Tender Greens is a chef-led kitchen serving seasonal and responsibly-sourced food that’s the kind of comfort food chefs love to cook for themselves and their families for far less than you’d expect. The company was named by Forbes as one of America’s Most Promising Companies in 2014 and by Inc. Magazine as one of America’s Fastest Growing Private Companies in 2013. Lina O’Connor, Tender Greens Chief Financial Officer, credits part of the company’s success to its 360 point of view on sustainable business practices. Sustainability is at the core of all the choices Tender Greens makes – from their food to our planet, from their people and community to the future of farming.
This year O’Connor was nominated by Green Hasson Janks for the Los Angeles Business Journal Rising Star and CFO of the Year Awards (private company). I interviewed Lina to get her insights on her career at Tender Greens and about what makes for a successful CFO in the fast-moving food and beverage market.
Tom: How were you introduced to Tender Greens?
Lina: In 2011 I was working as a restaurant finance and operations consultant and Tender Greens was one of my clients. I met the three co-founders of Tender Greens, Erik Oberholtzer, David Dressler and Matt Lyman when there were only four restaurants. After our first meeting, I came home and told my husband, “I need to work with these people!” I already had a job that challenged me and clients that I really enjoyed so my husband wanted to know why I would want to join such a small company. The answer was clear – I felt that there was something really special about the founders and what they were trying to build, and I was drawn to their clear focus on product integrity, sustainability and the community.
Tom: So what caused you to take the leap and actually join the company?
Lina: Within a year of working with Tender Greens as a consult, I told David Dressler that I would love to be part of their journey when they were ready to build out their home office team. I saw that Tender Greens was making a meaningful impact on the world by changing people’s relationship with food and I wanted to part of that narrative. I was one of the first corporate employees, and was charged with building the accounting and finance infrastructure. We all wore a lot of hats in those days. We did whatever needed to be done. It was a team effort, no one had titles on their business cards. We were all dedicated and focused on growing the company. It was an exciting and special time.
Tom: And how did your role change over time? I know you are very focused on your CFO duties at this stage.
Lina: My role has evolved as the company grew and we had the resources to build strong teams. That meant I was able to use my skills in a way that better served the company. I was able to spend more time on developing and growing the next generation of leaders, externally communicating about the brand, investor relations and working more closely with our many stakeholders.
Tom: It is hard to believe we have known each other since 2011! So what were the drivers behind your transition into the CFO role in 2015?
Lina: It has been a really wild ride. A pivotal point on my road to the CFO role started when Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group invested in our company. I was empowered to manage the transaction which was a challenging and transformative experience. After the deal closed in July 2015, the company and our new board of directors supported my promotion to the role of Chief Financial Officer.
Tom: Expand on the aspects of Tenders Greens’ culture that inspires you.
Lina: What inspires me is that Tender Greens is a people company first, we invest in each other, help each other learn and grow to our best potential, and encourage growth and leadership from within. It’s a heart center culture and we cultivate an environment where we can challenge ourselves, and each other, to be the best. Tender Greens even takes it several steps further by investing in the people in our communities. We created and run a culinary internship program for emancipated foster youth – the Sustainable Life Project. It’s a 6-month internship that provides a structured working and learning environment to at-risk youth with the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty. We collaborate with other restaurants and businesses to expand the opportunities and impact that our program can make in the community.
Tom: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Lina: Tender Greens co-founder and a valued mentor, David Dressler once told me to remember “That my words have weight”. When you reach a certain position, what you say, how you say it and the tone can impact people so much more than you think. When you speak, be thoughtful, be intentional.
Tom: What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a CFO?
Lina: Be relentless in pursuing your goals. Put in the work and don’t get discouraged because the path is not going to be linear. Seek advice from those who have been where you want to go and be open to feedback, it can only make you stronger. In order to be successful you need to develop more than just technical skills. It is also about relationship and leadership skills, how you negotiate and your ability to work with the different stakeholders.
I feel honored and privileged to have this opportunity. I hope that my story will inspire women to believe that leadership roles are within their reach. They just have to go for it.
Tom Barry is a Partner at Green Hasson Janks. Tom’s role at Green Hasson Janks is a combination of entrepreneur, partner, consultant, mentor and business advisor. With over 20 years of public accounting experience, he provides audit and accounting and consulting services to clients in a variety of industries including food and beverage. Tom believes in building a successful life one day at a time. He does that by leveraging technology to create a flexible schedule that allows him to be a father and husband in addition to fully committing to his career at Green Hasson Janks.
Lina O’Connor has been the CFO of Tender Greens since 2015. Previously she was the Director of Finance, and prior to that, she was a Finance and Operations consultant with Vine Solutions. As CFO, Lina is responsible for managing the company’s financial performance. She earned a B.S. in Business Administration/Marketing from CSUN and a Masters of Management in Hospitality degree with a concentration in revenue management from the Cornell.