Camille Penniman racked up impressive credentials before becoming the first lawyer hired by fast food chain Raising Cane’s. She graduated from Vanderbilt University, spent four years in private practice, and then became associate general counsel of Sabre Holdings, a leading technology-solutions provider in the travel industry. Despite all that growth, though, Penniman’s current LinkedIn profile lists “Fry Cook & Cashier” as part of her current title—a fact of which she’s very proud.
“When we’re hired at Raising Cane’s, we each spend time working in a restaurant,” she says. “We think it’s important for everyone to know what it’s like to work in the restaurants so that we can all truly know how to support what really is our focus.” While her stint at the fryer may have been corporate policy, Penniman has spent the ensuing four years reinforcing the belief behind it, using the legal office as a way to cultivate growth and truly support every team member.
Starting in her time with Sabre, Penniman began developing a collaborative leadership style, bringing teams together to brainstorm and learning others’ perspectives to strengthen business. She also quickly realized the importance of being a partner to other departments. “No one wants to be the ‘office of no,’ so I really focus on not only providing an answer but giving multiple options,” she says. “That makes people seek out your counsel more and helps make them aware of risks.”
But, after focusing primarily on litigation, Penniman wanted to broaden her horizons and take on a new challenge. She didn’t necessarily know that ringing up orders of chicken fingers would be part of the process, but she eagerly accepted the opportunity. Once she became fully ingrained in the inner workings of Raising Cane’s at large, she was able to move from legal firefighting to a more proactive strategy—armed, of course, with a frontline knowledge of the needs and challenges of individuals at every level and in every department within the organization.
Raising Cane’s holds the distinction of being the fastest-growing restaurant company in the US; the organization comprises ten thousand employees, and hungry customers can stop into the company’s restaurants in twenty-four states and counting, not to mention its seventeen restaurants in the Middle East. That growth continues to show no sign of stopping for the twenty-two-year-old company, and Penniman knew she had to address the legal challenges that come with it. In many young, growing companies, the legal office can be seen as a roadblock or speed bump. But Penniman has focused on aiding growth without sacrificing safety. “I’ve helped show people that protecting the brand and protecting the company from risk can enable growth as well,” she says.
Traditionally, Raising Cane’s had always had far more company-owned stores than franchises. While other restaurant companies are refranchising, Raising Cane’s has had a unique perspective, focusing mostly on the growth of company-owned stores, and Penniman has supported that initiative as the company has acquired existing franchisees. Penniman has also indirectly enabled growth by restructuring the company in order to take advantage of millions of dollars in savings under tax reform.
The few exceptions to the trend of company-owned stores shows a powerful loyalty and commitment among Raising Cane’s employees. Its franchisees, more often than not, are former longtime Raising Cane’s operators. “It makes consistency in operations easier,” Penniman says.
Prior to joining Raising Cane’s, Penniman had no experience in mergers and acquisitions, but the company’s growth gave her a crash course. A recent capstone on that experience came during contract negotiations to acquire the company’s largest franchisee. And, in addition to that massive deal, Penniman negotiated the contract for Raising Cane’s current credit facility, again pushing out of her comfort zone.
However, adding more franchisees and restaurants to Raising Cane’s portfolio is only one of many facets of Penniman’s long-term strategic focus. To handle her diverse project list, she’s had to build out a brand-new legal team. She’s added a paralegal and two generalist lawyers—one focused on IP, marketing, and sweepstakes while the other is growing into a first in-house role.
In order to keep caring for Raising Cane’s thousands of employees, Penniman has focused on developing training materials for business-unit leaders on professionalism and harassment and discrimination in the workplace. She’s also helped implement varied paid-sick-leave laws in restaurants across many states, with a focus on doing so in the least disruptive way to operations. “Right now, I’m spending about 75 percent of my time on employment-related issues,” she says. In addition, Penniman will take what she calls “drive-bys” with employees, asking questions and discussing issues.
In addition to supporting people within Raising Cane’s, its legal office needs to constantly ensure that it can make a positive downstream impact on customers. Penniman works closely with the social media team, PR consultants, and the chief marketing officer to ensure they can all balance brand issues and legal issues in a way that will bring a positive experience to customers.
From her first shift working the register at a restaurant, Penniman knew how important providing that happiness and positivity to customers was, and she strives to bring that to her work every day. And, appropriately, it all stemmed from a need to explore and find new challenges.
“We need to embrace the challenge to take on something new and scary because that’s how you grow,” Penniman says. “You don’t need to be an expert in every practice area, but it’s so important to learn everything you can.”