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Company Aims for Stability After Founder’s Accident

January 26, 1993

DALLAS (AP) _ He’s not a household name, but Norman Brinker pioneered a new style of casual dining - and found success between fast food and five stars.

Brinker began building Steak & Ale restaurants nearly 30 years ago. He later led the Bennigan’s chain and now owns Chili’s, which has grown from 22 to nearly 300 outlets under his leadership.

But the former Olympic horseman has been unconscious since a serious polo accident in Florida last week. That has left his fast-growing company, Brinker International Inc., facing the loss, at least temporarily, of its dynamic and highly-regarded leader.

″I don’t think guru is too strong a word to use,″ said John J. Rohs, financial analyst for Wertheim Schroder & Co., a New York investment bank. ″This guy is really one of the living legends in the industry.″

″He is a great fellow and a great business friend even though we are competitors,″ said Joe Lee, chief financial officer of General Mills Inc. in Minneapolis. ″I just hope Norman recovers well.″

On Sunday, Brinker International’s board named Ron McDougall, Brinker’s close associate for nearly 20 years, to take his place as chief executive officer and chairman. McDougall has been the company’s president and chief operating officer.

The move, with the blessing of Brinker’s wife Nancy, assured investors of the company’s stability. Brinker International stock closed at $46 on the New York Stock Exchange Monday, down 37 1/2 cents.

″It’s business as usual,″ McDougall said. ″We’ve got to do what’s best for business, make the calls we would have made if Norman were here.″

Employees lined up at the company headquarters to tape a get-well video for him and they planned a giant card. Some of the 339 Brinker restaurants - which include Chili’s, Grady’s American Grill and Romano’s Macaroni Grill - also put together get-well tokens.

Brinker, 61, remained in stable condition Monday in the intensive care unit of St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla. He suffered a head injury after his horse collided with another and toppled on him during a polo game Thursday.

″He’s showing some slow but continued subtle signs of improvement,″ said Dr. Phillip Williams, a Dallas neurosurgeon who treated Brinker after a previous polo accident and visited him this weekend.

″He has ability to move his arms and legs and all that. He’s stable and neurologically improving,″ Williams said.

Doctors have said Brinker’s prognosis is good, but have given no timetable for his recovery.

Though a strong personality in the industry, analysts say Brinker built his company to carry on without him.

″I think the test is not of a man, but of the culture that he has bestowed on that company,″ Rohs said. ″And, in my opinion, there’s no question that it will pass that test.″

The company is virtually debt-free and on a rapid expansion pace, with 80 to 90 new outlets planned in the fiscal year beginning July 1. In addition, the company is testing three new concepts - a Hawaiian-style steakhouse called Kona Ranch, a Mexican restaurant to be called Mama Nacho’s, and an Italian eatery called Spageddies.

Brinker was a member of the 1952 Olympic equestrian team and competed in the 1954 modern pentathlon in the world championships in Budapest, Hungary. In 1972, he built a polo club in Dallas.

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