The pancake pusher

Julia Stewart, CEO, IHOP

By Jenny Mero, Fortune reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- As a 16-year-old waitress at an IHOP, Julia Stewart had a feeling she'd one day run a company. What she didn't know was that she'd head the one where she was waiting tables.

Stewart, 52, landed the top job at the pancake house in 2002, after working her way up the restaurant industry ladder. (Her résumé includes stints at Carl's Jr., Burger King, and Taco Bell.)

At IHOP, Stewart has reinvigorated what was a tired chain. The Glendale, Calif., company made $45 million in profits last year, and its stock price has doubled since Stewart became CEO. In July she announced the $2.3 billion acquisition of another former employer, Applebee's, scheduled to close by year-end.

Fortune's Jenny Mero sat down with Stewart - who has traded in her clunky waitress shoes for Stuart Weitzman heels - to discuss the importance of sharing a meal with job candidates and why her best ideas hit her in the shower.

DINE OUT WITH POTENTIAL HIRES. I can tell a lot about people by the way they act toward the food server. So I typically never hire anyone without going out to eat with them. It's a great way to learn about a person. If you have a complete conversation with me and you never acknowledge the food server, you are being disrespectful and will never work for me.

RETURN EVERY PHONE CALL. Of course I use e-mail, but voicemail works best for me. I feel strongly about returning people's phone calls and treating them with dignity. Everybody deserves a return phone call. Employees have to return franchisee phone calls within 24 hours. That's standard procedure. We do not not return phone calls here.

BAN BLACKBERRYS IN MEETINGS. I'm not a BlackBerry fan. I find e-mail sort of stale and impersonal. I don't allow BlackBerrys to be used in meetings. You have to turn them off. I want people's undivided attention, and I can't find anything more disruptive than those.

TAKE NOTES IN THE SHOWER. I often find myself saying, "I thought of something in the shower." The other day my general counsel said, "You must have the biggest water bill of anybody here." I have a pad I keep in my bathroom, and when I get an idea I just start writing. I bring these little pieces of paper in. Some of the strategies involved with the Applebee's [deal] came from shower notes.

READ TOGETHER. I'm big on us all reading books. I made everybody in the company read The Oz Principle, by management consultants Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman. The philosophy is that every human being goes below the line and says something catty or inappropriate about someone. It's human nature. And it's okay, but you can't just stay there. You've got to get back up above the line. Top of page