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Jack Hartung: Keeping the Books for Chipotle’s Next Act

Who could have known Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG), at its 1993 founding, would grow up to be the $25 billion-valued behemoth it is today?

Certainly not Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung, who went from the world’s largest restaurant company—McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE: MCD)—to a business still largely operating as a startup in the early aughts.

“It was jumping from a giant company to a tiny company, but I thought my goodness I want to be part of a movement,” said Hartung, who was named Outstanding CFO of a Public Company at the Business Journal’s annual CFO of the Year Awards, held Jan. 30 at Hotel Irvine (see stories on other winners, pages 1, 6, 8, and 9).

The Newport Beach-based company has a local team of 250, which includes a core of accountants, in addition to individuals on the supply chain, development and strategy side of the business as the organization keeps its eyes on growth and innovation in everything from food to the restaurant experience.

The business was under 20 doors when McDonald’s invested in Chipotle in 1998, but had swelled to more than 500 when the fast-food giant divested away from noncore businesses, such as Chipotle and Boston Market in 2006.

Hartung was vice president and chief financial officer of McDonald’s Partner Brands Group, which included concepts outside of the namesake business. The position exposed Hartung to Chipotle and he officially joined the business in 2002 after an 18-year run at McDonald’s.

“My thinking at the time was they were like a startup,” Hartung said of Chipotle. “Coming from McDonald’s, I could tell that they could benefit from having somebody take a more disciplined and a more strategic business view of Chipotle.”

Long Journey

The company has come a long way from when Chipotle founder Steve Ells and team were just beginning to talk about food with integrity—a concept that drives branding and the business strategy today—with an emphasis on sustainability, local farming and the idea that fast food needn’t be lacking in culinary proficiency.

“We still talk about that today and that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of,” the CFO said.

Maintaining focus now with a company the size of Chipotle is not without its challenges. The intimacy had between corporate and those on the ground in stores is not the same as when the business was in its early years.

Hiring the right talent is something Chief Executive Brian Niccol has focused on since jumping from Irvine-based Taco Bell Corp. to Chipotle in 2018, a move that also brought a headquarters shift from Denver to Orange County.

“When you’re 70 restaurants, that’s not tiny, but you can pretty much know every restaurant,” Hartung said. “You can pretty much know every manager. When you’ve got 2,600 restaurants, you have to hire a bunch of professionals at every single level.”

Like many just entering the workforce, Hartung’s first few jobs were in food service, at everything from a hot dog stand and pizza joint to a cafeteria. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting and economics and MBA, both at Illinois State University. When a few of his friends went to work at McDonald’s, he later followed suit, spending nearly two decades in a number of areas that exposed him to international, company owned, franchising, real estate, payroll and benefits.

“I got this wealth of experience, as opposed to some companies you kind of stay in that same area for a long time,” Hartung said.

Next Steps

Hiring the right people and then retaining them through empowerment and challenge is important as Chipotle enters its next phase of growth, and ramps up efforts on the digital front (a $1 billion business) with mobile ordering, expansion of “Chipotlanes” (the company’s version of the drive-thru experience), menu evolution, a new store design and, of course, more restaurants.

“We’re at 2,600 restaurants,” Hartung said. “We’re not even halfway to where we can get.”

The key to ensuring things go smoothly is perhaps found in the lesson Hartung said he learned during his career.

“I think probably the biggest lesson is to never let success get to your head,” he said. “Don’t get too caught up in the success. I think by the same token don’t get too caught up in the failures. Take a longer view of where you’re going, don’t let the setbacks deter you.”

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