Chris Sullivan, one of seven children in his family, was born in 1948 in Lake City, Florida. At that time, his father was teaching history and physical education, but he spent most of his career with the FBI. The family moved several times throughout Sullivan’s childhood. While the family lived in Detroit, Sullivan’s younger brother developed cancer and died before he was two. “That was a difficult time for our family,” says Sullivan. “My dad is a tough guy, but the death of my little brother brought him to his knees. My parents had one more child after that, a daughter, so there ended up being six of us.”
The Sullivans lived in a modest home. “There was only one bathroom for the eight of us,” he says. “But we supported each other and were raised to care for one another. My parents gave us discipline and organization. We were expected to take care of our own messes, and we had regular chores. One rule you didn’t break was having dinner together every night. As a family, we went out to dinner twice a year—on Mother’s Day and once in the summer when we would go to visit my grandmother in Kentucky.”
Sullivan describes his parents as serious-minded about their responsibilities. “They taught us that you worked for what you got. They believed in each of us and made sure we were always there for one another. If one of my sisters had a piano recital, we all attended. The same was true for school presentations and sports. My brothers and I played a lot of sports, and my father was often our coach. Our station wagon was always filled with kids.”
Sullivan, who says he has always had a lot of energy, was an early riser. He earned money by shoveling snow, cutting lawns, and running a paper route. Later, he was a golf caddy and hitchhiked to and from work at the local country club. He also worked as a dishwasher at a YMCA camp.
When Sullivan was 12, his father was transferred to Washington, D.C., and the family settled in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland. Sullivan enjoyed his new school and community. It was assumed that when he graduated from high school he would go to the University of Maryland along with his high school friends. But shortly before his senior year began, Sullivan’s father was transferred once again. This time they had to move to Butte, Montana. “I was not happy about this move,” says Sullivan. “But in the end, it was a good change for me and redirected my path. I was meeting new people and, since I had lost my in-state status in Maryland, there was no longer any reason to go to school there. We learned that the University of Kentucky would give the children of veterans in-state status, so I went there. It was a good fit for me and I never would have considered it if we had stayed in Maryland.”
Sullivan majored in business and economics, and he worked his way through school as a waiter and dishwasher. Before long, he was struggling in his classes and was put on academic probation at the end of his sophomore year. “That was a wake-up call for me,” he says. “I figured out that I needed to go to classes early because I begin to get distracted later in the day. I knew that in the long run, having a college education would make a difference in my life. It would build a foundation that would set me up for long-term success. I also didn’t want to disappoint my parents. They had worked hard to put me in a position of going to college and I wanted to make them proud that I could accomplish this dream.”
When Sullivan graduated in 1972, he joined Steak and Ale as a management trainee in Indianapolis. Norman Brinker, owner of the restaurant group that included Steak and Ale, became his mentor. Sullivan worked hard and quickly became a general manager. In 1976, the chain was sold to the Pillsbury Restaurant Group and Brinker and much of his staff, including Chris Sullivan, stayed on, rising through the Pillsbury ranks and becoming the general manager of its Bennigan’s Grill and Tavern chain in 1980.
In 1983, as a venture partner and franchisee, Sullivan followed Brinker to the Chili’s restaurant chain. Sullivan and his partners opened 17 Chili’s outlets in three years before selling their interests to Brinker International. In 1988, Sullivan and partners Bob Basham, Trudy Cooper, and Tim Gannon opened the first Outback Steakhouse and eventually formed OSI Restaurant Partners, Inc. Sullivan became chairman of OIS. In addition to the Outback Steakhouse chain, OSI includes ownership of Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Roy’s, Lee Roy Selmon’s, Bonefish Grill, Cheeseburger in Paradise, and Blue Coral Seafood & Spirits, as well as several other hospitality-related businesses.
Looking back over his career, Sullivan says he has lived the American dream. “I believe business is a game and there are winners and losers in it, but if you put people first and you have the discipline and ability to execute, then you will have success. The principles we put to work in our company work for life as well. I’m here to make life better for my family, the people I work with, and my community.”
In addressing young audiences, Sullivan’s advice is to “take a job with people who will invest in you and develop you. That may not be the highest paying job, but if you find mentors in your work who can guide and advise you, you’ll get where you need to be. I also think it’s important to stay focused and committed to getting your education. When you meet roadblocks—and we all do—take your time, work through the difficulties, and keep committed to completing the job or goal in front of you with integrity and enthusiasm.”
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Sullivan says he can remember when his mentor Norman Brinker received the same award in 1985. “This is an amazing honor to be among members whom I’ve admired all my life. I’m hoping to make a positive contribution to the work of the Association, and I’m hoping the Association will teach me how I can do more to help others be successful.”