Horace Dawson | Crain's Orlando

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Horace Dawson


Red Lobster is the world's largest seafood restaurant chain, headquartered in Orlando. Owned by Golden Gate Capital, the company focuses on delivering freshly prepared seafood at reasonable prices.

The Mistake:

I have a lot of international experience in my background. I actually grew up in the Foreign Service – my father was a Foreign Service officer. I spent my formative years in several different countries overseas.

At various points in my career, I have been able to really focus on international, including a role as head of Hard Rock Café’s legal department. And I had the international division there at the same time, so I really was focusing on expanding that company and brand around the world. 

It really fit with my interests. It allows you to bring the brand to new places and expose it to people, and it really can help the business to grow.

When I started at Red Lobster, the focus was on domestic expansion. Most of the restaurants were in the U.S. and Canada. There really wasn’t much appetite for international expansion.

So even though I knew the kind of impact international expansion could have and had [by then] a lot of skill there, I really didn’t push it that hard. I didn’t press it, didn’t make the case for expanding overseas and capitalizing on the opportunities that international expansion would present. Our competitors, meanwhile, had been pretty busy expanding and had [had] some success. And we were sitting on the sidelines a little bit. We were late to the party. Now we’re playing a bit of catch-up.​

We were sitting on the sidelines a little bit. We were late to the party.

The Lesson:

I really feel it was a mistake and a lesson learned because since we started expanding, we’ve made some great strides. We’ve been expanding for the last four or five years. We have 49 international locations – various places around the world at this point.

We’ve got locations in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Malaysia, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. We’ve had some really good success. The brand has had great acceptance in the places we have gone. There’s a lot of international tourism coming to the states, so they have a chance to get exposed to our brand there, and Americans also like to travel.

The lesson is to trust your gut instincts and rely on the knowledge and experience you have to really be able to provide the best value to your enterprise. That lesson applies to other areas, too. I’ve got responsibility for legal – and I find that if I do trust my gut and rely on my experience, it really is the best way to go.  

Follow Red Lobster at @redlobster

​Pictured: Horace Dawson. / Courtesy of Horace Dawson.

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