Harris J. Pappas ’66 has spent much of life reading and researching the best methods for educating and preparing himself, and he told a group of Mays Business Honors students he will never stop learning. He reads frequently and says he taught himself to overcome dyslexia and disorganization. Now he uses mid-mapping to sketch out his thoughts and ideas before speaking, working or traveling.
He told the students they can become anything they want to be, they just need to prepare themselves. “You all have got more tools than I ever had,” he said. “You just have to build the model — a package — and that’s you. You just have to prepare yourself.”
He also advised: “Don’t dodge the bullet on anything. Take the hard courses. That will give you an advantage over the competition.”
The Houston native earned finance and accounting degrees at Texas A&M, then joined the Army, where he served as a 2nd Lieutenant. He said he had a goal — “a bug” — to see the world, and by the time he was 26 years old he had visited much of it. “The Army was a good excuse to get away and do what I wanted to do. If you want to see the world, do it while you’re young. You don’t have as many obligations and those experiences are priceless.”
After he returned to Texas, Pappas initially went to work for the family business, Pappas Restaurants, but left when he decided he needed more income. He worked for Luby’s for 18 months, then came back into the family fold when his uncle lured him with a higher salary and equity in the company.
The Pappas Brothers opened their first restaurant in 1976 and Pappas has been president of the company since 1980. He also served as chief operating officer of Luby’s from March 2001 until 2011.
Pappas said when he entered the hospitality industry, he was warned against the long, unpredictable hours and high employee turnover. That didn’t stop him, though, because he said he has always enjoyed his jobs in restaurants so much, they don’t seem like work. “Do what you like doing and you’ll do well. And get into something a lot of people aren’t in.”
Now the Pappas chain is the 53rd largest in the nation and employs 13,000 people. It operates nearly 100 restaurants in seven states, including Pappadeaux, Pappasito’s Cantina, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappas Seafood House, Pappas Bar-B-Q, Pappas Burger, Yia Yia Mary’s Greek Kitchen and Dot Coffee Shop in Houston.
Pappas stays heavily involved in the company as a director and a member of the executive committee and the personnel and administrative policy committee. He boasts that he knows how to perform every task in every restaurant and that he has automated many of them. He initiated a video training program for every station in the restaurants, and he restructured the compensation package for managers. He said 77 percent of his company’s leaders are promoted from within, while the remaining are recruited, mostly from hospitality schools.
Harris remains involved in the redevelopment and expansion of Luby’s. He also bought Fuddrucker’s in a bidding war against a Russian oligarch. “He was out on his boat. We kept bidding and his people would go call him and come back with his bid. The last time, they couldn’t reach him. He was parking his boat. There is a great lesson there — never leave the table when you’re doing business.”
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