Nick Vojnovic, President of Little Greek Fresh Grill, Enlightens EMBA Class on Career, Life as Part of the Distinguished Speaker Series
By Keith Morelli
TAMPA (March 4, 2019) -- Nick Vojnovic’s lecture to the Executive MBA class was short on dry textbook language and long on home-spun advice based on his life and career. The president and majority partner of Little Greek Fresh Foods and former CEO of Beef O’ Brady’s has a connection to the class, having graduated with an Executive MBA degree in 2012.
His off-beat advice emerged during a number of anecdotal stories, including one that warned of hiring “drama mamas” who have the potential to upset the work environment.
“You cannot hire people who like to get things revved up,” he said. “Even entry level hires can be really destructive to the culture and culture is what you’re really all about.”
Vojnovic addressed about 75 graduate students earlier this month as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series at the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business. It was a wide ranging informal talk that hopped from career advice and personal stories to a list of 20 things that he did wrong over the course of his career to a bout with a life-threatening illness just a couple years ago.
He mentioned he is a graduate of the degree program, and talked about what he learned here.
“About one-third of the benefits of this class comes from the professors,” he said. “About a third is getting to know the professors and the final third is networking with your classmates.” He told about relationships he built in the class that are still going strong today.
Vojnovic is of Yugoslavian/Greek descent and was the first in his family to be born in the United States. His mother worked in the restaurant industry in Belgrade, Serbia (then Yugoslavia), but lost the business when communists took control of the country after World War II. She cautioned her three sons to never get into the restaurant business becasue of the constant headaches and long hours and all three ended up making careers in the restaurant.
“I once took two days off in a row from a restaurant,” he said, “and when I came back, my employees asked, “How was your vacation?”
Still, Vojnovic persisted in the business and he now is majority owner of the Tampa-based Little Greek restaurants, of which there are 40 locations, including more than two dozen in Florida and the rest scattered in Texas, Kentucky, Ohio and Arkansas. The eatery’s founder, Sigrid Bratic, stayed on as a minority partner and he gave this advice to Vojnovic when he took over:
“Don’t screw this up.”
Before buying into Little Greek, Vojnovic served as president of Beef O’ Brady’s and oversaw tremendous growth from a few dozen eateries in the Tampa area in 1998 to more than 260 in 23 states by the time he left in 2010.
That unchecked growth was a talking point during the lecture.
“We grew too fast,” he said, referring to the expansion of the Beef O’ Brady’s chain. “Growing by up to 50 stores a year was too much. It was a big mistake.” The growth became unwieldy and far flung restaurant franchises in distant states were difficult to manage.
Over his career, he also was a recruiter for Chili’s and headed Famous Dave’s, a barbecue restaurant chain headquartered in Minnesota.
“In this life, to be successful,” he said, “you have to figure out what you’re good at and figure out what you’re not good at.” He recalled that for a while after college, he worked as a consultant shuffling papers all day and he soon found out that even though the money was good, he was not happy.
“I’m the kind of guy who has to get out in the field,” he said, “I have to talk to people.”
Vojnovic is a former chair of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a regular voice on Fox Business with more than 10 appearances. He also has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal. He was the recipient of the Elliot Motivator of the Year Award, a Golden Chain Award and was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist.
He graduated from Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in 1981 and earned an Executive MBA degree from USF in 2012. Vojnovic also serves as a board member of five start-up restaurant companies.
He and his wife, Rene, have two children, Jonathan and Lauren.
His last piece of advice to the Executive MBA students relates back to them.
“Friends and family are what it’s all about,” he said. “Always make time for friends and family and don’t rush into life too much.”