WANTED: CEO of a growing regional pizza buffet chain seeking national expansion. Must be able to follow in the footsteps of a legendary, dynamic, visionary entrepreneur-founder who is selling company. Must be able to win the approval of present executive leadership and franchise operators, be an expert in store-level operations and know all aspects of a big-company balance sheet. All interested parties should apply ...
Though the "want ad" is fictional, the frightening particulars aren't. In 2002, Joe Croce, founder of CiCi's Pizza, was preparing to sell what was then a 400-store company. He knew the buyers would be CiCi's executive management team, a plan he'd pondered for years. But the question of his replacement as chief executive and president remained unanswered. He didn't want a hand-picked puppet he could manipulate by financial strings; a sale and a clean break was his aim.
To complicate matters, Croce charged the executive team itself to make the decision—and choose one of its own to be their boss. Croce knew who he wanted, and lucky for him, the management team agreed. His successor would be Craig Moore, a long-time CiCi's veteran.
"Craig was the only person I was considering because he was the operator in the group, the person who understood what the franchisees were going through every day," said Joe Croce, who retired after the sale, but remains active as a speaker. "When he started at CiCi's 13 years ago, you could look into his eyes and see a spark, a genuine passion. And when you meet him today you can still see it."
After a job recruiter's unrelenting requests, Moore came to CiCi's from Cracker Barrel and into a general manager's role with the young chain. Croce promised Moore if he worked hard, his future with the company was unlimited. As he climbed the ladder toward the corporate office, stops along the way included the job of district manager in Oklahoma, and another as regional manager of operations west of the Mississippi River.
"All along the way, Joe was fair to his word. When he said, 'Do this in the stores and you'll get this next position,' he meant it," Moore said. "When I was checking the company out before I came there, everyone said that was the way it was run. And it all happened like they said it would."
It didn't hurt Moore that he was hardworking, a trait he said he
Position: CEO, president, CiCi's Pizza HQ: Coppell, Texas Age: 43
Hometown: Covington, La.
College: University of Southwest Louisiana
Degree: Marketing Hobbies: Family activities Quote: On how he was chosen as CiCi's new CEO: "We arm wrestled, and I was the strongest. It was that simple."
picked up in the service of Dallas's top nightclub owners. His bosses were tough, business-minded and focused on customers: the perfect trainers for a future at CiCi's.
"Joe was very similar to them," Moore said. "He was fanatically focused on what he thought was the best thing for this concept, and he wouldn't let anything get him off track."
Croce insists Moore's innate service mentality made him a natural fit for the company, and eventually for the top job. Croce wanted someone who led like a CEO, but didn't act like one when he walked inside a store. "You act like one of the team members, you cut a pizza, serve a customer, make a pizza, you let everyone know you're right in there with them. It makes everyone comfortable to know the guy at the top knows what you're going through and knows how to do it."
An easy choice
Moore said being chosen by his peers to lead the company was humbling. When asked about the particulars of the election process, he joked, "We arm wrestled, and I was the strongest. It was that simple."
Moore's version isn't true, of course, but Forbes Anderson, CiCi's chief financial officer and one of its owners, admits it was about that easy. Moore was the only real option, he said, because of his operations background.
"We wanted somebody who could sit on the other side of the table and know how a franchisee would react to a change, or how a guest would react," Anderson said. "We knew that type of CEO would make better-informed decisions about the company."
Anderson said Moore is competitive and likes succeeding, "but he's intelligent about it, he's objective. If he thinks something's right, but somebody comes along and says this might be a better strategy, he's objective and will listen."
Croce said that's a sign of Moore's regard for his employees.
"Craig really has a heart for this business and for the people at CiCi's," he said. "He's extremely competitive. He hates to lose. But in this business, that serves you extremely well. That's a very important characteristic of anyone who would head up a business like this."
Moore agreed he is competitive, but not to the point of negativity. He doesn't dream of putting his competitors out of business, but he regards all of them warily "because they're taking my business away from me. ... I'll not allow them to stall me and turn me from the direction we want to go, but at the same time, I wish them the best in what they do."
With the April opening of CiCi's No. 600, Moore and Co. are still a long way from their goal of 1,000 units set when they bought the company. But despite the never-ending battle for share in the pizza market, the question of how CiCi's will pull it off isn't one Moore asks himself. The only thing between CiCi's and 1,000 stores, he said, is time.
"I believe fully we've got this figured out, and I believe very few others have got it figured out to make it grow like we have," Moore said. He also insisted it's not all about him and deflected credit to the ownership team and the operators. "I have little control over making it grow, but I have a lot of control over doing it wrong. I really have to depend on them to make this happen."