From Banking to Burgers, John Eckbert '90 Has a Taste for Business

There are more than 250,000 ways to order up a Five Guys burger. The company prides itself on fresh ingredients, cooked-from-scratch recipes and a commitment to serving customers well—simple concepts that appealed to John Eckbert '90 after he left his banking career behind and moved to London without a plan.

Today, he is the CEO of Five Guys Joint Venture (JV), with responsibility for the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

Eckbert, who comes from a Wildcat family, spent his childhood striving for grades that would earn him an acceptance letter. Ultimately, that letter paved the way for his unexpected career path from finance to casual dining.

Eckbert studied at the London School of Economics during his junior year abroad and there connected with Sir Charles Dunstone, who later became the United Kingdom's first tech billionaire.

The two stayed in touch as Eckbert pursued his career in finance, including stints in private equity, time with NCNB/NationsBank in Charlotte, a turn at real estate development and finally work building a boutique mergers and acquisitions investment bank in Florida.

When it came time for Eckbert to try something new, he knew who to call.

Jumping In

"We weren't sure what we wanted to build together, but we thought food and beverage was a great place to focus," Eckbert said. "We wanted to leverage Sir Charles' retail experience in an industry segment not immediately under competitive threat from Amazon or specialized online startups."

With little knowledge about the industry, they started by looking for American concepts that weren't yet in Europe.

Eckbert and Dunstone investigated numerous opportunities—until they saw a picture of Jerry Murrell, the founder of Five Guys, on the cover of Bloomberg Magazine. The magazine ranked Five Guys as the fastest growing restaurant concept in the United States.

Eckbert filled out the "Apply for a Franchise" form on the Five Guys website. A series of phone calls and meetings followed, where the Murrells, Dunstone and Eckbert established a shared vision for the rapid roll out of the restaurant in the United Kingdom. They agreed to form a joint venture (JV), in preference to a franchise, in order to focus on elevating the brand position.

The first Five Guys outside of North America opened on July 4, 2013, in Covent Garden, London.

"It immediately became the number one Five Guys in the world," said Eckbert.  "With no advertising, our first customer showed up at 4 a.m. and our queue stretched around the building."

Eckbert knows why they love it, too.

"You never forget your first Five Guys," he said. "Every Labor Day, my family meets up with three other families, including two Davidson families (Chip Wittmann '89 and Steph Wyatt Leo '90). About 10 years ago, Chip insisted that I go to Five Guys in Charleston, S.C., and I remember just how fresh it tasted—like everything had just been made on-site, by hand, on the day. And it had."

With 3,000 employees, the JV has opened 66 stores across the United Kingdom, Wales and Scotland, along with four locations in Paris, including the 10,000-square-foot global flagship on the Champs Elysees, and one on Gran Via in Madrid. A Frankfurt store will open later this year.

All in all, there are almost 1,500 Five Guys locations worldwide and another 1,500 in development.

Prepared for Anything

On paper, Eckbert's Davidson education appears completely unrelated to his career as CEO of a fast-casual restaurant. As a student, he created a major that combined study of philosophy and history, and he says the humanities course proved the most foundational aspect of his education.

"Understanding my place in the world and how Western thought fit into the sweep of history was an incredibly important educational experience for me," said Eckbert. "Hansford Epes was my sponsor for my major, and he was such a passionate advocate for studies across fields, the same thing President Quillen talks about today. Finding common threads between disciplines is certainly a way of thinking that I've tried to keep with me in my professional career."

Critical thinking, constructing and articulating strategic direction, resolving differences of opinion, assembling varying points of view into a cohesive vision -- these are among Eckbert's daily duties.

"I can't think of better training for this than the liberal arts foundation I received at Davidson," he said.

Eckbert learned to write and think critically at Davidson—skills he says are "the secret to anyone's success."

Thanks to his liberal arts background, he appreciates different perspectives—and it pays off when motivating teams who are building and running successful restaurants.

"Going from banking to operations is the salvation of my professional life," he said. "I love the human interaction and accomplishing something as a team. That's the real delight of business—doing something together none of us could do by ourselves. That's something special. And we may not be curing cancer or building rockets, but maybe we are feeding the people who are."

Danielle Strickland