Michael Lessing: Counting Their Lessings

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Michael Lessing is the fifth-generation president of his family’s restaurant and catering business. (Photo by Ralph DePas)

Last December, Michael Lessing was named fifth-generation president and chief operating officer of Lessing’s Hospitality Group, a restaurant and catering company based in Great River. Founded in 1890, the company operates 17 wedding venues and 10 restaurants on Long Island, Westchester and Florida. Lessing’s boomed in the 1980s through a string of acquisitions of Main Street restaurants and cafes along the South Shore. Last year, the company regained the contract to operate Bethpage State Park’s high-profile event space after a 20-year lapse, five months ahead of the PGA Championship next May. I spoke with Michael inside the event space at Bethpage State Park, now renamed Heritage Club at Bethpage.

Let’s start our conversation at the beginning. Who were your mentors rising up the ranks? My father, Lawrence Lessing, was president prior to me. My Uncle Jack was CEO. They influenced me enormously and still do. They’ve moved into senior advisor roles. They still come to work everyday. I meet with them once or twice a week. As CEO, Jack was very outgoing; he was the company’s public face. My father was more subdued, more professor-like. As mentors they gave my brother Mark and I enough rope to go out and make our mistakes. As long as we learned from our mistakes, that was ok.

Were you groomed to be CEO? I wasn’t planning on being in the business! I went to school for finance. On summer vacation in 1984, I worked as a steward in Bethpage State Park (where Lessing’s operated the concession.) I spent more time in the cellar than anybody should have to.

As president, what changes have you made so far? One of the things we’ve done is make the next generation work outside the company (for outside experience). My son Michael Jr. went to Fairfield University. When he graduated with a degree in finance we had the father-son conversation about careers. I asked him about his plans and he said, ‘I want to go into your business.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So he went to work first at Blue Smoke in Manhattan (a three-restaurant Southern barbeque chain owned by the Union Square Hospitality Group). He’s now general manager at the Post Office Café in Babylon, which we own.

What’s your primary challenge operationally? Our number one challenge is finding the right people. We always start by looking within, and promoting. It doesn’t always happen, which means we always are looking to recruit. In the long run, the tightening labor market is a big challenge.

How are you meeting the challenge? We look to make Lessing’s a more desirable employer. Through our benefit packages we offer career training and more flexible scheduling. We’re making it a company where people really want to work, and want their family and friends to work here, too.

You’re a fifth-generation executive running a 128-year family business. How do you negotiate between tradition and innovation? Lessing’s has quite a heritage! At 128 years old, we don’t turn on a dime. So we’ve been working to automate – automate, automate, automate. It’s been a game changer for us. Our goal has been to make our operations more user-friendly. Employees can log on and see how many hours they’re working, see their schedules two weeks ahead, and put in requests for vacation times.

Have you explored new business models? We’ve moved into franchising. We now operate Blaze Pizza locations. Blaze has given us a new perspective in terms of how they roll out new ideas and new initiatives, and in terms of using social media.

You and your brother Mark both grew up in the family business. You became president last December; he remains executive vice president.  How has the promotion affected your relationship? Mark and I are a year apart. We were very competitive as kids. Through high school we were best friends. I came up on the catering side, he came up through restaurants. In addition to Mark I work with two other brothers. There’s a fifth brother, who’s not in the business, and a sister. They’re both computer programmers.