NEW YORK — A Grand Forks native who led Buffalo Wild Wings for more than 20 years is retiring amid a shakeup in the board’s leadership and pushback from an activist hedge fund investor.
Sally Smith, a University of North Dakota graduate from 1979, announced Friday she will step down as the national restaurant chains president and CEO at the end of the year or “until such time as a successor has been named.”
“I am proud of Buffalo Wild Wings’ tremendous success,” she said in a news release. “We have made great strides in executing our strategic plan and continuing to innovate to stay ahead of the competition.”
Smith became the Minneapolis-based company’s CEO in 1994, leading the chain as it grew from 35 restaurants located mostly in Ohio to nearly 1,800 in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates and the Philippines.
In October, she was a keynote speaker during the Mellem Business Symposium in October at Gorecki Alumni Center.
The announcement of Smith’s retirement comes ahead of a shareholder vote in which three Marcato Capital Management nominees won seats on the company’s board. Smith also withdrew her name from the board’s election ahead of the Friday vote.
Marcato, which owns more than 9 percent of the company’s shares, publicly launched its Buffalo Wild Wings campaign last July, pressuring Smith and the board to pursue strategies that the activist believed would boost the company’s stock price, which had lagged in the year prior compared with peers.
Among the demands voiced by Marcato was for the company to franchise 90 percent of its more than 1,200 restaurants — up from the current 50-50 ratio — and to speed up its international and tech expansion.
Smith oversaw a ten-fold increase in the company’s stock since its 2003 debut, but the chain struggled to jolt its market value since shares hit a peak of $201.14 in September 2015.
Buffalo Wild Wings also tried to fend off Marcato, but the shareholders ultimately voted for a change in leadership.
Buffalo Wild Wings Board Chairman Jerry Rose said Smith helped transform the restaurant chain into an industry leader.
“Sally has delivered countless contributions to Buffalo Wild Wings for more than two decades and much of our success to date is directly attributed to her leadership,” he said in a news release.
The board will remain at nine members.