Onetime bartender and waiter Chris Sullivan launched Outback Steakhouse, one of the nation's most successful restaurant chains. But he didn't stop there. Sullivan is also part-owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, an investor in Pebble Beach and a founder of Old Memorial, a private golf club in Tampa. His company's Bloomin' Onion blimp has become ubiquitous in the skies above many PGA events, and starting in February, Outback will be the title sponsor of the Tampa stop on the Champions Tour. Sullivan talked with us about his early days as a caddy, his struggling baseball team and how he hopes to keep his golf game sizzling.
It seems these days there's an Outback in every city. Where'd you get your start?
Back in 1987, my partner Bob Basham and I had sold a Chili's joint venture and were looking to create a new business. The craze around the country was for health food, but there were still long lines outside quality steak houses. So we recruited an old buddy of mine from New Orleans to run the food side of the business and opened our first restaurant in Tampa, where I live.
So what does Tampa have to do with the outback?
Not much. We came up with the name when Crocodile Dundee was really hot. We thought Outback would be an easy name for Americans to remember.
You operate more than nine hundred restaurants. How many have you actually eaten in?
About half. I love the food. My wife likes them, too, but sometimes she'd like to go out to dinner and not have me work.
How does golf fit into your life?
I started caddying for my dad when I was seven. He was in the FBI and he'd play with his buddies on Saturdays. He started having me hit golf balls in the backyard, and then I started playing on courses when I was about eleven. In college, I worked as a waiter and a bartender. I liked working at night because I could play golf during the day. Ever since then I've played two or three times a week. My dad is eighty-four and plays four or five times a week. I hope I can do that.
You've got a lot of outside interests.
Yeah. I'm part owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and I'm in the group that bought the Pebble Beach Company. I live a pretty full life. Early in my career, I learned that the key to success is hiring talented people, finding out what they need to be successful, setting goals and then getting out of the way.
So can the Devil Rays get better?
Man, I hope so. The problem is economics. Baseball has serious financial issues. Hopefully the leadership can do something about it. There's a pretty good model out there called the NFL. Baseball needs to change its business model in order to survive.
Given your work schedule and your desire to golf, where do you do most of your playing?
My partners and I started a course called Old Memorial in Tampa about six years ago. I've been lucky enough to play great private courses all over the country—Pine Valley, Seminole, Augusta, Cypress Point—and we had nothing like that pure golf experience in Tampa. So we hired an architect and found a great property. We've got about four hundred members.
You've been spotted playing with a few popular pros, too.
I've played in the AT&T Pro-Am for three years. Hal Sutton was my partner one year. He's a real gentleman. I've learned a lot just watching guys like Hal. Sometimes they'll ask if they can give me advice. Billy Andrade got me to take a fuller turn. Davis Love gave me a drill for getting rid of a reverse pivot.
What has been the best lesson?
That I'm going to make mistakes, but every hole I get to start over fresh. I use that in business, too. You can't get bogged down. You have to treat every day as a fresh start. Golf has taught me how to act under pressure, and that if I lighten up a little on golf—and in regular life—it is a much better experience.
Scorecard CHRIS SULLIVAN
BEST SCORE 68
MEMBERSHIPS Old Memorial; Pine Valley; Monterey Peninsula; Pasadera; Loch Lomand; Lost Dunes; Palma Ceia; Winged Foot
EQUIPMENT Titleist driver; Sonartec fairway woods; Callaway utility wood; Titleist wedges; Callaway irons; Scotty Cameron putter