It's a Matter of Facts
Popeyes CEO Cheryl Bachelder has discovered the right combo — data topped off with a gut check
The first thing you notice about Cheryl Bachelder, Popeyes CEO, besides the fact that she’s very tall, is her button-down, no-nonsense niceness. “I’m a hard-working, straight-talking Midwestern girl,” she admits, grinning. “I say what I mean and I use the fewest words possible.” Her staff calls her “a dog with a bone” in reference to her stalwart tenacity, she says. Her style for delivering her message is “repetition”: “I say it long enough so they can sing it like a song.”
The oldest of four, Bachelder learned the value of hard work from her father who grew up on a dairy farm in Gary, Indiana. Her parents “paid their bills and put their kids through college.” Bachelder earned both a BA and MBA in four years — “I had a high GPA, but no social life,” she says.
CEO Cheryl Bachelder loves to work on iconic brands. And few brands have a richer culture than Popeyes. “We have a higher purpose,” she says. “We create
jobs and careers. We help franchisees put kids through college and help immigrants who come to this country find their American dream.”
But in addition to a farm-raised work ethic and values, her father also gave her his business acumen— he was also “part of the young engineers who created Silicone Valley.” The family moved every three years for her father’s job.
Conversations around the dinner table were varied, but centered around taking your values to work. “He talked about how he solved problems … described how he’d struggle if he had to let someone go,” she says about her father. Bachelder wasn’t the only child paying attention during mealtime. All three of her siblings are also CEOs. So for this female exec, it’s not so lonely at the top. “I have my own little support group,” she says, laughing.
Bachelder has a thing for iconic brands. The first time she appeared on the pages of Franchise Times eight years ago, she was stepping into the role of president and chief concept officer for KFC, during a tough time for the fried chicken concept. She had come to KFC after being mentored by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. “In 1993, I met Tom,” she says. “He wanted a brand-builder on staff, but had never had a woman on his team.” She convinced him she was teamworthy. “He wrote my job offer on a napkin in a restaurant and told me I had 30 minutes to respond,” she says. “I told him I needed two hours, and called my dad.”
Monaghan, who she refers to as “an operator’s operator,” taught her the restaurant business. She had come over from the packaged goods side of the business and wanted to learn the retail side. After working on Domino’s brand, she felt ready to tackle another iconic brand, KFC.
In 2004, she took a “career break” to spend more time with her three teenage daughters — “That’s a lot of hormones,” she says. It was the perfect opportunity to approach her career with the information-gathering method that comes naturally to her. Starting at the age of 25, she had been presenting to boards, and “I wanted to sit on the other side of the board table,” Bachelder says.
To that end, she took on a consulting project with the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF). The goal was to create workplaces where women could thrive, not just survive.
Previously, the effort had focused on changing women to fit into existing workplaces. “We’d raise these wonderful women and then throw them into toxic workplaces,” she says, adding there had been little to no discussion on what had to change in workplaces for women to move up the ladder.
What made an impression on Debra Nelms, a consultant on board readiness for the WFF, about Bachelder was that although Bachelder had a marketing background, she lacked floweriness. “Some people are analytical by nature,” she says, and Bachelder excels at strategic thinking.
Alice Wheelwright, vice president of global market and segment initiatives for Ecolab, says she was fortunate to work with Bachelder during that time. “When I was chair elect of the WFF, Cheryl was a part of my ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ that helped craft the WFF bold goals of Three at the Table and 20-20 Vision,” she says. “These were tangible goals for gender parity on senior teams and boards of directors throughout the foodservice industry. As a part of our gaining alignment around these goals, Cheryl led the ground-breaking research that WFF conducted with the Gallup organization ... (which) proved that when you have more women on senior teams and boards, you definitively see ‘all boats rise,’ as not only women, but men feel more included in the workplace.”
It was Bachelder’s connections and influence at Gallup that made the partnership happen, Wheelwright adds.
“Cheryl is a consummate strong leader who holds ethics, fairness and a connection to spirituality close to her heart,” she says.
Once the research was completed, Bachelder went on a speaking tour to place the data in front of CEOs who could do something to change workplaces. The journey was both professionally and personally rewarding and through the contacts she made, she was asked to sit on AFC’s board in late 2006. The board was in the midst of writing a strategic plan for Popeyes when the CEO resigned, she says. She served on the search committee until she was asked to leave — and become a candidate for the job.
The timing was right, she says, adding that since she wanted to run spreadsheets detailing her daughters’ activities, they most likely weren’t sorry to see her go back to work full time.
What appealed to her about running Popeyes, she says, is the opportunity to once again work with a brand that had legs, but needed some toning. “I love to freshen iconic brands,” she says, “and I love franchising because of the partnering with franchisees.”
Cheryl Bachelder is known for is interacting with team members, such as Patrick Perry, who are the heart and soul of the brand.
Information is king
Her first official day with the Altanta-based company was at the annual franchisee convention. Bachelder prepared carefully for her formal meeting with the franchisees. She had two messages:
- “First, I can’t wait to talk to you. I want to understand your perspective.”
- “And the second thing, I’m thrilled about the brand. I pride myself in being a brand-builder.”
To meet her first promise, Bachelder embarked on a seven-city “listening tour” to get feedback personally from the franchisees and field staff. To date, she says, she’s visited more franchisees’ restaurants than all the other CEOs combined. “I’ve never believed you could run a restaurant from an office,” she says. Understanding the brand comes from talking to the franchisees face-to-face and interacting with field staff, employees and customers, she claims.
When asked if there was anything that surprised her on her “listening tour,” she pondered for a moment and then answered: “I’m a real data-hound and we didn’t have any data,” she says. “We were without (necessary) information; that was the biggest wake-up call.” Her team came up with four goals and four strategies that could be measured with the new information she was mining. For instance, headquarters had no data on profitability or unit volume and traffic counts. “We were opening new units, but not tracking returns,” she says.
Here was this iconic New Orleans brand — “When we do butterfly shrimp with spicy marinate, no one can do that with our authenticity,” she says — that needed some TLC and leadership to get it back on track. And, no small feat, it needed some data-production, and fast.
Exciting franchisees about data collection is complicated. And ironically, some people were uncomfortable that the leadership team was making decisions based on facts. “In the past, management used their gut, experience and intuition to make decisions,” she says. Making the mental shift wasn’t easy. It takes time to buy into “fact-based decisions,” she says adding, “Decisions are always a marriage been facts and your intuition.”
For instance, she explains, “It’s not easy to absorb that you could discount a core product and make more money. It’s not intuitive, but with facts we could support that.” When one franchisee challenged her, asking how she knew discounting would make him more money, she replied, “Because I have 800 restaurants’ P&Ls.” Case closed.
With information shared from all the units, franchisees could see tangible ways to run their businesses better. In the beginning, they went through the data line by line, showing them how their P&Ls compared to their peers’ regionally, nationally and in their market. They could see how much other operators were paying for landscaping or utilities or commodities. “Now they knew what to fix and the best practices (to fix it),” she says.
Corporate came up with cost-saving program called, “Finding your 2 percent,” which every manager received.
“Now we don’t have to guess if we’re improving or doing better than the competition — we have data,” she says.
The reason Bachelder’s style works so well, says Greg Vojnovic, vice president of development for Popeyes, is because she puts everyone on the same page. “She’s been very clear,” he says. “Everyone knows the plan and where we’re going.” It’s “alignment and collaboration,” he says, where everyone in the organization knows not only what their piece of the puzzle is, but everyone else’s as well. And that alignment goes all the way from headquarters to the individual units. “She loves to work with field staff,” he says. Field staff, after all, is the face of the company for franchisees.
Getting back to the roots
One of the more visible changes to the brand is the name. The updated version, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, played off the region and the culinary style that brought them to the party in the first place. New Orleans is known as a “food playland” famous for cravable food, Bachelder says. Regular guests tend to be ambassadors for the brand, so their input was sought as much as the franchisees’, she says.
Just as Popeyes has supporters, so does Bachelder.
“If I was going to be in a foxhole fighting a war, I’d want to be in there with her,” says Joyce Mazero of Haynes and Boone, one of Popeyes outside attorneys. “She’s strategic, smart and extremely focused,” Mazero says. “She’s not flashy, but she’s high-content.” And she can stay on task. She accomplishes it by ensuring that her message is repeated until “they can sing it like a song.”
“We’re not perfect, but we’re listeners,” Bachelder says. And they’re singers — of Popeyes’ theme song.