It’s not often that you hear an executive from a major international company say that children are critical to his or her business. In the case of CEC Entertainment—parent company of Chuck E. Cheese’s and Peter Piper Pizza—it’s the simple truth.
“For many kids, the best day they have all year is the day they get to go to Chuck E Cheese’s,” says Rudy Rodríguez Jr., a senior vice president and CEC Entertainment’s general counsel and corporate secretary. “You can see it on their faces the moment they walk in the door. As a parent, when you see your child that happy, that makes you happy. It’s a tremendous responsibility. We do everything we can to make the kids’ experience with us as fun as it can be, but we also have to make it as safe as possible.”
So, beyond the thoughts of flashing lights, countless arcade games, pizza, and soft drinks, Rodríguez’s mind is often wrapped around concepts with a lesser degree of flash, including ethics, compliance, cybersecurity, and risk management. They’re familiar concerns for any business, but many of those businesses look at securing lifelong customers. The window for customers at a Chuck E. Cheese’s or Peter Piper Pizza location is distinctly smaller. The work to ensure customer satisfaction, then, is of paramount importance to Rodríguez and his team.
In addition to beefing up the company’s cybersecurity to protect data breaches that could affect employees’ information and customers’ credit card information, one of the company’s recent efforts has been to shore up its risk management processes in an effort to ensure that both parents and their children have the best time possible at any CEC restaurant while prioritizing safety.
“In the event where a child or his or her parents leave feeling that they didn’t have the best time, we try—whenever possible—to repair hurt feelings by acknowledging and discussing their concerns, and thereby attempting to enhance our relationship with someone who may not have otherwise wanted to return as our guest.”
That personal approach has taken the company a long way—both figuratively and physically. After opening its first location in San Jose, California, in 1977 and acquiring Peter Piper Pizza in 2014, the company now has over 750 owned or franchised locations throughout the Americas, as well as in the Caribbean, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Guam. The variety of locales surprises some, Rodríguez says, but it just reiterates a common truth about human nature. “I have a colleague here who likes to say, ‘Hey, it turns out that people everywhere love their kids, and they’re always looking for a way to have fun as a family,’” he says with a laugh.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility. We do everything we can to make the kids’ experience with us as fun as it can be, but we also have to make it as safe as possible.”
That sentiment appears to be particularly strong among Hispanics and Latinos, who, according to Rodríguez, are some of the most loyal patrons of CEC locations. “When we’re looking for places to put new restaurants or relocate existing ones, we’ve learned the best areas are those with good-sized Latino populations,” he says. “By the same token, we can’t take anyone for granted, so we invest heavily in Spanish-language advertising. We also have Spanish-language menus, and our self-service kiosks list instructions in English and Spanish in all our domestic locations. We want to stay as popular in the Latino market as we are right now because it is an integral part of our customer base.”
Another factor bolstering the company’s bottom line is the fact that most of its legal work is done in-house. Rodríguez says he works hard to control spending on outside counsel and managing the legal team’s financial resources.
To that end, he has a team of three lawyers, each of whom has practiced for at least twelve years. He says they’re able not only to do a high volume of work but to perform at a level “just as good, if not better” than outside counsel would be able to provide. Of course, when the company does call on outside counsel, he also notes that the firms and attorneys with which CEC partners are respectful and careful in managing the company’s resources.
That kind of management has allowed Rodríguez to influence company decisions beyond the traditional four corners of the legal function. He has been tasked by the CEO with coordinating and managing various business initiatives, he manages internal audits, and, since the last time Hispanic Executive profiled him in 2015, he has been put in charge of the company’s licensing function. Notwithstanding the variety of responsibilities on his plate, Rodríguez says he relishes the opportunities.
“Being invested in the business itself and not just providing legal services is what makes the position of general counsel so unique and satisfying,” he says. “My team, frankly, makes my job very manageable and gives me the freedom to branch out when my CEO asks me to do that. I’m grateful for that and proud of my team. It’s gratifying to see our work growing and helping our bottom line.”
Thoughts from Guest Editor Javier Palomarez
“Rudy’s leadership at CEC Entertainment illustrates the power of a talented executive to positively influence and guide the core business of a corporation with a mix of operational acumen, creativity, and unique cultural insight. He is clearly a critical component in engineering the current and future success of his company.”