A Segment in the Series “Leadership Insights: Interviews with Global Leaders”
in partnership with the Executives’ Club of Chicago
Aylwin Lewis grew up in Houston, Texas, in a modest, working-class household, and has gone on to achieve impressive credentials as a leader in corporate America. He is now Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Potbelly Sandwich Works, a growing network of fast-casual sandwich shops based in Chicago. Under Lewis’ leadership, Potbelly has surged from about 200 restaurant locations to nearly 350 throughout the United States, plus a few in the Middle East. Soon, Lewis will lead Potbelly’s further expansion into Europe.
Before taking on the CEO role at Potbelly, in 2004 Lewis was recruited to take over as CEO of Kmart Holding Corporation, making him at the time the highest ranking African-American executive in the U.S. retail industry. As if that wasn’t enough, his former boss, Edward Lampert, Kmart’s and Sears’ investor chairman, quickly named Lewis CEO and President of Sears Holdings (Kmart’s parent). Sears was then the third largest retailer in the United States, but one struggling mightily to keep customers. It was a daunting assignment, and Lewis left Sears in January 2008 amid the embattled company’s restructuring.
Now he is firmly in command at Potbelly, which he took public a little over a year ago. In total, Lewis has over 29 years of executive and restaurant experience. Before he came to Chicago, from 2000 to 2004, he was President, Chief Multi-Branding and Operating Officer of YUM! Brands – the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. He was Chief Operating Officer of Pizza Hut from 1996 to 2000, a period which one analyst, alluding to Lewis’ leadership, called “the halcyon Pizza Hut years.”
In addition to his Chairman & CEO roles at Potbelly, Lewis is also a member of the Board of Directors of The Walt Disney Company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, and he currently serves as a trustee of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Lewis sat down with me after a recent presentation to the Executives’ Club of Chicago to share his views on leadership — from the courage and conviction strong leadership requires to the critical role that mentors play. Click the video image above to see our conversation.