Around the Water Cooler With Dairy Queen’s CEO

John Gainor can spot an efficient employee as well as detect a missing Blizzard ingredient.

Dairy Queen CEO and President John Gainor (left) with his son and Curly the Cone at a Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholder’s meeting in Omaha, Neb.
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After tasting every treat on the Dairy Queen menu, John Gainor can tell when the Double Fudge Cookie Dough Blizzard needs a half pump more of fudge or the Brownie EarthQuake is lacking Oreo crumbles.

As much as the CEO and president can spot a missing layer of Spanish peanuts in the Peanut Buster Parfait, he can pick out a reliable employee and build an efficient team.

"Teamwork is critical," says the 10-year Dairy Queen veteran. "Everybody that's working a shift has a job, and if someone falters, someone else needs to step in and help or the night probably won't go so well."

Gainor, 56, started at International Dairy Queen, Inc. as the chief supply chain officer and became the CEO five years ago. He now oversees more than 6,300 restaurants worldwide, with more than 4,500 in the United States. Since Dairy Queen is a wholly owned subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the company isn't directly in charge of the several hundred thousand employees. But that doesn't mean Gainor misses an opportunity to converse with the Blizzard techs pumping soft serve behind the counter.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Harley-Davidson's CEO.]

The Minneapolis-area resident spoke with U.S. News about how to find productive employees and divulged which Blizzard is his all-time favorite. His responses have been edited.

If a teen is looking for a summer job, but doesn't have prior work experience, what should he or she put on his or her résumé?

If it's a teenager looking to be employed at a local DQ, the things that would be important would be to stress their performance in high school, their grades and any activities they might be involved in. Managers tend to look for leadership skills, so anything they can pull out of their high school education. Also, being responsible is one of the key elements that a store operator would look for in a potential employee because, let's face it, we are dealing with the public and we are serving food items.

Customers can get impatient when forced to wait in long lines – especially when it's hot outside and they're waiting for ice cream. Do you have any tips for companies that want to speed up the efficiency of customer service?

First and foremost, we all need to remember that we exist because of our customers, and our customers are the most important component of our business. At Dairy Queen, we have many initiatives to focus on speed of service. Many of our stores are not ice cream only; many are full quick-service restaurants similar to McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, and a large percent of our business is done through the drive-thru. So having the proper technology at the restaurant – be it headsets, reader boards, coin counters, the list goes on and on – can speed up speed of service, but it's being staffed adequately for the peak period that really is one of the key components.

How do you know if someone will be a productive employee?

Whenever you're interviewing people, it doesn't matter if it's at a store level or a corporate level, you try to get a good judge of people's experience and their character. Normally people who want to be leaders will take accountability for the customer, the service, the quality, and if you can find those individuals you can normally build a successful team.

In full disclosure, I worked at a DQ in high school and we put a lot of effort into making sure the white walls were free of ice cream splatter and there were no stray sprinkles on the floor. How much time should employees really spend on maintaining a store's appearance?

One of the priorities we have at DQ, and other quick service restaurants as well, is cleanliness and food safety. And like anything in life, it's easier to clean up as you go along versus wait to the end. When you get into a very busy period, it can get a little messy. It falls on the responsibility of the employees because they're the ones actually doing the work. So it really has to be a priority.