Lawrence A. Appley, author of numerous management articles and texts, once stated: “he who can manage, can manage anything”. This statement assumes that management skills are transferrable from business to business and from industry to industry. Through my experience I would beg to differ and this has been proven out time and time again as highly successful leaders move from one company to another and experience significant failure. Management of any business requires a deep understanding of the product, the work environment, the people who work in those environments and the customers whom they serve. Leadership, on the other hand, is transferrable because leadership involves an ability to understand how to create environments for people who have the requisite skills to self-motivate. Leaders transform great employees into competent managers in their respective disciplines by setting them on a path of growth and success. You can lead a business without having the depth of knowledge that a manager must possess, but I find it difficult to imagine the opposite.
On rare occasions leaders can be great managers when their focus is the development of people while constantly working at understanding the business they are in, the make up of people who perform on a daily basis, and the dynamic of the guest who pays for the product or service. When this happens, that person is sought out by many for advice and expertise and the professional opportunities that come their way continues to blossom. Kevin O’Donnell is a person with solid management skills in the area of hospitality and the leadership savvy that allows him to wear many hats, walk into varied opportunities, and do so with a high level of success.
Kevin is, in the State of Vermont, one of the most respected hospitality professionals. His background in recent years includes: Director of Operations for Shelburne Farms, Innkeeper at The Old Tavern at Grafton, Vice President of Food Operations at New England Culinary Institute, a member of the Vermont Fresh Network Board of Directors, active member of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, faculty member at SUNY Cobleskill, part of the management team at Hunger Mountain Coop and Principal of Llenroc Consulting. There were many positions prior to this string of success that rumor has it includes food operations at a major convention center and even manager of a dude ranch out west. His career track would certainly make for a very interesting hospitality business version of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie”.
Kevin has agreed to this interview as a way to lay out the opportunities for others who seek the chance to be decision makers, move a business forward and at the same time inspire others to reach their potential.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in food and beverage?
“Like most people who enter the hospitality business I started off with a simple need for a job with a paycheck. I washed dishes and was involved in some food prep. The desire and passion started to bubble inside of me when I was ready to contemplate going to college and thus decided to attend culinary school.”
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“Four individuals became my mentors: Cole Barnard and Stan Nevins from SUNY Cobleskill as well as Dean Robert Beck and Richie Moran from Cornell University.”
“These four individuals put me on the path that I have pursued my entire life. As a student at Cobleskill; Cole Barnard was the dean of the newly formed culinary program and as fate would have it a Cornell Hotel School graduate himself. His intuitive sense coupled with that of head Lacrosse coach Stan Nevins resulted in a scheme to have me attend Cornell. Why is this important to bring up? Well, I was a good student and an all-American junior college lacrosse player approaching graduation. I had been accepted to either enter into a European full-blown culinary apprenticeship or go to another SUNY school and pursue a degree in an unrelated field. At the 11th hour unbeknownst to me, Dean Barnard and Coach Nevins applied to Cornell for me (back in those days we did not have the privacy issues we have today and they could literally fill out the entire application). I was processed and notified by the head lacrosse coach that I had been accepted to Cornell. You can only imagine my surprise!!!! In addition, they offered me a full scholarship to boot! So my next decision would ultimately change my life…go to Europe and start an apprenticeship that was a contractual agreement for seven years or go to Cornell for four years. The epiphany was crystal clear, run a kitchen in a hotel or run the entire hotel. I chose the later. Cole Barnard and Coach Nevins saw something in me at the age of seventeen that sent me into my life’s passion. At Cornell Both Dean Beck and Coach Moran nurtured my passion, helped me get through some difficult times and continued to push me to become the person I am today. Without those four individuals I’m not sure I would even be in this business today. “
3. How would others describe your style of management?
“Because of my athletic career, I would say that I am more a coach than a traditional manager. I have enjoyed a great deal of success with this style and note that there are many similarities between what happens on a playing field and what happens in the hospitality business.”
4. Do you have a business philosophy that drives your operational decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“I believe in doing the “right thing”. This is not always the easiest way to operate, but it is always pretty obvious. Couple this with the fact that the hospitality business is all about service and the result should always be: choose your attitude, do the right thing and provide the best service possible.”
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said: “yes, this is what I need to do”. “I remember the first time I went to the NYC Hotel Show in the old Coliseum and visiting the food competition with all the incredibly talented chefs displaying their works of art…. It was simply stunning and it confirmed my passion .The following year I won a gold medal as a student competing in the show.”
6. What is your pet peeve about working in the food and beverage industry?
“My pet peeve is that so many folks who enter the hospitality industry are only passing through and do not have the same passion and love for the business that I do. The classic line is “I’m only doing this until I get…” fill in the blank, and therefore do not have the same commitment as I do. My second pet peeve is not cooking food the way the customer wants it! Hell, if a customer wants a burnt T-bone steak and likes it that way and is willing to pay the going price…cook it the way they want!!! Unfortunately, a typical comment from the chef is: it’s an insult to my culinary talents….Hell, do you think the customer really cares about what you think of yourself?”
7. Who are the most valuable players in the operations where you currently work?
“Always the hourly employees with the dishwasher being one of those individuals often overlooked. As a manager I am only as good as my hourly staff.”
8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks, bakers or hospitality students looking to make their mark in this business, what would you tell them?
“This is a hard business and either you LOVE this or you are not in it. If you don’t love making people happy this is not the business for you.”
9. When you hire people to work in your business what traits are you looking for?
“Personally, I look for soft skills, those that allow folks to be successful through communication and being a team player. Great attitudes are critical. I believe people with great attitudes are very coachable and can absorb what I have to offer as a manager.”
10. If you were not working in food and beverage, what would you choose to do for a career?
“I would be a lacrosse coach.”
11. What would you like people to know about your current business and the products or services that you produce or sell?
“As a consultant, I have an opportunity to coach and assist operations and professionals and in the process it’s important to be true to personal values, do the right thing and most often it’s about informing my client about what they do not want to hear. That’s the job of a consultant.”
This is what a few colleagues had to say about Kevin as a manager, coach and leader:
Chef/Partner at CROP VT Bistro & Brewery
“Kevin was an excellent director of operations and very focused on the development of his staff. He has great customer service instincts and skills. He was often hard to work with because he pushed his staff to think outside of the box and work harder. I am a better senior manager because of his work with me. I highly recommend working with him.
March 25, 2009, Thomas reported to Kevin G. at The Old Tavern at Grafton.”
Head of Digital Strategy at Seventh Generation
“I’ve known Kevin for over five years and have had the pleasure to work with him on several co-branded marketing initiatives. His knowledge of “Brand Vermont,” dedication to the end customer, and ability to manage his team are top-tiered. As a leader in the hospitality industry, The Old Tavern is extremely lucky to have him, as is the state of Vermont.
January 1, 2009, Reid was with another company when working with Kevin G. at The Old Tavern at Grafton.”
I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Kevin for more than 25 years. From those early days when he was Director of Operations at Shelburne Farms I always referred to Kevin as the type of manager and leader that served as a role model for others. From 2008-2012 I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with Kevin at New England Culinary Institute. It was in this capacity that I recognized Kevin’s desire and innate ability to coach others from students to operational staff and inspire them to be all that they could be. He is the consummate hotelier and leader.
**The picture on this post is of Kevin O’Donnell with a friend and Cornell Classmate, the prominent New York restaurateur: Drew Nieporent – Myriad Restaurant Group.
To learn more about Kevin O’Donnell and the operations that he has been a part of, visit these websites:
Vermont Fresh Network
The Old Inn at Grafton
Hunger Mountain Coop