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Cousins Subs CEO Christine A. Specht: “To develop resilience, put yourself in challenging situations”

Put yourself in challenging situations. This goes along with my point that it’s important to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. For me, that means continuously improving our financial outlook. I did not go to school for finance, nor have I held finance-related roles. So, I align with experts on our leadership team to make the right financially […]

Put yourself in challenging situations. This goes along with my point that it’s important to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. For me, that means continuously improving our financial outlook. I did not go to school for finance, nor have I held finance-related roles. So, I align with experts on our leadership team to make the right financially driven decisions to grow our business. Some of those decisions were not easy nor comfortable… We also reorganized and parted ways with a quarter of our support center team. Saying goodbye to so many colleagues was extremely difficult. However, it was the right decision for the company. It led to a stronger support center team with the right people in the right seats. Our decision to retract paved the way for purposeful growth…


I had the pleasure to interview Christine A. Specht, CEO of Cousins Subs. Christine grew up with Cousins Subs — the sub sandwich franchise her father, Bill Specht, founded with his cousin two years before she was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While attending Milwaukee Lutheran High School, she learned the ropes of the family business by working in the restaurant. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette University and a master’s degree in public administration from American University, she returned to the family business. Specht has held the roles of Vice President of Human Resources, Chief Operating Officer, President and CEO, and she now serves as the company’s CEO. She has successfully brought new life to a legacy brand by leading a series of system changes, including: a largescale rebranding strategy to establish consistency and unify the brand in look and feel across all locations, the implementation of grills in restaurants and the inclusion of Cousins Subs’ Midwest heritage throughout its menu with signature products including subs served with all Wisconsin cheeses, Wisconsin Mac & Cheese and Wisconsin Cheese Curds. Specht serves on several boards. She is the chair of the MRA board, chair of the Concordia University Wisconsin Ann Arbor Foundation board, member of the Concordia University Wisconsin Board of Regents and member of the First Federal Bank of Wisconsin board. She also serves as the president of the Cousins Subs Make It Better Foundation board. In 2018, Specht was honored as one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Women of Influence and recognized in FastCasual magazine’s “Women in the Lead” series. She lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband J.J. and two sons Reagan and Harrison.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I grew up with Cousins Subs — the sub sandwich chain my dad, Bill Specht, founded with his cousin in 1972. In fact, my first job was at the Cousins Subs in Germantown, Wisconsin.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette University and a master’s degree in public administration from American University, I returned to the family business. I have held the roles of Vice President of Human Resources, Chief Operating Officer, President and CEO, and now serve as CEO. I have successfully brought new life to the legacy brand by leading a series of system changes, including: a largescale rebranding strategy to establish consistency and unify the brand in look and feel across all locations, the implementation of grills in restaurants and the inclusion of Cousins Subs’ Midwest heritage throughout its menu with signature local products including subs served with Wisconsin cheeses, Wisconsin Mac & Cheese and Wisconsin Cheese Curds.

I proudly serve on a number of boards, including: chair of MRA — The Management Association, chair of the Concordia University Wisconsin Ann Arbor Foundation board, member of the Concordia University Wisconsin Board of Regents and member of the First Federal Bank of Wisconsin board. I also serve as the president of the Cousins Subs Make It Better Foundation board and member of the Cousins Subs Board of Directors. I previously served on the board of Community Memorial Hospital, Lutheran Living Services, Wisconsin Restaurant Association Milwaukee Chapter and Grace Lutheran Church.

In 2018, I was honored as one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Women of Influence and recognized in FastCasual magazine’s “Women in the Lead” series.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

In 2008, the company’s direction was not certain. We were experiencing a series of challenges, including: unhappy franchisees, tired and aging restaurants, ongoing cost control issues in labor and goods, increasing competition, the economic recession and no real plan for sustained growth. We could stay the course and let the brand ride into the sunset; still profitable, but with diminishing results. Or, we could put together a strategy to turn the brand around and achieve success like never before.

I believe wholeheartedly in our brand, so I presented an analysis of our challenges to my father who was CEO at the time. I took a step-by-step approach, outlining individual issues the company was facing and a plan to overcome them. Serving as Vice President of Human Resources at the time, and a part of the company’s leadership team, I was privy to information surrounding our business challenges and had built relationships with employees who readily gave me their opinions in various company matters — good and bad. Accompanying the analysis of challenges was a strategy to turn the business around. My father liked what he saw. So much so, I was appointed president of the company and given the resources to put my plan into action to strengthen the brand.

One key lesson I learned from this experience is power, pay and promotion come with a price. To achieve the success you want, you must work hard, go for it and present good and results-driven ideas. When you do, you make your career goals known and achievable.

Another lesson I learned is to be comfortable being uncomfortable. To me, this means accepting the unknown. As a leader, you won’t know it all. And that’s ok. But, it’s your responsibility to find the answers and purposefully drive the business, your team and your peers forward.

Lastly, don’t wait to take purposeful action. It’s important to recognize there will never be a zero-risk situation because success can’t be achieved without (small or large) taking risks. Use key insights from customer data and business results to make sound decisions in a timely manner. At this day in age, we have infinite resources to detect, monitor and pivot to meet our guests’ needs in real time.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The restaurant industry is a crowded place, and it’s more important than ever before that Cousins Subs is distinguished from our competitors. For a while we’ve believed our authentic Midwest roots set us apart from our peers. To prove it, we conducted research and focus groups. Knowing our story connects with our guests, we put an increased emphasis on promoting our brand story.

We’re proud to be a family-owned business that was founded on a promise of making and selling sub sandwiches fashioned after the east-coast style subs, my father enjoyed as a child, with a Midwest influence. Our locations have been remodeled to promote our rich history, community commitment and cuisine philosophy to better connect with our customers, and our company mission has remained the same. Since 1972, we’ve operated with it front-of-mind — we Believe in Better through the continuous improvement in everything we do — and we run our company with the mindset of constantly striving for better.

Through our research we learned guests appreciate that our company name is a direct representation of our history — a sandwich shop founded by two cousins. Research also reinforced our belief that our original, proprietary bread recipe from 1972 is a fan favorite. We proudly use the recipe today. Our bread is baked fresh in-store two or three times per day.

We believe quality has no substitute. Our food is as advertised — deli fresh, grilled to order and made to order. What sets us apart is our ingredients. We have a long-standing relationship with local venders to bring the taste of our home state to guests by adding locally sourced products to our menu whenever we can and we slice our meats, Wisconsin cheeses and veggies fresh throughout the day.

We will always be a community partner. Since 1972 it’s been about more than creating quality sub sandwiches; it’s been about making a difference for those in the communities we call home. In 2013, we founded our Make It Better Foundation to support the vital community needs of hunger, youth education and health and wellness. Since then, we’ve proudly donated more than $500,000 in hyperlocal grants to more than 80 nonprofit organizations to make it better for the children and families in the communities we call home.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I attribute a lot of my success to my supportive parents who have championed my growth through education. From under grad to graduate school to a study abroad program, they’ve encouraged me to pursue educational opportunities that are of interest to me although they were not closely related to restaurant management.

I’m sure many folks who grew up with a family business can relate. There’s often pressure or an obligation to assume responsibility of the business even if it’s not the career path you desire. This can lead to the peril of the business in the long run. I’m forever grateful that my parents did not pressure me to take over the family business. I found my way to the CEO seat by exploring my passions and growing through various jobs. I returned to the company when I felt I could make the biggest impact. At that time, and today, it’s exactly where I’m meant to be.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

To me, a resilient person can bounce back after a challenge. He or she possesses grit and can lead a team or company to glory. A resilient person can persevere through challenging times and has thick skin. He or she can stay focused on the goal or objective, even when things go sideways.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I am an avid reader and I just finished the book ‘Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything’ by Colonel Carlyle “Smitty” Harris and Sara W. Berry. The book told the story of Colonel Harris, an 8-year prisoner of war who was shot in Vietnam in April of 1965. Colonel Harris spent time at various prisons, most notably the Hanoi Hilton. During this challenging time, he and other prisoners of war experienced extreme adversity and learned ways to survive, communicate and maintain morale. Upon release, Colonel Harris reunited with his family. He continues to live a purposeful and fulfilled life despite his life-altering experience. He faced the most extreme conditions and could have easily given up and accepted defeat. Instead, he remembered his duty to country and God and it guided him to persevere.

Stories of heroes like Colonel Harris who have overcome adversity put life in perspective. We live a free life because of the dedication of our selfless soldiers. It’s our responsibility to leave a positive mark on this world just like our everyday military heroes.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

When I set out to build brand consistency at Cousins Subs by mandating that both franchise- and corporate-owned stores are remodeled to meet our enhanced brand standards, I received lots of positive but also some negative feedback. As a result of this decision, franchisees could claim franchise mutiny or take legal action and as a brand we could lose successful business owners and valuable locations. To help franchisees understand how remodeling will re-energize their business, they received purposeful communications that explained the rationale for the remodels and how it will pay to invest in store enhancements. The Cousins Subs Leadership Team also worked with our brand’s franchise advisory council (FAC) to set expectations that could be achieved. As a result, franchisees are required to remodel their location(s) upon signing a new franchise agreement at the end of the term of their previous agreement. We also ensured franchisees knew we hold ourselves to the same brand standards and all corporate-owned locations will be remodeled.

Today, nearly 60 percent of our stores are remodeled. As a result, we’ve enjoyed 48 percent higher average unit volumes and 24 percent higher store sales over the last seven years. The results of our store remodels have been strong. Not only have they poised Cousins Subs for growth, they’ve strengthened the unity among our franchise base.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Like many college students, I was unsure how life after school would take shape. After I graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law studies, I was strongly considering attending law school. I took the LSAT and researched law schools. After I received my score, which was fine but not great, I had to reconsider if law school was the right next step for me. As I contemplated this decision, I spent a year volunteering with homeless families in Florida as a case worker. I moved families from temporary shelters into a two-year transitional housing program to stabilize their lives. The experience was life changing. While it did not lead to a life-long career in social work nor encourage me to attend law school, the experience helped me identify my desire to serve others in the restaurant industry.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Put yourself in challenging situations. This goes along with my earlier point that it’s important to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. For me, that means continuously improving Cousins Subs financial outlook. As I mentioned I did not go to school for finance, nor have I held finance-related roles. So, I align with experts on the Cousins Subs leadership team to make the right financially driven decisions to grow our business. Some of those decisions were not easy nor comfortable. For example, Cousins Subs retracted our franchise community from 90+ partners to 35 strong business owners and closed over 40 units. We also reorganized and parted ways with a quarter of our support center team. Saying goodbye to so many colleagues was extremely difficult.

However, it was the right decision for the company. It led to a stronger support center team with the right people in the right seats. Our decision to retract paved the way for purposeful growth. Because of our stronger financials, we’ve aligned with successful multi-unit franchisees. In 2018, Cousins Subs signed a 40-store agreement in the Chicagoland area. This is the largest development agreement the brand has signed to date.

Do something totally out of your comfort zone. I am not a dancer. I enjoy dancing with my family at weddings but have never done so in front of an exceptionally large audience full of business leaders. In November I participated in the Milwaukee Stars Merengue. It’s a ‘Dancing with the Stars’ fundraising event, during which eight Milwaukee-area business leaders are paired with a professional dancer to choreograph and perform a unique routine in front of a live audience to raise money for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. This experience exercised my belief that it’s important to feel comfortable being uncomfortable, especially when it’s for an exceptional cause.

Plan with flexibility. As business owners will often tell you, a plan is necessary to achieve short- and long-term goals, but it’s important to have processes in place and pivot as needed. During each budget planning session at Cousins Subs we stress-test our financial plan to uncover what our year ahead could look like if things do not go as planned. This allows us to have a clear vision of the hiccups we experience like a downturn in sales and adjust our plan in real time to offset the setbacks.

Always see the other side. As a business owner, I would not be successful if I did not see both sides of the story. That means I cannot take things at face value and need to ask questions and uncover the information that’s necessary, but not always right in front of me. I do so by asking questions. I challenge natural opinions and ask for the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to learn the rationale and impact of plans and decisions set forth by my peers. You can learn a lot about your business through others’ eyes, so it’s important to solicit their feedback and suggestions.

Learn from others’ adversity. Even if you do not experience a situation, you can learn from it by observation or stories. Make sure to pay attention to what’s happening around you to constantly learn something new. You’d be surprised how much knowledge you can glean from the ways your peers face day-to-day challenges. You can also learn from other company’s mistakes. Keep a pulse on your industry by staying abreast of both good and bad news; adjust your operations as needed to prevent the adversity your competitors or similar businesses experienced.

I heard this saying once that really stuck with me, “Khaled had spent his life herding camels across the desserts of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He had no formal education. His father had been a camel herder and his grandfather before him. Everything he needed to know had been passed down from generation to generation.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe there is great opportunity in youth education, particularly in large urban cities. I hope through our Make It Better Foundation we inspire other businesses to fund the future of our youth by supporting educational programming that’s meaningful to them and inspires the youth in their communities.

On a personal level, I believe there is opportunity to better select, pay and reward our educators so more young adults are inspired to enter this profession. I would set clear expectations so future educators know how they will open doors to a successful future for themselves and the youth in their in-person or virtual classrooms. I would also require classrooms be open to all viewpoints by creating an environment where all students can speak their mind, and differences can be debated, but are above all embraced. In this classroom students would feel a sense of unity among their peers and communities because they are accepted even if they do not share the same values.

When our children do not have a solid foundation of education, society loses for many years to come.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Maria Bartiromo, I would be honored to have lunch with you. I respect your intelligence in the financial and economic sectors and admire your ability to understand issues at hand and ask pointed questions to get to the bottom of them. You question our world leaders in a respectful manner and always stay true to yourself. Your self-respect is evident in the way you speak, dress and run your morning program.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can connect with Cousins Subs on LinkedInInstagramTwitter and Facebook. We also have a Cousins Subs app and have accounts on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

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