From Poor to Great - Luella Bartlett's Rise with the Professional Bar and Restaurant School

by David Niu on Mar 16, 2012 9:44:36 PM

Luella BartlettLuella Bartlett admits she was a shockingly poor employee who always thought she knew best. So it's probably a good thing that she fell into starting her business, The Professional Bar and Restaurant School "PBRS," with her husband, Scott.

Scott actually founded the company in 1993 when he bought it from a friend for $500 so his friend could windsurf more. At that time, the company was a one man band that taught two week bartending courses. Luella Bartlett joined The Professional Bar and Restaurant School in 1998, and they began to aggressively expand.

Today, The Professional Bar and Restaurant School employs 54 people. PBRS provides hospitality training services to global students for the global industry. This includes courses on cooking, food and beverage, and hotel management. Moreover, they help most students attain a position in the industry for 20 hours per week while they're studying.

Luella Bartlett states that the three most important assets of PBRS are:

(1) Staff - She believes it all comes down to people since the company is fundamentally touching the lives of students. So from management to staff to instructors, it's all about the people.

(2) Innovation - For their industry, they implement a lot of systems, technology, and new thinking to push past competitors.

(3) Leadership - Scott and Luella provide vision to drive the company forward.


Keeping The Professional Bar and Restaurant School as a leader in the industry is no small task. Luella shared the following management and leadership best practices:

*Accountable - They have a governance board with KPMG. Annually, they conduct a strategy planning session, and the leadership meets with the board once a month to report on progress. In fact, each department head must also provide monthly updates on metrics and KPIs.

Since entrepreneurs are usually the boss, they oftentimes don't answer to anyone. Some like it that way. That's why they started their own business. But others crave a mechanism for keeping themselves accountable. Mat Wylie at Dynamite shared his Entrepreneur Organization forum keeps him accountable. One of the reasons why PBRS is so successful is that Luella finds accountability through her governance board to objectively measure, monitor, improve their business performance.

Know Thyself

*Know Thyself - Luella Bartlett considers herself a class "fire-starter." She'll think of a great idea, but she knows that she needs to hire the right people to execute to bring the idea to fruition. PBRS has a GM, and a new CEO was starting shortly after our interview. It's clear that Luella is able to put her ego aside and bring in leaders to augment her skillset.

*Leverage IT - PBRS has implemented some great systems and technology to streamline communication and processes. For HR, she leverages Sonar6. Sonar6 is an online HR solution that every in the company uses to input feedback on their performance.

When they conduct their performance reviews, it usually takes only 20 minutes because the reviewee can transparently see their self-assessment and manager assessment online prior to the review. The bulk of the review is then spent on discussing discrepancies and formalizing growth and career opportunities in their personal development plan.

*Separate Performance and Compensation Review - In the past, the Professional Bar and Restaurant School conducted both of these reviews at the same time. But Luella Bartlett discovered that people expected a compensation increase whether or not they had done a good job and regardless of the financial performance of the company.

Since they've separated the two, she feels much better about it. They now hold pay reviews once a year in January. She feels that they still haven't hit on the best process for this, but they're constantly reviewing and trying to improve.

Constrain Growth and Say No*No Reviews = No Pay Increase - Many companies suffer from overdue performance reviews. To combat this, Luella, publicly posts each manager's completed and incompleted reviews. She implemented a policy whereby managers don't receive their review and pay increases until all managers have completed their reviews of the staff first. This creates a powerful peer pressure incentive to completing reviews.

Note as of this interview on February 15, there were still incomplete reviews at PBRS. For the diligent managers who have completed their reviews in a timely manner, they will receive backpay compensation while the others will not.

*Seeking Consistency Across Departments - Luella admits that they can improve in providing better performance grading consistency across departments. They're able to map the performance of every employee on a grid. It becomes clear which managers are more generous in their evaluations. She wishes there was a way to balance or normalize the results across departments. They're monitoring and improving this process on an ongoing basis. One tip that I learned from Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint is focusing on manager training to address these issues.

*Culture Fit - Luella emphasized to me that people are The Professional Bar and Restaurant School's most important assets. Her belief is to hire on cultural fit. She values this more than skill set fit. Not that she discounts the value of skills, but she feels that they can train and teach employees skills but culture either clicks or doesn't.

Luella Bartlett PBRS

*Conclusion- Luella and her husband have created a winning combination. But she also knows when to put aside her "I know what's best" mentality to hire executives to augment her skillset. Since The Professional Bar and Restaurant School aggressively leverages IT as a competitive advantage, it's not surprising that their HR process is rather streamlined.

However, Luella manages to add some common sense practices, like no pay raises for managers until they complete all their staff reviews, to make the investment in technology even more effective. It's quite the winning combination from a self-labeled "shockingly poor employee" to a leader of a growth company that was rewarded the supreme winner of the Westpac Waitakere Business Awards.


*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.

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This post was written by David Niu

David is the Founder and CEO of TINYpulse. After being burnt out from his previous company, he decided pack up all of his belongings and go on a careercation with his family. Through that journey, he met with numerous leaders around the world that taught him about work culture, employee engagement, and what it takes to be an inspirational leader.

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