Making the Transition from Entrepreneur to CEO to Chairman

Legendary entrepreneur Larry Levy co-founded Levy Restaurants 40 years ago and built it into the largest provider of sports and entertainment catering in the country. He knows a thing or two about building a business. Just as importantly, he knows how and when to step back. It’s a journey every successful entrepreneur eventually will make.

Q: In 2004 you transitioned from CEO to Executive Chairman of Levy Restaurants. What are some of the lessons you learned as you made that shift?

Larry: Simply put, it was a delightful shift. I was freed to spend my time on more strategic, visionary thinking. I was ready, but it didn’t just happen overnight. It took a good two years for  me to get emotionally ready. That is important for any leader to understand. You are far more emotionally invested in your company than you probably realize. Don’t dismiss that. Prepare yourself. Prepare your family. Ease into it. For me, that involved setting up a family office and shifting my time to that. It gave me a new purpose and focus going forward.

Ultimately, it’s about having faith in your management team, which gives you the freedom to let go. So, when I finally gave up control, I was mentally ready to do so.

Q: Starting in January 2014, you became Chairman Emeritus of Levy Restaurants. How is your role as a non-executive chairman different from your role as Executive Chairman? Is there a different set of responsibilities and expectations placed on you now?

Larry: Honestly, my role is not that different. Both as chairman and chairman emeritus, my role has been to maintain relationships with existing clients and to connect with prospective clients when helpful. After all, the company still bears my name! I enjoy doing that, and that is how I spend the bulk of my time as chairman emeritus.

Q: How did you know it was time to step down from your role as CEO? What was your process to select your successor?

Larry: I knew I would be selling the company, and I also knew I wanted it to be in the right hands when I did so. The choice of my successor was easy. Andy Lansing (Levy Restaurants CEO) had been with Levy Restaurants for 20 years at that point. He knew the business well and was highly respected by the management team, as well as Compass Group, which eventually bought out Levy Restaurants. We didn’t need to do an executive search. Andy was our guy, and still is. I couldn’t be more pleased with his leadership.

Q: As a chairman, how do you decide when to step in, and when to remain at arm’s length from the business?

Larry: When you have the right leadership team in place, one you trust and have worked with for years, you shouldn’t need to step in as chairman. That has been the case for me. Ever since, I became chairman, I’ve stayed at arm’s length. That’s important for any leader – especially a business founder – to let go. Now, I’m happy to provide advice and guidance when asked, but I do so at the management team’s request. It’s respectful and the right thing for the business.

Q: You’ve said money doesn’t inspire you. So, what has been your primary driving force all these years?

Larry: That’s right. I’m not inspired by money. That’s never been my driver. I never went to work every day to simply make money.  I’m a builder. That’s what excites me. I wanted to build a great company with people I trusted and valued, which I did. I also wanted to build beautiful buildings, which I’ve done with my real estate company (Diversified Real Estate Capital). If it’s only about money, that will ultimately ring hollow. You want to have pride in your legacy.

Q: Looking back, what advice would you give your 28-year-old self?

Larry: It may sound cliché, but it’s true: know your passions. Follow them. Mine happen to be sports, food, and rock & roll. What happens in sports stadiums? All those things. I’m incredibly fortunate to have built a business that aligns so well with my passions. I would tell any young entrepreneur to really explore what they care about and to stick with their passions. Be smart about it, but don’t give up.

Lastly, never work for someone you don’t respect. I don’t care how much money they offer or how great the title. Walk away right away. Life’s too short to work for someone, or an organization, that doesn’t value you and treat you as you deserve to be treated. That should be non-negotiable for anyone.

Gain more insights from Larry Levy. Register for Cresset’s live webinar on January 14, 2021, at noon CT.


Co-Founder & Chairman Emeritus, Levy Restaurants

Managing Partner, Levy Family Partners

Chairman, Del Taco Restaurants, Inc.

Larry is a serial entrepreneur who brings his value-added approach to his many various endeavors, developments, investments and philanthropy.

Levy Restaurants – Founded in 1978, Larry built Levy Restaurants from a single delicatessen in Chicago into an internationally recognized specialized food service organization with the market leading share of sports and entertainment catering throughout North America and Europe and a network of acclaimed restaurants. Levy Restaurants disrupted sports concessions by providing restaurant quality dining and hospitality in sports and entertainment venues. Throughout the company’s 40-year history, Levy Restaurants has hosted and continues to cater marquee events such as the Kentucky Derby, Major League Baseball’s World Series, the All-Star Games of MLB, NHL & NBA, NFL’s Super Bowl, the GRAMMY Awards and the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. Larry sold Levy Restaurants to the Compass Group of London in 2006, but remains Chairman Emeritus.

Levy Family Partners (LFP) – Larry and two of his sons manage LFP’s portfolio of operating businesses, real estate and other investments. LFP owns significant stakes in the Esperanza Resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, a portfolio of real estate assets, Del Taco Restaurants Inc. (NASDAQ:TACO), and Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza.

Real Estate – Larry has had a simultaneous career in real estate development and investment. Major projects have included the recently completed River Point, a 1.1 million square foot office building in partnership with Hines and Ivanhoe Cambridge; Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center; One South Dearborn, in partnership with Hines; One Magnificent Mile; and Woodfield Lake Office Campus and the redevelopment of 321 North Clark – in all, more than 10 million square feet developed. In addition, LFP has interests in Cresset Diversified Real Estate Capital, the co-sponsor of the Cresset + Diversified QOZ Fund which has provided equity for major real estate projects.

Awards and Recognition – Larry received the IFMA Gold Plate Award as Restaurateur of the Year in the United States and the Ivy Award, the restaurant industry’s Academy Award, for Spiaggia, Bistro 110 and Levy Restaurants. Larry and his wife Carol created and endowed the Levy Institute of Entrepreneurial Practice and the Levy Social Entrepreneur Lab at Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. He also received the 2001 Ernst & Young’s Master Entrepreneur of the Year Award and is the Sports Business Journal winner of the 2017 Champion of Sports Award.

Boards – The Art Institute of Chicago, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Lincoln Park Zoo, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University.

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