Female entrepreneur analyzes data to achieve greatness
As a society we have built up a mythos around our greatest leaders and entrepreneurs, telling ourselves that it is their willingness to trust their gut and follow their intuition that has made them successful. Some of the most popular quotes attributed to powerhouses such as Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson involve them speaking of their reliance on intuition in the decision-making process. However, although intuition can be a helpful tool, providing a hunch or spark that starts you down a particular path, it would be a mistake to base all decisions around a mere gut feeling.
Within the last five years we have made significant advancements in information technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and advanced analytics, and by leveraging the wealth of digital insights now available at your fingertips and embracing the power of business intelligence, it’s possible to make more informed decisions that will lead to commercial growth, evolution, and an increased bottom line. Humanity generates more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day, meaning it’s never been easier for a business to collect, analyze and interpret data into real, actionable insights. In short, a business has no excuse to not be data-driven in their decision making.
Data-driven decision making is the process of making organizational decisions by collecting data, extracting patterns and facts from that data and utilizing those facts to make inferences that influence decision-making. By collecting data based on measurable goals or key performance indicators (KPIs) and analyzing the patterns and facts derived from these insights, they can be used to develop strategies and activities that will benefit a business in a number of areas. This is not a new concept in and of itself, but whereas collecting, extracting, formatting and analyzing insights were once time-consuming tasks that delayed the entire decision-making process, today’s information technologies empower leaders by giving them the ability to quickly and efficiently garner insights.
For Laura Rea Dickey, what gets measured gets managed. Dickey has been CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. since 2017, and prior to that held the position of CIO for a number of years with the company during which time she was one of the first executives within the fast-casual industry to recognize the practical applications of artificial intelligence and big data within their sector. Dickey’s work implementing these technologies into the Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. business model has seen her recognized on a national level, with both Forbes, Fast Casual and the Wall Street Journal profiling the company’s efforts. She has also been named a “Top Women in Technology” by the Dallas Business Journal and has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Hospitality Technology. Most recently, she was named #4 on the Top 25 Fast Casual Executives. Below, we explore her work building a company with a data-driven culture.
The original Dickey’s Barbecue Pit opened over 80 years ago in Dallas, Texas. Combining his love of Texas barbecue and good conversation, World War I veteran Travis Dickey purchased a smoker and spent his days preparing beef brisket and pit hams, all while his wife Ollie worked the front counter, ringing people up while assembling the sandwiches and serving sides of barbecue beans, potato chips, beer, bottled milk and sodas. Their small little business was a far cry from the barbecue powerhouse it would one day become, but over the next twenty years through hard work and grit they turned their little restaurant into a popular local staple.
Travis and Ollie’s sons Roland Sr. and T.D. stepped up to run the restaurant after their father’s passing, and quickly realized that the popularity of their parents’ business meant that they could open additional locations. Expanding across the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, the brothers eventually reached their limits on the number of restaurants they felt they could manage themselves and decided to branch into franchising. The first franchisees of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit are still open and operating their location today, and Roland Sr. and T.D. continued to add more locations to their new franchise business, eventually moving out of state to explore the reception of Texas barbecue in other parts of the country.
A new era
Roland Sr.’s son Roland Jr. became the third generation to run the family business, taking over as CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. in 2006. Roland Jr.’s vision for the company involved scaling rapidly, and he knew that he would need someone with their finger on the pulse of the latest technologies and marketing trends in order to do so. He also happened to know somebody with just those characteristics: his wife Laura Rea. Laura Rea was an up-and-coming marketing whiz, at the time having worked for agencies on a number of national brand projects such as Blue Mesa, Chick-Fil-A, La Madeleine, the American Heart Association, and W Hotels, and was initially hesitant to make a career shift. Roland Jr. brought her on as a consultant to formalize marketing and community marketing, technology and communications, allowing her to have the flexibility to decide whether the role was right for her.
It turned out to be the perfect fit, and Laura Rea soon transitioned into the role of CIO for the company. Working in practically every department of the business from IT to team training, she proved vital to transforming the way the company viewed and utilized information as it expanded, managing the implementation and usability of information and computer technologies. As the company began to ramp up its expansion efforts, Laura Rea sought to make sure that the company was able to expand with purpose by making it easier to generate and access data. She partnered with the big data and business intelligence service provider iOLAP to develop a proprietary data system. Calling the program SmokeStack, it synthesized data from the company’s point-of-sale systems, marketing promotions, loyalty programs, customer surveys and inventory systems to provide real-time feedback on sales and other performance indicators. This innovative program was essential in allowing the company to scale quickly, as they were able to gather data from multiple aspects of the business that was pivotal in speeding the decision-making process and choice of direction.
By 2017 the company had exploded in growth, and a corporate restructuring was necessary to better organize the business. Roland Jr. became CEO of the newly created parent company Dickey’s Capital Group, and thanks to Laura Rea’s work in advancing data technology in the fast-casual sector, she was the natural choice to become CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. Although a lucrative market, it was becoming increasingly saturated and Laura Rea’s pursuit of information technology implementation gave the company a competitive edge over the competition. Utilizing the data presented to her on customer’s dining preferences, she pioneered the company’s third-party delivery program, anticipating the popularity of the option and resulting in positive same-store sales in all digital channels for three years in a row. She also continued to expand the SmokeStack program, launching a consumer app on the iOS store and utilizing Amazon’s voice technology within restaurant operations. Franchise operators must often serve the dual role of pit master and business manager, meaning that they spend as much time in the kitchen as they do at their desk, and through Amazon’s AI virtual assistant Alexa they are able to receive crucial sales data analysis without having to leave the kitchen or waste any time trying to synthesize data themselves.
Thanks to Laura Rea Dickey’s work pushing for data-driven decision making within her business, Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants grew rapidly, adding over 400 locations in five years. Today, they have over 550 franchise locations across 46 states, as well as two international locations and more planned for the future.