Famous Dave's switches CEOs

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2012 - 9:06 PM

The restaurant chain's leader stays as chief operating officer.

Famous Dave's of America announced Monday that one of its board members will become chief executive while the current CEO steps down to the role of chief operating officer, an unusual executive-suite shuffle.

John Gilbert III, CEO of e-commerce retailer Vermont Teddy Bear Co. and a Famous Dave's board member since 2011, is the new CEO of the Minnetonka-based restaurant chain.

Christopher O'Donnell, Famous Dave's CEO since 2008 and a 15-year veteran of the firm, is now chief operating officer, reporting to Gilbert. The change was made effective Monday. O'Donnell remains a Famous Dave's board member.

"For us, the board, the thing that Famous Dave's needs to do that it's not currently doing is to really supercharge growth," said Famous Dave's Chairman Dean Riesen. Gilbert has "30 years of high-growth marketing experience."

Famous Dave's, like most full-service restaurant companies, got hit hard by the Great Recession, and has been clawing its way back since. O'Donnell was promoted from COO to CEO in September 2008.

"We needed somebody to batten down the hatches and run a solid ship and keep us relevant in tough times, and Christopher did that," Riesen said.

The firm's sales grew from $136 million in 2009 to $155 million last year, but have plateaued so far in 2012.

Gilbert became CEO of Vermont Teddy Bear in 2009. Before that, he was chief marketing officer of TJX Cos., owner of TJ Maxx, Marshall's and other discount retailers.

Gilbert also has been chief marketing officer at restaurant chains, including Dunkin' Donuts and KFC. Gilbert is a board member of Ignite Restaurant Group, owner of the Joe's Crab Shack chain.

The new set-up at Famous Dave's is "unusual," Riesen acknowledged. "If it were different personalities, it wouldn't work. I think it will be a great partnership."

Mark Smith, a stock analyst at Feltl & Co., applauded the move. "I think this change will be good for the company. We are excited that Christopher will be staying. Nobody knows the chain and its operations better than he does."

Famous Dave's stock closed on Monday at $9.77, down from a high of around $12 earlier this year, but above its 52-week low of $7.76. The announcement was made after the market closed.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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