The Player: Buettgen brings his game to Brinker restaurant arena

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You wouldn't expect a 6-foot-5-inch ex-hockey player to be a paragon of white napkin hospitality.

But when Brinker International needed a captain for its marketing team, the yearlong stint that James Buettgen spent with the Boston Bruins got the attention of Starlette Johnson, exec VP-chief strategic officer for the casual dining operator.

"This is a very team-oriented culture," Ms. Johnson said. However, it was Mr. Buettgen's experience with conceptual positioning and branding that hooked her.

"Our expertise is in operating and building restaurants," she said. "We've decentralized our concept teams, so we're now operating eight very different brands and it's become even more important to have additional bench strength and talent ... to direct and guide our future strategy, particularly the smaller brands. That was expertise we didn't have."

In his new post as Brinker's senior VP-marketing and brand development, Mr. Buettgen-known as J.J.-will steer Brinker's eight brands, including Chili's Grill & Bar and Corner Bakery. Most of his focus will be on Brinker's newer concepts such as Romano's Macaroni Grill, Rock Fish Seafood Grill and Big Bowl Asian Kitchen.

The onetime General Mills executive intends to "apply strategic insights like package-goods" marketers, but with a "chance to touch people more closely," he said.

Most recently senior VP-marketing and sales for Walt Disney Co.'s Disneyland Resort where he launched the California Adventures theme park, the 42-year-old Chicago native says he has come "full circle." In 1998, as senior VP-marketing at Olive Garden, Mr. Buettgen translated the Darden Restaurant chain's "hospitaliano" service program into advertising that spotlighted a family-style dining experience. That effort earned him a place on Advertising Age's 1998 Marketing 100. The "When you're here, you're family," ad campaign via Grey Global Group's Grey Worldwide, New York, still runs today.

quiet, direct

Despite his intimidating stature, Mr. Buettgen is an ideal playmaker, according to Richard Kushel, senior VP-creative director, Grey. "For a guy that big, he was very quiet and direct, and he helped us by giving us the room to do things. That helped us create better work for him."

Mr. Buettgen already has spent a couple of weeks in operations training and now is getting familiar with each brand and its challenges. He has met with Omnicom Group's GSD&M, Austin, Texas, which handles Brinker's four largest brands. "I'm not anticipating changes in agency relationships or vehicle shifts," he said. Rather, he'll focus on the "right product news and right strategies for the brands."

Ms. Johnson agrees with that approach. "He really wanted to listen, and I knew that would be a great fit for the organization," she said. "He's very team-oriented. It starts with the hockey all the way through."

Fast Facts

Name: James "J.J." Buettgen

Age: 42

Now: Senior VP- marketing, brand development, Brinker International

Challenge: Position Brinker's younger brands in a more crowded and competitive chain-restaurant category.

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