Levy Restaurants chief executive takes 'nice guy' approach to the extreme
Levy Restaurants Chief Executive Andy Lansing takes a simple approach to hiring. He looks, he says, "for nice" when trying to place talent at one of his company's 15 restaurants and 100-plus food-service venues, from Churchill Downs to Lambeau Field.

The 51-year-old with perfect hair and a boyish smile even asks job-seekers during interviews: "Are you nice?"

The question is startling and creative — but it seemed contradictory as Lansing spoke to a roomful of new Levy managers at the company's recent management academy.

"We only hire nice people in this company," Lansing said, striking the podium inside the private dining room at Spiaggia, the company's crown jewel on Michigan Avenue, for a very un-nice effect. "And as I've said many times, you may sneak in on us. You may get in without being nice, but I promise you we'll get you. It may take a week. It may take a month. It may take a year. We will get you."

Lansing defines "nice" as the golden rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

"You've gotta be nice to be successful here," he continued, after endorsing the book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." "You can be competitive, direct and all the things that make you a successful businessperson. But at the heart of it, you've gotta have it in here."

Lansing placed his hand over his heart. No one rolled their eyes.

A two-decade rise

It's one thing to demand kindness from workers whose jobs involve serving people. But can a chief executive of a large company really be nice?

Larry Levy and his brother Mark founded the business in 1978 with an investment in D.B. Kaplan's Delicatessen at Water Tower Place. When it nearly failed, they took over and moved their mother, Eadie, from St. Louis to Chicago to teach the cooks some of her recipes. Lansing calls her "the company mom."

Lansing joined the company in 1988, as general counsel. Larry promoted him to an operations role in 1991, to chief operating officer in 1995 and to CEO in 2004. Larry now has the title of chairman; Mark left the company in 1998.

"Andy is superb; he not only never missed his numbers, he always beat his numbers," Larry said. "And they were never easy numbers. We negotiated the numbers. As proof of it, in 2008, when the world fell apart, he missed his numbers by a fraction. He was only off by 10 percent. Just a great businessman."

In 2000, Larry sold 49 percent of the company to British-based Compass Group PLC, the world's largest food-service company, and then the rest in 2006. The Tribune described the sale as ending direct ownership of an empire, but Eadie still works most days as the hostess at Fulton's on the River, another Levy restaurant. And the other day, there was Larry walking out of the elevator at Levy headquarters.

'Nice guy' brand grows

Lansing has been able to produce results that seem to have spared Levy from interference from Compass. In September 2007, the year after Compass completed the acquisition, Crain's Chicago Business reported Levy's annual revenues were $690 million. In January of this year, a Kellogg School of Management newsletter reported revenues to be nearly $1 billion. Compass does not release revenue figures for Levy, and Levy declined to confirm them.

But Compass is pleased. "In Levy, our sports and leisure business, double-digit new business and excellent retention, combined with a continued focus on cost efficiencies, has contributed to a solid performance," according to the parent company's 2010 annual report.

Compass has helped, handing over contracts for the U.S. Open and Cleveland Browns Stadium to Levy, for instance. But it also is reaping the benefit of Levy's reputation, changing the name of its UK sports operations to Levy, with more countries to follow.

Lansing said he bought into Levy's nice-guy culture and then ran with it.

"The 'nice' thing, I didn't invent," he told the approximately 60 managers at the academy. "Larry Levy is really the guy to be credited for 'We only hire nice people at Levy.' I wanted to turn that from something that's really neat to say to something that's really neat to do. And we just grew with it over time, and in part, it's selfish. I only want to work around nice people. I know maybe that's Pollyanna. But why would I want to work around jerks?"