In 2005, Greg Lippert returned to Mazzio's Corp. after leaving the Tulsa-based restaurant company for a two-year stint as chief marketing officer for the fast-casual Italian chain Fazoli's. But the former senior vice president of marketing, research and development and 19-year Mazzio's veteran was hired this time to head the company founded by Ken Selby 46 years ago. "I came back because Ken offered me the job of president and chief executive officer,” Lippert said, and because of his strong belief in Selby's business philosophy. Since then, the one-time corporate marketing pro has overseen a number of transformations at the company that started as a pizza parlor near the University of Tulsa. Change is inevitable in the increasingly competitive restaurant business, and Mazzio's has evolved along with consumer trends and technology advances. The company also last year sold its Zio's Italian Kitchen division to better focus on Mazzio's. "Change is important to success,” Lippert said. And in the industry today, "what have really changed are the demographics.” Mazzio's revamped its restaurant name and design, menu offerings and even how it prepares the food to address a busy population that is aging, eats out more and is looking for quicker, healthier choices. In a recent conversation with The Oklahoman, Lippert shared some of his early career aspirations and talked about the company he heads that has stayed competitive for almost 50 years. Q: Where did you grow up, and when did you get your first taste of the restaurant business? A: I grew up in Cincinnati, and I worked in restaurants in high school and in college as a waiter and in restaurant kitchens to help pay for school. Q: But you didn't go right into that business after college. Did you consider other careers? A: I started with photography in high school, and realized in college I could sell the pictures I took and make money taking pictures at fraternity and sorority parties and then selling them. I spent several summers working with programs in northern Minnesota and Canada teaching kids to canoe and live in the wilderness. I thought about being a television reporter, and one of my most exciting things I ever did during college was an internship one January with NBC. I shadowed news correspondent Erick Burns when he covered the murder trial of former Olympic skier Spider Sabich in Vail, Colo. I also traveled across the state for a comprehensive study of Indiana's prison system. I used my college life to explore and better understand what was out there for me after I graduated. Q: Why did you choose to take a job with Proctor & Gamble? A: I always had an interest in marketing and being involved in the process of creating new ideas. I always thought that was where my strength was. After Proctor & Gamble, I became a brand manager at the Seven-Up Co., which was then part of Philip Morris Co. As brand manager of the $1.8 billion 7-Up brand, I introduced the "No Caffeine, Never Had It Never Will” campaign that increased brand profits by $31 million in one year. Q: What brought you to Oklahoma? A: The opportunity to join the original Ken's Restaurant Systems as marketing director for the Ken's Pizza and then startup Mazzio's Pizza. After working for big companies, I believed I could have a larger impact on a smaller company and I could balance my professional life with my personal life. I played soccer at DePauw, and I have more than 20 years as a licensed United States Soccer Federation coach and referee. My biggest thrill, besides my family and leading Mazzio's Corp., is getting update letters and e-mails from past players and parents I coached during the years and seeing them become responsible, successful adults. Q: Back to Mazzio's, how many Oklahoma locations are there and what's cooking for 2008? A: There are 101 restaurants in Oklahoma, 40 in the OKC area, 47 in the Tulsa market and 14 in the rest of the state. The biggest challenge facing us and the foodservice industry is record commodity prices. We have to manage our restaurants better with improved scheduling of labor and food inventory and waste management. Q: What has Mazzio's excelled at, and what are some challenges? A: We are in the "people” business, so our ability to continue to attract the right people to staff our restaurants and provide them with security and a career path is a primary focus as we grow. What worked in 1961 is still what we strive to do today — provide a great tasting pizza at a reasonable price with fast, friendly service. We were encouraged to see that our turnover at the restaurant level was 16 percent in 2007, which is very low versus foodservice industry standards. We try very hard to hire the right people, support them with great benefits and a culture that is both fair and rewarding. Mazzio's was recognized nationally this past year by Chain Leader magazine as the winner in "Best Places to Work,” so I think we are doing well but certainly can always do better. Q: What is the company doing to stay fresh in the competitive pizza restaurant business? A: Product innovation is the key. Creating and introducing new and exciting products to keep our customer base happy and have additional reasons to use Mazzio's has always been an important part of our marketing strategy. We introduced the one-number delivery system in 1984, added online ordering about six years ago and we are investigating text messaging interface as another way to make it easier for our customers to do business with us. Q: Why did the company sell Zio's? A: San Antonio-based Food Management Partners Inc. inquired and asked if we ever had intentions of selling the brand. FMP loved the food and overall appeal of the concept, and they expressed a desire to significantly increase the unit count from the 15 locations to 25 or more in three to four years as a part of their business plan. Our goal from the first opening of Zio's in 1994 was expand it to a strong regional brand so more people could enjoy the restaurant.
Personally speaking•Position: President and chief executive officer, Mazzio's Corp. •Birthdate: Feb. 20, 1955 •Family: Married 29 years to Elizabeth Lippert; daughters: Nicole Lippert Overland, 27, and Sarah Lippert, 25; son Peter Lippert, 21; and three grandchildren. •Education: Graduated from DePauw University in 1977; graduate studies at University of Cincinnati. •Favorite pastimes: Snow skiing in Colorado and Utah, trout fishing, golf and restaurant touring.