Mr. Williams will report to President-CEO Dave Goebel and oversee the $4.7 billion bar-and-grill's marketing, advertising, research and menu strategy. Mr. Williams succeeds John Cywinski, who announced his departure last May. Mr. Goebel had overseen marketing in the interim after taking the CEO role in August from Lloyd Hill, who remains chairman.
"George brings to us a valuable mix of agency, consumer goods and multi-unit retail experience," Mr. Goebel said in a statement. "He is a focused, practical strategist with a proven record of delivering superior business results. We are delighted to have him join our Applebee's team."
Mr. Williams, most recently a marketing consultant, was senior VP for Blockbuster from 1997-2002. He also was VP-field marketing and sales development at Pearle Vision Center; VP-advertising and promotion for Long John Silver's Holdings; and VP-marketing for Day's Inn. Mr. Williams also held client service posts at ad agencies Richards Group, Marc USA and the M/A/R/C Group.
The hiring follows the embattled chain's worst monthly same-store sales decline in years, a 5.8% systemwide slide last month, dragged down by an 8% traffic exodus. Analysts blamed ice storms and blizzards for chilling sales during the traditional slow period, but customers have been giving the chain the cold shoulder for far longer. Outside of a 6.3% gain in January 2006, same-store sales have waxed and waned between low-single-digit highs to low-negative single digits since mid-2004.
Chef Tyler Florence
Applebee's partnership with Food Network chef Tyler Florence has done little to draw consumers. The chain tapped the popular TV chef in August to create branded menu items for the chain following a two-year customer segmentation study. Although the program showed early promise in its October launch that boosted traffic at dinner, November sales dropped 3% and December sales improved to flat.
Like other poorly performing brands, Applebee's has also faced criticism from activist shareholders. Last month, Breeden Partners, which holds 5% of the company, disclosed a letter it sent to Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell Soup Co. and chairman of Applebee's compensation committee, that called the chain "next to worst" of the 14 publicly traded casual dining companies in creating total shareholder return. Among other complaints, Breeden cited a "fundamentally flawed" growth strategy, "ineffective leadership" prior to Mr. Goebel's ascent, "serious ongoing internal weaknesses in marketing and finance" and an "ineffective board."