On the Border CEO Stephen Clark has a lot on his plate. His company is two years into independence from Brinker International, which acquired the “Mexican grill and cantina” chain in 1994. Although there are plenty of changes afoot, Clark has made the company’s image his No. 1 priority. “I have a personal war on lime green and purple,” he says, leaning forward in a cowhide chair.
A veteran of Taco Cabana and Taco Bueno, Clark is looking to give On The Border a “rustic, West Texas feel.” The original On The Border opened in 1982 on Knox Street with made-from-scratch dishes and salsa cooked up right in the kitchen. But the chain gradually slipped into generic recipes and salsa made with—gasp—a pre-packaged spice mixture.
This cookie-cutter approach couldn’t be more at odds with Clark’s non-conformist nature. The executive rose in the restaurant ranks from a fry cook to CEO, and doesn’t have a college degree. “I tried going to junior college several times,” he says. “But I just kept getting promoted.”
One of seven children, Clark learned early how to blaze his own trail. “I don’t need to be the smartest on in the room,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of sisters with doctorates and somehow I still end up lending them money.”
Running a company with 8,000 people, Clark seems to be making the grade just fine.
First job: The day I turned 16, I got a job at McDonald’s. I worked the counter and the grill full-time throughout high school.
Worst job: It’s a tie between a weekend paper route (I had to get up at 4 a.m.) or when I worked in the California strawberry fields for 50 cents an hour.
Best part of your job: Putting a team together and watching them grow.
Life in the office: We have an open-door mentality. Our management team is very approachable.
Management style: When I go into restaurants, I make sure to shake everyone’s hand. I want to create an atmosphere where people know we have their back and will do the right thing by them.
Biggest pet peeve: People that say everything like it’s so absolute that there can’t be any wiggle room. Seldom are things so black-and-white.
Strengths: Interpersonal skills and relationships. I also have a steel-trap memory and can pull out facts and figures from a long time ago.
Weaknesses: I’ve got a very big heart. I’m very unusual for a CEO. I recently took a Myers-Briggs [personality test]. I fall into the 5 percent of people like me who are CEOs. According to the test, I’m supposed to be a social worker.
Family: I have three children; they’re 32, 31, and 21. My oldest has followed me in to the restaurant business. My youngest is a senior at OU, and my middle child is still figuring things out. They are three good kids.
Weekends: I get so much stimulus at work that I just like to chill out when I can. I’m an avid sports fan, and I have the weirdest variety of teams that I follow, including the Red Sox, the New Orleans Saints, and the USC Trojans.
Reading Material: I love things that offer escape, like thrillers by Nelson Demille and John Grisham. Right now, I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.
TV: Dexter, Justified, and SportsCenter.
Something people don’t know about you: I have a brother who was born with Down Syndrome. It has shaped a lot about me and given me a tremendous amount of respect for my mom, as well as great empathy for people with challenges.
What’s next for On The Border? The first year was about transition away from Brinker. We were joined at the hip. Now it’s the fun part. We can start growing our brand again. We’d like to add 25 to 30 restaurants.
Best advice: Always treat people how you’d like to be treated. It sounds cliché and simple, but to me, the most egregious thing anyone can do is strip someone of his or her dignity.