Chipotle’s CLO serves up the secrets behind his path from Boston University Law School to the inhouse position essential to keeping the Mexican grill grilling.
In plotting anyone’s path to a position of influence, it’s tempting to construct one grand narrative – a linear path that, both before and after it occurs, seems written in the stars. Roger Theodoredis, who is now the top lawyer at Chipotle, is adamant that his career path has been anything but direct, ideal or destined. “Students who talk to me want to know what my linear path was. It was not linear.”
Instead, listening to him speak, it’s clear his career emerged by always achieving, by working to benefit from his circumstances, whether he planned them or not. Problem, solution. Box, ticked. Lesson, learned. It’s there in his upbringing and the family food business in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Steel workers needed to eat. We fed them.” It’s there in his approach to recruitment. “When I’m looking to hire, I ask myself: is this someone who can work? Is this someone who can get stuff done? Both when I’ve run a business, and as a lawyer, this is what I ask of my team.” And ultimately, it’s there in his career moves – a series of seized opportunities; a gradual, satisfyingly ascendant zig-zag, not a brutal straight line.
Growing up in 60s Pennsylvania, Theodoredis’ inspiration to pursue law was provided by a classic American tale of justice. “When I read To Kill A Mockingbird, I either wanted to meet Atticus Finch or be him. I was successful at neither.” Maybe not, but Harper Lee’s novel has always been an advert for the profession’s underlying principles, even away from the courtroom. “Law matched well with my inherent feelings of fairness and civility, which you find in the book. It set me down a long path.”
"In law school, as today, I tend to find that you learn more from your colleagues than those leading you."
To follow through on his interest, Roger attended Boston University Law School, where he felt “blessed to be with a good group of people: both smart and driven. In law school, as today, I tend to find that you learn more from your colleagues than those leading you. It is the discussions one has walking down the hallway, saying ‘how does this sound?’ – or, ‘here’s what I’ve got going on, how about you?’ – where I learn the most.”
Law school was, he agrees, both something he enjoyed, and a hoop to jump through. “Constitutional law was a favorite of mine; UCC [the Uniform Commercial Code] was of less interest.” Law school can be a chore, but it is always an excellent chance to snag experience. At no other time in your life will you have had so many valuable connections and career opportunities within easy reach. For Theodoredis, a summer internship at the SEC provided his way forward, or, it should have. “When I graduated there was a hiring freeze at the SEC. I already had an offer from Drinker Biddle, so I accepted the offer. Of course, two weeks later the SEC called me and said ‘we’re hiring!’”
Fresh into the fold at Drinker, he likens himself in those years to “a sponge.” And that was crucial. For students weighing up their options out of law school, the prospect of joining a large firm might seem daunting, but Theodoredis sees no substitute for those wanting a high-flying career. “When applicants for a position show up in my office, I assume they have a minimum level of qualification. One requirement is that the person has worked in a big firm for three to five years. You could be the dumbest person in America, and through the sheer number of matters that come across the desk to you, you’ll get smarter. It makes you a better lawyer.”
“My father became ill so I went back into the family business. We sold produce, running 1,000 store deliveries every day in a five state area.”
Our own research suggests a large amount of associates in Big Law look for the door after just two or three years, sometimes to another firm, sometimes in-house, sometimes leaving the profession behind altogether. Theodoredis did exactly that, though the choice wasn’t his. Two years into his time as a corporate and securities associate, Roger’s family responsibilities came calling. “My father became ill so I went back into the family business. We sold produce, running 1,000 store deliveries every day in a five state area.”
It can’t have been an easy time, but few opportunities to gain commercial experience come so neatly gift-wrapped. As in most cases, it was invaluable for Roger. Business experience can come early, by interning or working for a company while studying, or it can come late, when attorneys take advantage of the commercial awareness they’ve built working on deals and matters. But more and more, as lawyers work to prove their added value as trusted advisors, understanding a client’s own perspective is crucial. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch said that.
“Then Chiquita Brands showed up.” It was to be another swerve in the road for Roger. The multinational banana producer and distributor led a takeover of the family business, offering both Roger and his brother positions. Roger chose to loop back into law as a food safety and environmental lawyer, soon gaining a spectrum of experience crucial to any general counsel. “21 lawyers left our team at Chiquita and as they went they put me in charge of HR, IT, then IP, and other areas. Before I knew it I had this portfolio of stuff which taught me how to be a general counsel.” Theodoredis champions one sentiment as a result: “If you’re ever given the opportunity to learn something, even if you’re not familiar with it – take it.”
So what is it that lawyers need to learn to do well in-house? “When you’re in a law firm, unless you’re 99% sure of something, you don’t open your mouth. Clients are looking for sophisticated advice. In-house the risk isn’t so great on some matters, so you have to learn which matters require 99% certainty, and which require some lower level.” It’s not that the quality of advice is lower in-house, but simply that “your mission is the mission of the business. It’s more collaborative. If someone comes into your office asking about a contract with a company they don’t want silence – they want to know how you think about it. You have the chance to think what the mission is and partner with your team to discuss toward a conclusion. Just saying yes or no is not of real value.”
"We’re serving millions of meals, in over 2,500 restaurants and we have over 80,000 employees. With numbers of that kind, issues will always come up. The challenge is how to be proactive about them."
After rising within Chiquita, more senior roles followed in the food industry. Theodoredis was general counsel at WhiteWave Foods and, then, when it merged with Danone, general secretary at DanoneWave. In 2018, he landed the top legal job at Chipotle. When he joined, the restaurant chain was on a mission to revive its reputation. A 2015 outbreak of E.Coli, traced back to the chain’s restaurants, saw the business dogged by food safety concerns. Under the leadership of Brian Niccol however, who also joined in 2018, Chipotle has had a resurgence, boosting its stock price with investment in innovation. Digital sales have soared, and the restaurant’s partnership with Doordash has helped provide delivery services at 95% of restaurants.
Despite Chipotle’s history, Theodoredis maintains that “the job is not that complicated. It’s just the sheer volume of what we’re dealing with at Chipotle. We’re serving millions of meals, in over 2,500 restaurants and we have over 80,000 employees. With numbers of that kind, issues will always come up. The challenge is how to be proactive about them. You have to predict the issues you will see, and reduce the risk. You’re aiming to reduce the amplitude of the issues.”
Chipotle’s embrace of tech development is changing the nature of those issues, and with it, Theodoredis’ selection of outside counsel. “The temptation is to use everyone you have always used as they have done a good job. But you have to be cognizant that it is a different world. Digital progress in the restaurant business is a huge issue. Some firms are no longer the ones to use as they are not at the cutting edge.” But Roger is an old hand, and he knows “the dirty secret of being a GC. You have one main asset: a good Rolodex.” For our younger readers, that’s essentially a list of contacts. “You’ve got to have people to call who are willing to be honest with you. I have longstanding relationships with firms who are my go-to, and some will say ‘we’re not the best – go to someone else.’”
Discussion of external counsel and Rolodex seems to revolve a million miles away from the simple business it exists for: feeding people. Burritos, tacos and a constant rush of green guacamole fly out of countless Chipotles every hour. Rushed lunches, impromptu drive-throughs and precious family get-togethers are all at stake. There’s an everyday honesty to it. Bring that back into focus for a moment and you could say that Theodoredis never really strayed too far from Bethlehem, his grandfather, and the food that forged him.