Linda Duke is CEO of San Rafael, Calif.-based Duke Marketing, which she founded in 1987. Duke Marketing is a full-service marketing communications firm specializing in marketing for multi-location and franchise organizations. She is a nationally recognized speaker; a contributing writer for several restaurant, hospitality and franchise industry trade and business publications; and the publisher of Restaurant Marketing Magazine, a quarterly online magazine.
I’d think that no young woman aspires from an early age to be a consultant in a male-dominated industry like the restaurant business. What did you think you wanted to and how did Duke Marketing become the answer?
I did know early on that I wanted to be in marketing, although at first I wanted to be an artist. I realized quickly that wasn’t for me. When I went to college I wanted to get an art degree and my worst grades were in art. I remember there was one day at college when I was riding my bike to the art building and I was riding no handed and I had my art box under on arm and a giant art board in the other hand, and I crashed. I thought, “What am I doing wrong?” I realized I had ideas but not the technical expertise. And I thought, well, that’s marketing. So my freshman year at college I changed my major from art to advertising/marketing and focused on that.
What school did you attend?
I went to California State University Stanislaus in Turlock, Calif. It was the smallest state college at the time, but they let me write my own curriculum to get the degree in advertising. I did a bunch of internships that gave me credits and so at the same time I got my degree in advertising I got a degree in marketing as well. Two degrees in four years.
One of my internships was to work on the Bartles & James wine cooler account. Turlock is near Modesto, Calif., where the Gallo winery and Foster Farms [poultry producer] are. I did internships with those companies and I created a promotion for the university, creating University International Day. Now it’s one of the most internationally diverse campuses in California.
Was it promotional marketing that interested you most?
What I tried to do was make sure I learned every aspect of marketing. So I learned production and printing and graphic design. I learned all the technologies as they came about.
Was there someone in your family—a parent, maybe—who influenced your interest in marketing?
No. And I have never had a mentor, really. So now, whenever a student calls me and asks for help or advice I try to do that. I help people find jobs. What I found in college was that no one had applied knowledge. I thought that one day I’d return and show them real cases instead of just lecturing from a book, but that’s another story!
I got my degrees and what I wanted most was to work for a Fortune 100 company. I moved back to Sacramento where my parents were and my first job was with the Sacramento Business Journal [as Advertising Sales Director]. I had my eye on McKesson Corp. in San Francisco, which was No. 100 or 101 on the Fortune list at the time. But I applied at a couple of large companies and the largest advertising agency. And everyone everywhere told me “Oh, you have to start at the bottom.” “You have to learn about sales in order to work up to marketing.” I thought, “What a bunch of bull.”
In fact, one interview I had when I was leaving college was with the CEO of the ad agency DDB Needham [now DDB Worldwide]. He asked me what it was I wanted to do and I said I wanted to create brands and develop campaigns and so on. I remember he leaned back in his chair and started laughing. He said. “You have to start at the bottom. You can’t just go in at the top!” I’ve always been impatient.
I did finally get the chance to work at McKesson, but it only lasted nine months.
That doesn’t sound enjoyable. What happened?
Well, I should explain that before I worked at McKesson, I worked for what was then HQ Business Centers. The company is Regus now. They provide leased executive office space with shared services. When I worked there, there was a board of directors, all men, from all over the world. Chile, Spain, France, you name it. A fellow from Argentina showed up at meetings with a woman on each arm. And the chairman was in Chicago. They were all very wealthy and they owned commercial real estate, where they’d essentially franchise extra space. But high end. There was a conference room in Hong Kong that rented for $3,000 a day.
I had been doing a consulting gig with them when their VP-marketing was asked to leave. The chairman asked me to take over sales and marketing. I was pretty young and it was my first VP title, but I managed a group of 11 people.
Do you think your youth was a problem for them?
Well, I remember when I first had to present to the board of directors. I was standing in front of the room and—I’m not kidding—a couple of them got up and left. One leaned back and closed his eyes. Another got on his phone and talked in the back of the room. I presented a few ideas and they completely shot me down. I had bullet holes in that suit.
Perhaps it was my youth but they clearly didn’t believe I understood how they did business in their countries. So not only did they pay for my master’s degree at Northwestern University [Kellogg School of Management] since I always had to visit the chairman in Chicago, but I visited the company offices around the world. It was intimidating, but after I paid them the respect of visiting them in their countries, I had their total buy in. I learned then the value of getting to know people.
But it was just the beginning of the growth of the Internet and I came up with the promotional idea of adding a T1 [Internet access] line at each of their centers around the world for video conferencing and connectivity to anyone who rented space from them. I helped them drive $8 million in sales with that. And then the company was acquired. And guess what?
Is this the “myth” that women are let go first when jobs are pared? Were men let go as well.
Not when I was. If I’d have had a mentor and been less naïve, I might have asked for a piece of the action for the product I developed for them. But no one had said, “Protect yourself.”
But a friend told me that McKesson Corp. was hiring for its pharmacy division. They were merging their Valu-Rite and HealthMart Pharmacies and they wanted someone to head up marketing. I interviewed and was hired as director of national marketing.
I reported to a woman who then reported to senior leadership. I was pretty high up, but I quickly realized that the woman above me, who was VP-Strategic Marketing, used to be a Kelly Girl. She didn’t have a degree; she started as pharmacy helper stocking shelves. Kelly Corp. had a big contract with McKesson. She acted like a woman was supposed to: kept quiet and didn’t know anything. And I came along and knew how to take charge and not be intimidated by men, and apparently it intimidated her!
I thought, “What is wrong with this Fortune 100 company?” I had to fill out forms to get my Internet connection and I was supposed to be building their website. Everything was so slow. I kept thinking something was really wrong. It felt like I was straightjacketed, but it was a great learning experience.
Then the woman I reported to took a leave of absence. I lasted nine months but I did a lot. I created an in-house agency that started to process all their art and all their printing. I saved them more than $16 million.
Since we know the end of the McKesson story, I assume that didn’t impress the company.
No. The senior VP I reported to took me up the senior VP-human resources. I asked why and he said, “Because you’re getting fired.” I asked the reason and he said, “Because you intimidated your boss and you don’t fit in here.” I stood up and said, “Shame on you. I waited my whole life to work here. My whole goal was to be at your company.” I said my whole peace and got a nice severance and they said, “See you later.”
What did you learn from all that?
Well, I remember my father said to me, “You will never be happy until you’re your own boss because you’re smarter than all your bosses but stupid enough to let them know.” And I am honest upfront and not politically correct. But now as a consultant, people pay me for my opinion. But I like that we women have our challenges.
Do you think that being a woman, you’re not as a free to offer opinions?
I was born in 1964. I was the last official year of the baby boomers. My parents were baby boomers, so I don’t consider myself one. I’m part of a lost generation that way. I’m not a “Generation X” and not a “Millennial,” so I always felt out of whack. By the time I graduated from high school, women were starting to take leadership roles, but men still weren’t quite ready for it. I think I didn’t fit in at McKesson because it was a dinosaur then. Very slow and methodical.
That’s when you focused on the restaurant business?
Well, I had worked with a multi-location restaurant operator before I went to HQ and I had done projects [with restaurants] on the side. But then when I started my own company I did it full time.
Working for myself was so nice. No politics. And I could focus on doing the creative aspects of business that I love, and people pay me for it!
That’s a big step to start your own consulting company. Was it a scary commitment for you?
Oh it was. I had a friend with a business building websites and I asked him how he started. He said, “Linda, it’s like diving off a cliff. You just have to jump.” I did jump and it was the best decision I’ve made. I love my boss now! I’m one of those people who thrive on being busy so I can take on as much as I want. But I have no children or animals. I live my job and I love it.
Still, the world of restaurant chains has traditionally been heavily male dominated. Have you encountered much of that resistance to listening to ideas from a woman?
Even now, as a consultant, there are some clients who are men with whom I feel like I have to bring my husband, Michael [Fagen, the COO], along with me. Sometimes having a man with me is what I have to do.
But I don’t work with people who “tolerate” you any more. I don’t have to. I only work with people who celebrate you. Being picky about whom I’ll work with only comes after years of hard work but respect has to be part of it. You might as well work for people who are fun and interesting.
I had a meeting recently where I didn’t like the way the chairman of the company approached me and didn’t interact with me. They were contemplating hiring me, but they wouldn’t commit to me long-term, wouldn’t pay upfront and I didn’t like their attitude. But the previous day I’d had a client drive 300 miles round trip to bring check and sign a contract for 12 months. Which of those do you want to work for?
I do a lot of work with the fast-casual segment of restaurants [such as Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill] and many of them are being run by young people who don’t have the old prejudices. The men have wives who are out working and being entrepreneurial, too. I have a client, Cowboy Chicken in Dallas, and the president, Sean Kennedy, is maybe 32 years old. I find younger people are more open to listening to anyone. Some of the “old school” guys just aren’t as willing to listen to me. It’s sad, but I try to ignore them.
You mentioned that you try to mentor young people. What advice do you give them about how to succeed and what to expect in the workplace?
Well, I would say to young women that they should always ask for help if they feel they need it. There certainly are people who are willing to help you. And if the first person you ask says no, ask someone else.
But as for advice, well, I’m no beauty queen, but I do think that how you dress is important. But by that I mean I tend to a wear a suit and keep myself covered even when it’s 100 degrees out because I think I have to do that to be taken seriously. Don’t try to play sex goddess.
But still, to be taken seriously, you have to work harder than anyone else in the room. I’m not a particularly big fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton, but, boy, she works her tail off because she’s in your face. In order to be a high-power woman, you have to be better, sharper and smarter than any man in the room. Because it is every man in the room. It can be hard.
I saw that Adam Sandler movie “Click,” where he has a remote that lets him rewind and relive parts of his life. I’d seriously like to see what differences there would have been if I had lived my life as a man.
But you don’t sound dissatisfied with the life you’ve lived.
Oh, I’m very satisfied. I just think it would be interesting to know what would have been different. Being a woman has had some pluses for me, but maybe more minuses. I feel I’ve had to work harder than many of my male colleagues. Would I have succeeded at McKesson had I been a man? Where would that path have taken me? Maybe I would have been the guy who enters a room with a girl on each arm!