Since 2015, Adrian Butler has served as Chief Information Officer for Dine Brands, one of the world’s largest full-service dining companies and franchisor of Applebee’s Grill + Bar and IHOP.
In this issue, Adrian shared with us his team’s successes in creating great experiences for guests and the disruptive technology trends that he believes will impact the restaurant industry in the future.
We also spoke with Adrian about how his upbringing on a farm and his time in the Air Force has enabled him to lead the technology organization for two of America’s most iconic and enduring brands, with approximately 3,700 locations in 18 countries.
Walk us through your CIO path. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and how did you progress to your current organization?
I grew up humbly in Louisiana on a farm, the ninth out of 10 children, and spent a lot of my time at a young age dreaming and thinking about the future. I vividly remember sitting there at 12 years old thinking about what life would be like off the farm. Along with getting my first 8-bit home computer – a Commodore VIC-20, I started writing down a list of goals.
First on that list was to pursue a data processing degree, which later became a computer science degree from Grambling State University. What drove my initial interest in the field was seeing TV commercials for Sperry Corporation and Burroughs, a global IT company, when they were merging and thinking that I could do that. The spokesperson talked about how the company provided electronics and IT solutions for the aerospace and defense industry and that intrigued me.
After college, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force which instilled in me this notion of relentless service while also opening my eyes to different applications of technology. My time in the military grounded and trained me in a large set of technology disciplines. I achieved the rank of captain with increased responsibilities across various IT disciplines; however, the leadership aspects of what the military taught set me on the course to lead at an enterprise level.
In the Air Force, I also had a lot of people who invested in me, serving as my mentors and coaches. They helped me to understand what it truly means to show up well every single day in all aspects of my life and the model I wanted to be as a leader. Obviously, technology is important, but I think the people aspect of it is what got me to where I am today – surrounding yourself with really smart, capable people, investing in them, and them investing back in you. I view it as servant leadership – to ground myself in the fact that leadership is not about being the most important person in the room. It is about ensuring that others in the room are given the space and tools to do and be at their best.
Would you consider yourself a CIO, a CTO, or a hybrid? Why? What are the essential differences?
While I lead our business as a CIO, I consider myself an enterprise business leader that happens to be at the intersection of a CIO and CTO.
Today’s successful businesses are highly integrated. I have to be able to provide strategic oversight and a point of view at the nexus of our business, franchisees, guests and technology. I also have to consider how IT impacts finance, business operations, and how we think about marketing – how we think about the brand. Certainly, I need to be able to lead an organization around our technology, but I believe in understanding and incorporating the entire organizational ecosystem is an important component of who I am and what I bring to the organization.
What initiatives have you overseen to date in your time with your organization? What’s on the horizon?
When I joined Dine Brands, technology was somewhat nascent, and it was an opportunity to set a vision – to come in and ask, “We know that technology is important, but what does that mean to us and how should we think about it?” The other big driver was, when I surveyed the restaurant industry, it was dramatically under-served in technology. I felt that I could play a big role in not only transforming my organization, but because of where we sit as two very iconic brands – the largest casual dining restaurant chain in the country, as well as the largest family dining restaurant chain – I felt that I could help change the industry.
The big part in the initial stages was helping the organization to get its mind wrapped around what technology means for the restaurant industry – how our guests think about that. I’m proud first and foremost of being able to build a successful, highly capable, highly charged team, focused on helping to deliver that vision for the organization.
From a technology perspective, we’ve built a set of digital capabilities, from the front end and back end of the house, all with the guest in mind by understanding their behaviors and needs when it comes to using technologies to simplify their experience. It’s about creating truly great experiences for our guests. The most important part of that experience is the food and service, but we are using technology to control that experience. We built a set of technologies around allowing guests to order and pay on their own devices, or through a connected car experience with GM, as another example.
How our guests interact with our brands digitally has changed dramatically. For example, delivery today – the Uber Eats and DoorDashes of the world – didn’t exist even just a few years back. My team is part of helping to build that for our organization, which has been a big part of our growth.
Also, unlike other industries where you have a lot more insight about your guests, our industry is different. If you decide right now to go to an IHOP for breakfast, how do I know you’re coming? Therefore, we’ve built for ourselves a set of data and business analytics capabilities that allow our stakeholders and leaders to be able to make more informed decisions around, for instance, the types of offers we put forth.
As I think about the future, data will be the key driver on how we are able to interact and engage with a guest and tailor to their needs. Think about a restaurant occasion. You go into the restaurant sometimes because you’re by yourself and in a hurry. That’s a totally different occasion than when a family comes in. Understanding guests in these different occasions and how we can better serve them are essential components. It boils down to having a richer set of insights and data about guests by machine learning or AI.
Secondly, I’m excited about the work we’re doing to help our franchisees more efficiently run their restaurants and make them more profitable, which is one of my big jobs. For example, for alleviating labor pressures, it’s about creating tools for restaurants like table-side ordering, server tablets, and the like.
How do you foresee your organization being different in two years, and how do you see yourself shaping that change?
One of the jobs that I’ve taken on is raising the overall technology acumen of our organization. I want to ensure that we understand the role that technology can play, how we should think about employing it, how we should think about using it to further differentiate the business. We are in the midst currently of our own transformation – a 2.0 version, if you will.
I would consider the 1.0 version to be what I had initially laid out when I got here, moving from being very back office to more business and franchisee facing. The current evolution is moving now to being even more engineering and architecturally oriented, creating more technical capacity for us to deliver iteratively. We’re in the midst of evolving our organization to a product-based model from more of a project-based model, as well as moving from a hybrid waterfall-agile to more pure agile. The way that we work and how we partner and collaborate with our brand teams is essential for us to be successful.
This transformation is a big change that’s going to yield great results. As we think about building these business capabilities, I truly want to drive disruption and differentiation within our brands. We believe that by organizing this way, it allows us to be faster and get to a place before our competitors can.
Share your thoughts on the availability of IT talent. What strategies do you employ, and what’s different in your organization?
In partnership with my HR partner, we’ve taken a multi-fold approach to talent acquisition. One is to build up awareness in L.A. and in Kansas City, where we have a large number of team members so that talent know who we are. Everyone knows IHOP and Applebee’s, but very few people think about the technology behind these iconic brands. Therefore, I’ve been excited to partner with our marketing and communication leadership here at Dine Brands to go into communities and talk about the exciting work we are doing for Applebee’s and IHOP and Dine Brands corporate.
The second part is being thoughtful and strategic about building up the right team. I look for people who have a perspective and who also have the passion to serve as advocates for our organization. Part of our storyboard is two iconic brands who impact a million guests every single day. You get to build technology that can scale and will impact all kinds of people on an ongoing basis.
We look for talent at all levels, including entry level. We have great relationships with colleges and universities and building an IT intern program. As we go through the transformation 2.0 that I talked about, part of that is creating an on-ramp to our organization at the college level, which then permeates to more senior opportunities.
What new or disruptive technology issues or emerging trends do you think will impact your industry in the future?
We are a franchise business that provides a set of capabilities and a brand to our franchisees, and they go out and run great, successful restaurants. So, part of my job is to help balance the places where we should invest that will provide value to them, and ultimately to our guests, being very mindful that this is a pennies margin business. Getting data, analytics, AI and machine learning right are essential for us, and I think we’re at a nascency there as an industry.
Also, I don’t think we have fully explored digital, social and mobile as an industry. There is still a lot of work to be done that retail has already conquered on being able to personalize experiences and combine the digital and physical set of experiences to create a unified view for guests. I also continue to think about how guests interact with technology. There’s a lot built into what a guest brings into the restaurant, and we are still looking at providing devices versus what they already bring themselves and further utilizing that experience.
If you think about industries in general, these are not net new ideas. There are some emerging leaders in the restaurant technology space, and we want to be one of those. There are models in the marketplace that we can learn from, then apply and tailor specifically to our restaurants.
What personal traits and attributes are essential for today’s CIO versus 10 to 20 years ago?
Strategic influence, having a strategic voice and not being only one thing is the biggest difference. Something that my CEO shares with me is that he wants me to participate in a broader range of things beyond just my seat. That’s a dramatic evolution from certainly ten years ago, but definitely 20 years ago.
Another is the ability to convey business value. I’m asked this question regularly by our franchisees. It is different from technology being perceived as a cost center. We are being asked to now drive business results.
Being able to sit down and have very specific, detailed discussions with other business leaders is also essential today. Where, before, IT perhaps was relegated to talking about the bits and bytes of the business, I am infrequently asked about that – it’s assumed that my teams and I are going to take care of that. I’m being asked about strategic preparedness, how we get there from here, and what role technology has to play more than I’ve ever seen before.
What advice would you give for someone who aspires to be a CIO?
Be inquisitive. Be open to new things, new ideas, new ways, new approaches. In my journey, I’ve been unafraid to take opportunities that didn’t necessarily fit with how others may have perceived the world order to be. I’ve lived in several different places, so demonstrating courage by being open to moving has been a big part of that for me.
Another is, when you don’t know something, seek out those who you admire. Develop peer mentoring relationships. The biggest part of my journey has been what people have poured into me. What I’ve learned in my career is what I give is always reciprocated at multiple folds. Invest in others and create a network that you can rely on as your career evolves. You’ll learn technologies as you go, but the relationships that you establish and how you go about this journey is what will be your testament in the end.
How do you decompress from the challenges of being a CIO? What do you do for fun?
I have three children, and what energizes and motivates me is that I want to be the example that they can follow – that they can look back and say that their dad was always available, that he loved them and tried to change the world for good. I decompress by spending time with them and enjoying who they are. I also like exercise. My wife and I go walking and hiking to keep fit, while also spending time with each other and remaining connected.
Who have been your biggest influences, and why?
I’ll put my father and mother out in front. I talked about a humble upbringing, and I’m glad that’s the experience I had. My parents got up every single day wanting better for their children than they had for themselves. They also modelled a certain work ethic and integrity that molded me. They provided leadership within my family. So, I say, proudly, who I am started there, and they are the most important influence in my career and life.
Not to be cliché, but as I left the Air Force, I didn’t know what life was like outside of the military. I was fortunate to have a partner at the time – who’s now my wife – who helped to guide me through that transition. Ever since, she has been my partner in every decision that I have made relative to my career. She’s a sounding board and also the chief motivator in the family when it’s necessary to help me to get energized, engaged and focused.
Professionally, there are two people outside of my family who have been instrumental. My first boss in the Air Force was Robert Kremer. He was a captain at the time and showed me what leadership was. I got to see in action every single day how he carried himself, interacted with others, motivated, coached and corrected. There were times when he uplifted me and times of tough love. Ultimately, he modelled something that I recognized as being it.
Jeff Mader recruited me at Target for three years before I finally decided to take a position there, which demonstrated tenacity. But when I got there, he poured into me more than I could have ever imagined and helped me as I navigated my journey. He truly cares about the organization and people but also has a great deal of experience.
Which books have you gifted the most over your career?
The Servant by James Hunter, which speaks to the essence of what I believe true leaders are. A leader should enter a relationship with the best outcomes of all parties involved versus what’s in it for the leader. I think selflessness is essential for leadership. Not command and control, but a leader who is there with the troops, participating in what is necessary.
These days, what I find myself reading and giving out a lot more than books are Harvard Business Review articles on influence and transformation because we’re going through this transformation, but also toward the attributes that are necessary for success.
If you weren’t doing the job that you have today, what would be your dream job?
I had aspirations to be an Air Force general. That was the dream job. I could just as easily still be in the Air Force. My experience there was exceptional. I loved the mission and the opportunities that I was given.
What would you want our readers to know about you that we haven’t asked?
As I’ve gotten more seasoned in my career, I’ve begun to think about my life in reverse around the decisions that I make. I’ll also emphasize that leadership is essential for us as CIOs and technologists. My advice is you shouldn’t shirk the responsibility of being more than people may perceive of you. Everyone can be a business leader.