Tropical Smoothie franchises during his five years at the helm. 

In the spirit of Tropical Smoothie, it is a model that strives whenever possible to blend management with transparency.  

Making nice with a gatekeeper, for example, is not a pre-requisite to getting a call through to the boss at Tropical Smoothie.

Because the boss, Rotondo,  passes his cellphone number along  to franchise operators, company officials and anyone in the system with reason to be in touch. 

He credits honesty with easing the burden of tough  decisions, such as a corporate determination that tied company-wide growth to an increase in the operator-subsidized national advertising budget.

 The Tropical Smoothie brass could have summarily doubled the advertising outlay for each franchise from one to two percent.

Tropical Smoothie chose instead to notify franchises of the change seven months in advance, a heads up that gave owners the opportunity to adjust the finances of each store accordingly. 

“We have to show people respect with our decisions,” Rotondo explains. “And we have to be out front from a communications standpoint.”

Rotondo is equally upfront about circumstances that transpire beyond the corporate suite. Now 55, he was on the cusp of moving from COO to CEO when a health issue threatened to derail his career if not  very existence. 

Rotondo now deadpans that a heart attack suffered by a top executive delivered an inconsistent message to the customers and employees of a brand with a menu emphasizing  “superfood” fruit blends, wraps and other nutritional items.

True to form, he seized the opportunity to lead by example Today, Tropical Smoothie employees are invited to join the CEO on daily and charity runs. The staff at the company’s Atlanta-area headquarters is moreover encouraged to avail themselves of on-site, free-of-charge fitness trainer.

His heart attack, says  Rotondo, had the unintentional consequence “changing lives around me.”

The lifestyle is also consistent with a company that appeals to is for health-conscious millennials – customers and, increasingly, franchise operators and employees alike. 

Rotondo rejects the perception that the 18- to 34-year-old  demographic is difficult to manage.  

What some construe as laziness, he sees as resourceful.

“Millenials know how to figure things out,” Rotondo says, citing young employees capturing work schedules and Power Points on smartphone cameras, a task he’s been known to undertake as a “Fred Flintstone with pencil and paper.” .  

Through trial and error, Rotondo has discovered that Millenials above all treasure flexibility and honesty.  

In that, they have much in common with the guy atop Tropical Smoothie Cafe.

Tech