Hospitality | Restaurants
Cousins Subs | Menomonee FallsChristine Specht leads Menomonee Falls-based Cousins Subs, the business her father, Bill Specht, co-founded 1972. The fast-casual sub franchise includes nearly 100 shops throughout Wisconsin and Illinois, with plans to open two Indianapolis locations next year. Specht got her start in the family business as a teenager cashiering in the Germantown shop. Specht returned to Cousins in 2001 to become its human resources manager. She was named president and chief operating officer in 2008 and led a large-scale rebranding strategy for the company before becoming president and CEO in 2015. In 2019, she transitioned to solely hold the CEO role, where she continues to guide Cousins’ growth strategy.
Education: Bachelor’s, Marquette University; Master’s, American University
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
"My first job at 15 years old was as a cashier at the Cousins Subs located in Germantown, Wisconsin. What I learned from my experience is that in life you will find yourself in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations - to jump in and embrace the unfamiliar."
What piece of advice has had the most significant impact on your career?
"Trust your instincts, especially as it comes to placing people in the right positions. I know that I need to hire the smartest people in their field that I can afford, and it is important not to settle. It is only through people that our goals will be met."
If you could have dinner with any two business leaders, who would you choose and why?
"Robert Smith – CEO, Vista Equity Partners. Second, and I realize this person isn’t in business but she reports on all things business, is Maria Bartiromo from the Fox Business Channel."
What are some of your favorite destinations/places to visit?
"I love vacationing with my family and we enjoy going to Jupiter, Florida in the summertime when it is nice and hot. We also enjoy relaxing in the driftless region of south-central Wisconsin. It is a beautiful area of the state with ridges and rural communities."
What’s your hobby/passion?
"I love being a mom of two growing boys and really enjoy staying involved with their school and activities. My mom was always present and helpful with my school as I was growing up and I loved that she would drive for games or be the room mom. I try to do the same, supporting my children and helping their school where and when I can."
What is your favorite Wisconsin restaurant?
"Besides Cousins Subs, of course, another restaurant that my husband and I enjoy going to is Jake’s in Brookfield. It is our go-to when we have a night out on our own. It is known for their great steaks, homemade soups and delicious appetizers."
What would people be surprised to learn about you (fun fact)?
"I enjoy shooting clays. I’m not very good but when I have more time I’d like to practice more and join a league."
What was your first car? How long did you drive it for?
"My first car was a 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse in electric blue. I think I drove it for about 4 years."
If you could take a one-year sabbatical, what would you do?
"I would try to visit as many of our national parks as possible."
What’s the toughest business challenge you’ve had to overcome?
"The toughest challenge I had to overcome was when I became the president of Cousins Subs in 2008. The economy was in recession, Cousins Subs was in the middle of a lawsuit, we had tired restaurants with diminishing returns, and some of our people were not in the right seats on the bus including some franchisees that were not a fit for the brand. I built a team that could tackle these challenges and implemented a rebranding strategy which included remodeling restaurants, closing underperforming locations and exiting people who were not part of the future. At the same time, I worked hard to build a culture of better and strengthen our relationships with our franchisees."
What advice would you give to a young professional?
"Stay focused on being the best person you can be in your chosen profession and ignore the noise. Take initiative to grow your soft and hard skills, think about what success looks like in your role and create a plan to get there."
What has been your/your company’s most significant success over the last 12 months?
"Cousins Subs was able to successfully navigate the COVID months and emerged from it with a stronger culture and clearer focus on what our next steps for growth and success will be."
What is one thing you would change about Wisconsin to make it even better?
"I would work to close the socioeconomic gap that exists among racial lines in some of our communities, but do it in a way that promotes economic freedom and prosperity. I once heard that capitalism is the single best approach to lifting people out of poverty and Americans have countless stories that showcase this. I believe this starts by giving every child an excellent education where they not only learn the fundamentals but also have the chance to dream about what they want for their future. Aside from education, it is important to instill the benefits of creating a good work ethic."
As you enter your office, what would you choose to be your walk-up or theme song?
"'American Girl' by Tom Petty. There is so much promise in this country to achieve your dreams, and sometimes that comes with sacrifice."
Is there a nonprofit cause that has special meaning to you?
"Currently I serve as the chair of the Concordia University Wisconsin Ann Arbor Foundation Board. While CUWAA is not my alma mater, I have been serving there in some capacity for more than 10 years. I support their mission to prepare student in mind, body and spirit in service to Christ, the church and the world. At CUWAA, students receive a well-rounded education, emerging with the skills to make a difference."
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
"Telling my dad that I could run Cousins Subs. I didn’t have experience running a company and, aside from knowing the people-side of the business, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would re-energize the brand, improve the financials and build a second foundation. But my instinct told me that with the right people, I could accomplish anything."
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
"I haven’t even thought about making a bucket list. But if I created one, I would start with taking memorable vacations with our boys while they’re still young. Some of my favorite childhood memories are from our days spent driving to exciting places over summer break."
What has you most excited about the future?
"Cousins Subs is expanding corporate restaurants in Indianapolis in 2023. I believe we now have the right financial metrics, brand assets, and the consumer appeal to allow for successful and sustainable growth outside the state of Wisconsin. Our brand has a 50-year heritage, founded on the best tasting subs you can find, and I believe it is time to take our brand to the next level."