By Sam Waltz
Delaware’s own “Undercover Boss” Anthony “Tony” Wedo of Centreville is leading the turnaround of a national buffet restaurant chain after its second bankruptcy in less than a decade.
Wedo, 55, who lives between Greenville Country Club and VicMeade Hunt Club, is a U.S. Naval Reserve veteran who is a 1982 business grad of Penn State, with 2008 master’s degrees from Colgate and from Queen’s University in Kingsland, Ont., Canada.
He is CEO of Ovation Brands, a Greenville, SC-based chain of 328-buffet style restaurants. He came aboard in December 2012 as its “turnaround CEO.” The company went through bankruptcies in 2008 and 2011-12, when private equity owners over-leveraged the company and were unable to service its debt.
“My passion is for ‘turn-arounds’,” said Wedo, in a recent interview. “A lot of things in life need a turn-around strategy, whether it’s in business, in government or in society. That’s my skill set. It’s what I love.”
“The challenge in a turnaround is in reinvigorating to contemporary standards, to bring it up to date, whether it’s in a restaurant, or in something else,” he added.
“I’ve loved being the CEO of this company. A turnaround CEO has to have different skills, and it’s a much more challenging lifestyle.”
Except for their travels, few Delawareans will be familiar with all his restaurant brands. Ovation Brands operates 328 restaurants in 35 states, and its portfolio includes five buffet brands: Ryan’s® steak buffet, HomeTown® Buffet, Old Country Buffet, Country Buffet®, and Fire® Mountain (homestyle buffet), and one polished casual brand, Tahoe Joe’s® Famous Steakhouse (a Western steak, chops and seafood house).
OCB (Old Country Buffet) operates one Delaware restaurant, at 1325 New Churchmans Rd, Newark, DE 19713, in the Home Depot shopping center across from Christiana Hospital.
However, Wedo says the Delaware market is ideal for its demographic, and he’s actively seeking sites in Dover and Middletown for additional restaurants. Ovation already has 15 restaurants in the region of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and Northern Maryland.
Wedo has approached his work strategically, both inside and outside the company. Inside, he’s put together a four-point approach to experience improvement, including food, décor, hospitality and “make it right” guarantees.
“We’ve pioneered a new segment in our category we like to call family casual. We now feature individually-made, fresh-for-you entrees, but still offer all you can eat variety, which combined, represents an awesome consumer value,” Wedo said.
At the same time, Wedo announced March 17 that Ovation had retained corporate financial advisors Duff & Phelps “to assist with an evaluation of potential strategic alternatives including a sale of the business.” Duff & Phelps is a global corporate finance and valuation advisor with expertise in M&A, private financing, restructuring, complex valuation and dispute consulting. It has more than 2,000 employees. Wedo said Ovation is seeking an infusion of private equity to fund expansion.
The industry is “attractive” as a category, Wedo said, with general margins for such restaurants between 8-12 percent, some of them up to 15 percent, although he declined to disclose sales or margins for the privately held Ovations.
Ovation said it serves approximately 80 million customers annually, and it employs about 18,000 team members. Corporate headquarters is in Greer, S.C., near Greenville, with a Corporate Support Center located in Eagan, Minn.
A native of Shippensburg, Pa, Wedo says he met his wife, who was from nearby Carlisle, Pa, on a blind date. Their children attend Tower Hill School. Wedo’s career has taken him through senior executive positions in PepsiCo/KFC, Boston Market, the New World Restaurant Group and MainLine Capital Advisers before he was recruited to Ovations.
Wedo grew up in modest circumstances.He says his father worked as many as three jobs at a time. Wedo himself put in time working as a restaurant busboy, as well as other restaurant jobs, but he was able to climb the executive ranks in the hospitality sector.
During his career, he said, he has raised more than $500 million in public and private debt, as well as equity, and he has led a successful public auction process as a public company CEO. He has developed new restaurants in every major US marketing, totaling over 500 units.
He appeared on a much talked-about 2013 segment of CBS’ Undercover Boss, as part of his Ovation Brands role. Copies of the show–Season 5, Episode 4–are available online at Netflix. ♦