Kat Cole Offers Ingredients of Sweet Success

FOCUS Brands group president shares hard-won, inspiring advice

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 18, 2017
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NEW ORLEANS--"Don't you dare forget where you came from, but don't you ever let it solely define you."

Kat Cole's mother writes those words on Cole's birthday card every year. They are among her guiding principles, she told attendees of the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition during the conference's opening general session.

Cole is the group president of FOCUS Brands, the franchisor and operator of Cinnabon, Carvel, Auntie Anne's pretzels, Schlotzsky's, Moe's Southwest Grill and other restaurants.

But she grew up in Northern Florida, the product of a self-described "Jerry Springer" childhood. She was 9 when her mother left her alcoholic father and began raising Cole and Cole's siblings on her own.

At the age of 20, Cole took a pay cut from her job as a Hooters waitress to join the restaurant chain's HR department. She was in her mid-20s when she became vice president of training and development at the company's U.S. headquarters in Atlanta. She eventually earned her master's degree in business administration—without an undergraduate degree—at Georgia State University. In 2010, at age 31, she became president of Cinnabon and in 2015 was appointed to her current role.

Perception vs. Reality

Cole took over at Cinnabon after the Great Recession had thrown the company into disarray. As the company looked for a way to turn the business around, there was a belief that customers no longer wanted sugar and fat—the main ingredients in the 880-calorie cinnamon rolls. The solution to boosting sales, it seemed, was to lower the calorie count. 

But Cole realized the company was not asking the right question: Would a change in the product drive sales?

"The answer was no," she said. It's a common problem in organizations, she said. "We get so excited about a project and invest money, time and energy, but we don't ask if this is actually going to achieve the results we desire. If not … why [invest in] something that doesn't drive the business forward?" 

It taught her the importance of having a culture of openness, "the permission to step up and challenge something at all steps along the way."

HR plays a big role in the company culture and, along with the CEO, "is the biggest influencer in how the culture ends up manifesting itself."

Instead of changing the ingredients of the signature product, the company took an innovative approach by introducing the 320-calorie minibon, which was just as tasty and less expensive to produce.
It exemplified her mother's annual words of wisdom. While the company is known for cinnamon rolls Cole describes as being "the size of your face," it did not let its legacy define and limit it, she said.

Coalition of the Willing

But with innovation comes a very real fear.

"The legacy business or practice always feels threatened and fearful. It's completely natural and predictable," Cole observed. Only a small percentage of franchise owners offered the smaller version at the time. Franchisees were afraid of losing money [by] selling something smaller and cheaper. The emotional fear kept them from supporting [the idea]."

She learned the importance of creating a "coalition of the willing." Instead of trying to get everyone to buy into the idea of the minibon, she worked with a small group of people who believed in the idea and were rewarded for their willingness to try it. That coalition's success influenced others. The success of minibons was an example, she said "of getting small in order to get big."

Trust

Cole was new in her role as Cinnabon president when the company decided to roll out a new product—described to her as a smaller version of the product, which would be sold as a refrigerated product in groceries.

Before the rollout, she had noticed packaging that was different from what had been described to her and other small details that should have given her pause, she recalled. The product that was delivered to grocery stores was the same product available elsewhere to customers for half the price, underscoring a lack of internal systems to keep up with the changes that were being introduced to a different sales outlet.

However, "the biggest failure was the failure of my leadership," she said. Franchisees lost their trust in her leadership when the product that was rolled out was different from what she had pitched to them.

Acutely aware that Cinnabon had been around longer than she had been alive, she had refrained from delving more closely into the rollout.

"Who am I to question them?" she said she asked herself. The answer: She was the president. And if she didn't ask the questions, nobody would.

To right the wrong that had occurred, Cole killed the deal and pulled the product, even though it meant losing money and souring relationships with other business partners.

"Funny thing about doing the right thing for the right reasons—it will always come back to serve you, as a leader, as a department and as an individual," she said.
She advised HR professionals, as business partners, to help their leaders see the bigger picture by staying close to employees who are closest to the action—the call center staff, drivers and other front-line workers. 

"They know the right thing to do long before the leader does," but they often lack two critical things—the language to articulate the problem and the solution and the authority to do something about it.

"The leader has both. The trick is … to ask the right questions."

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