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Volume 22 No. 35
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Levy specialty: Giving bright minds a chance to learn on the job

Don Muret
Larry Levy, the subject of this week’s Champions profile, was known within Levy Restaurants for his ability to mentor younger employees.

For Andy Lansing, Levy Restaurants’ president and CEO, and Alison Weber, chief creative officer for Curiology, a Levy division, Larry Levy gave them a boost in confidence when both questioned their own abilities.

“He believed early on in taking people who on paper have no business being in the position that they’re in, and putting them in there, knowing that they’ll fight forever to prove they belong,” Lansing said.

Case in point: Lansing was a 27-year-old lawyer in a private practice at the time Levy hired him in 1988 as the company’s general counsel. Lansing had accepted the job after first turning it down in a lunch meeting with Levy. Lansing changed his mind after a second lunch with Levy.

“A lot of my friends thought that I was nuts, like it was running off to join the circus, working for a restaurant company,” Lansing said. “I went from torts to tarts. Somebody once told me that and I never forgot it.”

Execs say Levy showed faith in them, no matter the situation.
But Lansing loved his new job doing all the legal work for Levy Restaurants, even though sometimes Lansing was in over his head and would scamper to his old law firm to help resolve the issues Levy threw at him on a regular basis.

“Larry would walk into my office and say, ‘Hey, I need you to file this trademark application for Spiaggia,’” Lansing said, referring to Levy’s Italian restaurant in Chicago. “I’d say, no problem,

Larry. He’d leave the office and I’d say, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ I didn’t take intellectual property in law school. I don’t know how to do this. And this was before the internet. I’d leave work and go to the law library. The next day, I would call up the Patent and Trademark Office, have this nice woman walk me through it, and I got a trademark for Spiaggia.”

“This happened every day,” Lansing said. “‘He’d say, ‘Hey, we have this EEOC complaint, I need you to look into it.’ My knees would buckle. I didn’t know what EEOC stood for. I didn’t take labor law. I’d run down to the law office and say, ‘Guys, you have to help me.’”

In the end, things turned out OK for Lansing. Over time, he gravitated to the business side at Levy’s request. Twenty-eight years later, he sits in the same chair Larry Levy did after his old boss appointed him president and CEO in 2004.

“He took someone in me, who had no business being there, and said, ‘You’ll figure it out,’” Lansing said. “He taught me to take people that aren’t quite ready to do what you want them to do and put them in a role and they sometimes really rise to the occasion.”

The same was true for Weber, first hired in 1992 as Levy Restaurants’ director of marketing and public relations. In 1995, early in her tenure, Weber faced the daunting prospect of meeting with Hollywood movie producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg and Las Vegas hotel magnate Steve Wynn. All three were Larry Levy’s partners in Dive!, a new restaurant concept on the Vegas Strip, and Weber’s job was to coordinate a press event with them to announce the new venture.

For Levy Restaurants, it was the second Dive! project. The first one opened in Los Angeles, and at the time, Spielberg and Katzenberg were silent partners. It wasn’t until the second opening in Vegas that Weber was able to do a full PR campaign and tell the whole story behind Dive! and all of its partners. She got nervous recognizing all the star power in the room.

“I was 26 years old and told Larry, ‘I’ve never done a press conference with people who do this all the time,’” she said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Alison, there’s nobody I trust more to tell the Levy story. Get out there and tell them exactly how you want to do this. And I trust you.’ And then we held the press conference with all of them and it went fine.”

“It’s the idea of having people that maybe weren’t quite ready for the job on paper and Larry believing in them and inspiring them,” she said. “It’s something that spread to many others’ career at Levy.”

Don Muret can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @breakground.